#5 SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS
Why have silent movies recently seen such resurgence in critical popularity? It can’t all be because of THE ARTIST, surely. Perhaps a more pertinent question is: why did their popularity with critics ever recede?
Maybe there’s a clue in David Thompson’s assessment of SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS in his seminal Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction of 1,000 Films: “What SUNRISE needs is a grasp of character as subtle as its mise-en-scene. That would not come for years yet…”
Thompson suggests that while SUNRISE is justifiably lauded for its technical innovation, by modern standards its storytelling and character development falls short – what’s more, he then goes on to accuse silent film-making as a medium of lacking the necessary faculties to convey the deeper intricacies of human interaction that the advent of sound and dialogue finally realized.
I’d agree with to an extent, but silent film-making is so obviously its own medium with its own rhythms and idiosyncrasies that it seems churlish to compare it to modern film-making: these are film-makers painting with different brush strokes. In the same way that expressionism in painting was a reaction to naturalism, the disciplines stand opposed to one another, finding different routes towards inducing emotion or providing ‘meaning’, because of course they do. F.W. Murnau’s film even has explicit ties to German expressionist cinema, an artistic movement that rejected ties ‘realism’ in filmmaking, so criticizing SUNRISE for some crudeness in its characterization I feel is a little disingenuous.
Also, to criticize silent film-making for what it can’t do is to ignore what it can do: the emphasis on action required by a lack of dialogue means performances have a physicality that brings them more in line with traditional theatre than the subtle screen acting we see calibrated for close-ups in today’s movies.
Sure, this can manifest itself in SUNRISE as what Thompson calls Janet Gaynor’s “excessive girlishness”, but this is not a negative in my opinion. The story is a grandiose, sweeping melodrama: a bit of arm-waving isn’t going to go amiss here. Subtlety has its place in cinema, but not in a world as fantastical and awe-inspiring as the one F.W. Murnau presents to us in SUNRISE.
And who can deny the appeal those amazing silent movie faces, that have all but disappeared from the screen or been relegated to the realm of character actors (this isn’t some dainty way of saying silent movie actors are ugly; far from it, but the physiology of movie stars has undoubtedly changed since the twenties, for better or worse).
Let’s be upfront about how good SUNRISE technically: it’s still remarkable, with nary a dull shot to be found in the entire film. The huge, elaborate sets (funded by the international co-production with Fox) are stunning, and Murnau’s directorial inventiveness shows no limits, from his innovative use of dissolves and in-camera special effects trickery (the scene where the lovestruck couple cross a busy main street is a classic), to his pioneering use of the tracking shot (the shot that follows George O’Brien along the riverbank is rightly revered), right down to the way the words melt and change into one another right in the title cards. Nothing is static in the world of SUNRISE – everything feels malleable and alive with possibility.
One of the most interesting things about SUNRISE, and something that feels groundbreaking even now, is its genre-hopping – it flits between moral drama intense psychological thriller, screwball comedy, epic romance and tragedy seemingly every few minutes, but never feels jarring or loses sight of Murnau’s unique vision. It’s moving when it needs to be, and funny when it needs to be, and it’s unwillingness to take itself totally seriously is, far from being a stick to beat it with, one of SUNRISE’s greatest assets: there are no other films on the Sight and Sound Top 10, or top 250 I would wager, that feature a setpiece of a drunk pig smashing up a kitchen.
SUNRISE remains a sumptuous experience, a rallying battle cry for ambition and creativity in an age when both things are seem by Hollywood producers as detrimental to commercial success (and so it proved even back then: SUNRISE, while critically admired in its day, was a box office flop). I watched SUNRISE and Jean Luc-Godard’s LE MEPRIS for the first time each within a few days of each other: both films were made by directors operating at the peak at their artistry, afforded enormous American budgets, and combined both of these assets as wonderfully strange, personal projects that baffled audiences of the time but resulted in pieces of art that are still being admired and enjoyed to this day. Are the days of follies like SUNRISE and LE MEPRIS now over? You suspect that if Murnau and Godard came to Hollywood they’d each be given a X-MEN film to direct.
However, that’s a pessimistic note to end on, and SUNRISE is an unashamedly joyous experience. It’s an achingly beautiful piece of work, with a tangible love for the power and possibility of cinema that is infectious. So what if no-one makes another SUNRISE? We’ll always have this one.