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)