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1 Year, 100 Movies #82 Sunrise (1927)

by Trey Hock on August 15, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

If you have a pulse and like movies you’ve probably seen “Nosferatu” or at least a clip or two of F.W. Murnau’s most recognizable work. But unless you went to film school, and even then unless you took a course on silent film, you have probably never seen “Sunrise.” This 1927 masterwork was Murnau’s first American film, and still has a huge amount to offer.

Now I understand that no matter how much I rave about this film, most people won’t be able to jump the silent film hurdle. Heck, I know people who can’t watch movies if they are black and white. Well if you just can’t get past the fact the actors aren’t talking, well that’s too bad. Films need to tell their story visually first. So if you’re stuck on snappy dialogue only, then you’re probably missing out on a lot of the substance even of contemporary films.

At least check out the following clips. They will give you an idea of why “Sunrise” won one of the awards that was a precursor to the modern Academy Award for Best Picture.

Murnau has a gift for transforming emotionally dark subject matter into a visual story. “Sunrise” is the story of a Husband (George O’Brien), who is involved in an affair with a Woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). Here is the incredible tracking shot of the City Woman as she walks from her rented room to the Husband’s home.

Keep in mind this was shot in 1927, long before standardized dolly systems or stedicams. This was just a crazed director saying he wanted this long shot, working with a crew talented enough to make it happen. Still an impressive shot, even today.

This next shot is even more impressive. It follows the Husband on his way to the rendezvous and exemplifies Murnau’s mastery of mood and tone.

If you don’t realize that the Husband is entering into something dangerous and illicit by the lighting, framing, or music, well then there’s not much I could say to convince you otherwise. This shot is dark, brooding and beautiful throughout, and conveys a huge amount of story without a single word.

When the Husband refuses to run away with the City Woman because of his Wife (Janet Gaynor), the City woman asks him to drown his wife and make it look like an accident. The Husband relents, and prepares for the deed, by gathering bulrushes, which he can use to stay afloat once he capsizes the boat. In this clip the Husband wakes up to his collected bulrushes and has a struggle of conscience.

With not one word spoken, we understand what the Husband is going through. The direction and the acting are elegant and convincing. The composition of the special effects shot is pretty radical also.

Now this is a moral tale of redemption. So there are plenty of happier moments as well. Honestly I was less convinced by the happy time spent between the Husband and Wife in the city. Often the acting is too theatrical and a bit over the top, but the story is still good and the scenes are still beautiful.

Luckily there is more in this film that is morose and dour than gleeful, so Murnau remains in his sweet spot and gives us an incredible film that is surprising for its time.

Next up #81 “Spartacus” (1960)

1 Year, 100 Movies #83 Titanic (1997)

1 Year, 100 Movies #84 Easy Rider (1969)

1 Year, 100 Movies #85 A Night at the Opera (1935)

1 Year, 100 Movies #86 Platoon (1986)

1 Year, 100 Movies #87 12 Angry Men (1957)

1 Year, 100 Movies #88 Bringing Up Baby (1938)

1 Year, 100 Movies #89 The Sixth Sense (1999)

1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

1 Year, 100 Movies #91 Sophie’s Choice (1982)

1 Year, 100 Movies: #92 Goodfellas (1990)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin August 17, 2010 at 12:37 pm

So what I’m getting from watching these clips is that Brian De Palma was obviously a big Murnau fan–ha ha! That last scene with the ghost woman embracing him is amazing. I can’t believe I’ve never seen this. It and “The Last Laugh” currently in the Netflix queue!!! Great article, man.


2 Hunter Hale March 6, 2011 at 9:42 pm

If, heaven forbid, I had to choose ten films out of the 100 then F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS would have to be one of those ten. Few motion pictures cover the range of human emotions as SUNRISE does. The film seems like a parable of the power of forgiveness and human love. It is a tale of light and darkness. Anyone who is interested in classic film should make sure that a viewing of this masterpiece is including in his watching. Janet Gaynor received the very first Best Actress Oscar for her work in SUNRISE; 7TH HEAVEN and STREET ANGEL (all three films are availabe on video) and well deserved the award. George O’Brien as her husband and Margaret Livingston as The Woman from the City are also excellent. The Oscar winning cinematography remains a marvel to watch. The film uses very few title cards to tell its story and is more powerful as a silent then it would be with spoken dialouge. If you get a chance to see this film, turn off your phone and give it your undivided attention and you’ll be well rewarded.


3 Trey Hock March 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Hunter, a fantastic call to see this film. Thanks for posting the comment.


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