Saturday, July 10, 2010

100 years, 100 films 18: Sunrise (1927)

What a bizarre structure this film has. It's a fairly standard story: a married farmer is having a love affair; he plots to murder his wife and escape to the city with his mistress; he finds himself unable to carry out the deed - he loves his wife too much. We've all seen this plot before. What's bizarre about the structure of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise is the fact that what I just recited is only the first half of the movie. The rest of the movie is a series of vignettes showing a husband and wife reconnecting and re-falling in love.

Don't get me wrong, when I use the word 'bizarre' I don't mean it as an insult. Far from it. This is an amazing film, certainly the best film of 100 years, 100 films so far. The scenes of the husband and wife reconnecting are just as incredible and moving as the murder stuff. It's just, you know, not exactly traditional movie structure, to have the climax of the plot occur half way through.

But then, there's nothing traditional about Sunrise. It may be a black and white, silent film, made in Hollywood, with two of the then-biggest stars in America (George O'Brien as The Man, and Janet Gaynor as the Wife), but it ain't your regular Hollywood movie. For a start, the director was a German. F.W. Murnau was one of the leading exponents of the German Expressionist Film movement, and he infused Sunrise with an Expressionist's flair for achieving a visceral emotional response through visuals. He turned the scenes of attempted murder and adultery into startlingly intense experiences, and the scenes of post-attempted-murder romance into dream-like sequences of glorious lyricism. The visuals are never short of beautiful to look at, always provide an emotional experience, and are all technical marvels, to boot. To explain the greatness of the visual effects used in this movie in terms of contemporary films - imagine if Sam Raimi had taken all his brilliant and hilarious visual trickery from the Evil Dead movies, and applied it, non-ironically, to a Sophia Coppola movie. That is Sunrise.

Another difference between Sunrise and the other Hollywood films being made at about this time - there is absolutely no overacting. Silent Movies are awash with hammy, over the top scenery chewing, mostly because it was felt that that was the only way you could properly convey emotion (no dialogue, doncha know.) But because Murnau's visuals have such forceful emotional impact, the actors don't need to overact. We know exactly what they're thinking and feeling - it's right there on the screen. This means that Gaynor and O'Brien give two exceptionally low-key and naturalistic performances, grounding the slightly over-the-top visuals and story in a certain level of reality, making the emotional impacts that much more heartfelt.

One final difference between Sunrise and the traditional silent film: yes, there is no dialogue, and yes, there are title cards, but because sound had just been introduced to the movies, Sunrise's soundtrack was created by Murnau in post production, and the film was originally released sounding exactly like it does today. This isn't the case with most silent movies, where the score that you're listening to was written sometimes decades after the film was made. Often after well everyone involved with the movie died, meaning that there is no guarantee that what you are listening to is what was wanted from the score at all. But with Sunrise, that score is exactly what Murnau wanted, and it is excellent. The post-production sound work also meant that the film was able to contain a whole slew of sound effects, adding yet another texture to Murnau's already very layered work.

Sunrise is a brilliant film. If anyone ever tells you that they don't like silent movies, or that they're all just boring rubbish, they have obviously never seen Sunrise. When I started watching this movie I knew of its critical reception, and was worried that it was going to be overrated. Now that I have seen the film, I understand: it would be physically impossible to overrate this movie.

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