Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Song of Two Humans

F. W. Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise (1927) is subtitled, "A Song of Two Humans" and begins with an prefacing announcement about this being a song that can be heard anywhere at anytime. With its deliberately vague setting and nameless characters, Sunrise does have a timeless feel. Yet, it is any thing but common place. How many boy meets girl stories do you know that have three attempted strangulations and a drunken pig for comic relief?

The plot surrounds the Man (George O'Brien) his Wife (Janet Gaynor) and the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). After a particularly steamy tryst in a swamp with his lover, the Man decides to try to murder his Wife, A Place in the Sun style, by pushing her out of a boat. O'Brien moves like Frankenstein's monster, as he sets about trapping his trusting wife. In an excrutiating sequence the family dog catches on that something is wrong and attempts to foil the plot. The suspense and sense of doom build as O'Brien trudges slowly about his evil business. The Wife for her part is not only the victim of the worst wig in history but she isn't that bright either. It takes her a really long time to suspect that her husband is up to no good at which point her only defense is to plead for her life, pathetically. Luckily, it works and The Man breaks the spell of the Woman from the City, which is represented visually by her figure being superimposed over his at various time.

The Wife flees from her husband but finds herself stranded in the big evil city and slowly begins to forgive him. The couple wander into a random wedding and the husband has an extremely poignant realization of his own failure to live up to his vows. He drops to his knees sobbing begging his wife to forgive him. While the sequence is visually stunning and moving, I couldn't help but feel a little bad for the couple who are actually supposed to be getting married in the church. Who are these people to suddenly show up and have their massive melodrama? Well, they are the stars in a German Expressionist Silent Film Masterpiece so you're just gonna have to cut 'em some slack.

After their reconciliation the next half hour plays like a slightly surreal romantic comedy, with the couple enjoying the pleasures of the city, Ferris Beuller's Day Off style, including their adventure with the afore-mentioned pig. It's amazing that Murnau pulls off this childlike and light-hearted feeling for so long given the darkness of what comes before and after. The film ends after a spectacular reversal with the couple nearly drowning in a storm. When the sun rises again, they are reunited and the Woman from the City is high-tailing it home.

Sunrise was released at the same time as The Jazz Singer, and was largely over-shadowed by the first "talkie." Sunrise also represents a technical breakthrough, as it was the first film that had a synchronized sound track, recorded to play along with the film. Instead of dialog, the story is told through images with very few intertitles. The soundtrack is comepletely unlike anything I've ever heard. The music is orchestral, but varied and uses overlapping tracks and "effects" such as a french horn that sounds like a human voice crying out. It is too bad that The Jazz Singer could not have waited a few more months to come out. Sunrise represents the end and in many ways, the high-water mark of the silent era.


SteveQ said...

I'm a Murnau fan, but I have trouble recalling this one, famous as it is.

End of the silent era will always be City Lights (1931) for me. The highwater mark is harder - Potemkin? Earth? Clergyman and the Seashell? Un Chien Andalou?

Jennythenipper said...

Point well taken, there were several great silents that came after this, but everything that came after Jazz Singer was in the twilight. The push really was on to incorporate sound more and more after this.

Lolita said...

Oh, this is just so great! You manage to be both professional and amusing, simply admirable.
Interesting fact about the synchronized musical score - it always feels good to know that it's the original music playing along! How frustrated have you not felt while watching Chaplin silents and heard that gruesome new soundtracks, probably put together by a teenage on practical working experience that hasn't seen a film older than 1984.

kda0121 said...

Sunrise is such a beautiful movie. The acting may look a bit "over-the-top", as silent actors were wont to do, but King Vidor was a master of tender storytelling. One of the great forgotten directors, who really belongs up there with the all-time greats.

kda0121 said...

oops, I screwed up and credited King Vidor for Sunrise. My bad. All the good things I said about King and Sunrise are hereby transferred to Murnau, although I still think Vidor was an equal masterful storyteller.