Arts & Events

MOVING PICTURES: Motion and Emotion in F.W. Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’

By Justin DeFreitas
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 06:58:00 PM
George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).
George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

In its first year—and only in its first year—the Academy Awards split its top honors for best film into two categories: Best Picture and Unique and Artistic Production. And, having made manifest the schism between the commercial and the artistic in American filmmaking, in which the latter so often suffered—and continues to suffer—at the hands of the former, the academy immediately discontinued the practice. 

The 1929 ceremony honored films made in 1927, a watershed year in cinema. Over the preceding three decades, the technology of the moving picture had matured into the dominant art form of the 20th century, growing from nickelodeon novelties to feature-length productions of every style and genre. Cinema, both commercial and artistic, as well as everything between, was reaching its peak. The late 1920s not only produced most of the best films of the silent era, it produced a generous share of the greatest films ever made. And yet the medium was on the brink of dramatic change as the technology of synchronized sound, launched commercially in 1927 with the Warner Bros. gambit The Jazz Singer, would soon bring an end to the silent film.  

The first Best Picture award went to a film called Wings, kicking off Hollywood’s tendency to reward films that are quintessentially American—big, bold, brassy, sentimental, optimistic, and above all, successful at the box office. Wings was a love triangle set during World War I that contained little in the way of originality, but which was big on showmanship, featuring spectacular fighter plane dogfights, shot by cameramen riding in the gunners’ seats. 

The award for artistic excellence went to Sunrise, a Fox production directed by German emigré F.W. Murnau and starring Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien and Margaret Livingston. The film will screen at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14 at the Castro Theater as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s day-long winter program. 

F. W. Murnau had made a name for himself as one of Germany’s top directors with work as disparate as the horror masterpiece Nosferatu, the expressionist classic The Last Laugh, and a cinematic reworking of Faust. Hollywood was eager to recruit top European talent in those days and lured Murnau to America, where his varied interests would lead him to further expand his repertoire, directing “women’s pictures” and even documentaries.  

With Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Murnau brought Germanic technique and a palpable European sensibility to American filmmaking. The film is celebrated for its roaming camerawork, its evocative set design, its emotional range and fable-like qualities. The plot concerns a young country couple whose happy home is threatened when the husband is tempted by a footloose city flapper. Murnau sets up dichotomies that are almost allegorical: between city and country, love and lust, virtue and temptation. It is melodrama raised to the level of poetry, a fable of love, devotion and redemption.  

Murnau’s camera is almost constantly on the move, tracking characters along village paths, through marshlands at dusk, along the busy streets of a bustling city. Sunrise is a whirlwind of motion and emotion, from tense moments wandering in darkness, to a sun-kissed stroll that leaves the couple bewildered in the midst of a traffic jam, to the kaleidoscopic revelry of a nightclub sequence. The sets that contain this choreographic display were vast, yet they appeared even more expansive through clever design, Murnau having continued his European practice of building them in forced perspective: Distant buildings were built very small, and the horizons were peopled not by adult actors but by children, even midgets, and often driving miniature cars.  

This level of craftsmanship was typical of German filmmaking; theirs was a highly architectural cinema, meticulously planned and structured in every detail. The talent of actors, though valued, was subservient to the craft of directors, photographers, writers and set designers. But Murnau’s films allowed a bit more room for his actors to breathe, to improvise and bring a greater range of interpretation to their roles.  

Sunrise is considered one of the finest films of the silent era, and Janet’s Gaynor’s performance is one its greatest virtues. Gaynor was best known for playing something of a waif, a wide-eyed innocent, fragile but with great moral strength. In a sense, she was like the second coming of “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, both of whom were beloved by audiences for their down-to-earth demeanor and pixie-like charm. Gaynor managed to take seemingly limited roles and imbue them with an expressiveness that demonstrated virtue and nobility as well as a delicate vulnerability. The acting awards in those days were given for a body of work, and the restrained naturalism that Gaynor brought to her role in Sunrise, along with her performances in two other films that year, earned her the Best Actress Oscar. It is a subtle and at times profound performance, as Gaynor’s graceful, demure character undergoes dramatic changes, from loving and devoted to wounded and disillusioned, from frightened, endangered and mistrustful to redemptive, forgiving and strong. Her supple face and soulful eyes convey a range of thoughts and emotions that pages of dialogue could only suggest.  

By contrast, Sunrise was something of a departure for George O’Brien, who specialized in action roles. Though his acting is not as restrained as Gaynor’s, he combined a degree of naturalism with elements of expressionism. His performance, combined with the low-key lighting and expressive camerawork of photographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, even hints at noir, as it traces the darker twists and turns of a man’s psyche under the influence of a destructive obsession.  

Coming as it did toward the tail end of 1927, Fox released Sunrise in two versions, one silent and one with a synchronized score and sound effects. The latter version is available on DVD, but Saturday’s screening will be accompanied by Dennis James on the Wurlizter. It is one of four films showing at Saturday’s festival: Our Hospitality (1923), one of Buster Keaton’s first full-length features, based on the Civil War-era Hatfield-McCoy feud, shows at noon with piano accompaniment by Philip Carli; a Russian film, A Kiss From Mary Pickford (1927), shows at 2:40 p.m., again with piano accompaniment Carli; Sunrise screens at 6:30 p.m.; and The Cat and the Canary (1927), a comic haunted house film directed by another German emigré, Paul Leni, will show at 9:30 p.m., accompanied by foley artist Mark Goldstein and by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer. 

SUNRISE (1927) 

Showing at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14 as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s day-long winter program. Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., San Francisco.