Friday, March 19, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: Sunrise

Yesterday, I finally got around to watching the silent classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (it's usually shorn of the subtitle) in its entirety and without interruption (1927, directed by F. W. Murnau). This was the Hollywood debut of director Murnau who is probably best known today for Nosferatu (1922). Sunrise won three Academy Awards at the first Academy Awards ceremony, in 1929, for films made in 1927/28. (Best Actress for Janet Gaynor, Cinematography, and Most Unique, Worthy, and Artistic Production, a category that later disappeared.

My interest in the film stems from a connection with the cinematographer, Karl Struss, who I came to know of by a circuitous route: I have a philatelic cover flown on one of the first Pan Am flights across the Pacific in the 1930s that was made by Struss and signed by him with a fountain pen in a bold, black hand. I picked it up years ago in a Tokyo junk shop. I noticed the same signature on a reproduction of one of his early photographs one day browsing the Internet. It wasn't until I did a little research that I made some connections and realized that my Karl Struss, the photographer by that name, and the Academy Award-winning cinematographer were one and the same person. It seems Struss was a stamp collector.

He was considered among the best cinematographers of the late silent and early talky period, although Struss worked through the end of the 1950s. He was nominated for the Academy Award for cinematography three more times: in 1931/32 (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), in 1932/33 (Sign of the Cross), and in 1941 (Aloma of the South Seas). Later he filmed Limelight and The Great Dictator for Charlie Chaplin, several of the Tarzan movies, and the original (1958) version of The Fly.

The Man in Sunrise (the character is simply called The Man) is played by George O' Brien (who happens to look like a cross between Dustin Hoffman and Jon Hamm). He is strongly attracted to and tempted by a pretty, dynamic woman visiting the countryside (The Woman from the City). He contemplates drowning his wife, selling his farm, and absconding with this temptress, but it's a plan hatched by the city woman, and, despite The Man's attraction to her, he seems to have no heart for the idea from the outset; we understand that he loves his wife. Still, he attempts to go through with the murder, rowing his wife out to the deep part of a lake, only to find himself incapable. The Wife, naturally, is horrified when she guesses his intent.

The remainder of the film centers on the events of a day and evening in the city after The Wife runs in horror from her husband--bolting from the boat the moment he's rowed it back to dry land--and hops a tramcar into town to escape him, having well understood what he contemplated. He follows, catches up with her, and eventually convinces her his actions were the result of a brief spell of insanity caused by the guiles of the city woman. They reconcile and end up enjoying a date in town lasting late into the night, like young lovers again. To get home, they decide to sail back over the lake in which The Man had intended to commit the murder. A storm suddenly comes up as they cross the water, and their small vessel capsizes. Believing his wife is lost, The Man drags himself on shore, crazed with anger at The Woman from the City whom he believes ultimately responsible. He has nearly strangled the woman when we learn The Wife has, in fact, survived and been pulled from the water by a search party. At sunrise, as a new day dawns, we see the man and his wife together again and the shamed Woman from the City leaving the countryside in a cart. The characters are generic--called simply "The Man," "The Wife," "The Woman from the City." The emphasis is on the universal rather than on character development, the plot is stark--good and evil drawn in black and white, and the acting is overwrought by today's standards, but Sunrise remains interesting.

It is easy to see why Sunrise got the awards it did. It pushes the technological barriers of its day, making excellent use of crane shots; long, slow dolly shots; and montages and superimposed images, frequently in scenes of reverie, rapture, or emotional stress. These last are extraordinary given that they had to be done manually, in-camera. I was impressed also by the lighting and the exposure that gives the entire picture a quality very evocative of still photography of the period--somewhat dark by today's standards but with beautiful, creamy, soft highlights almost never allowed to blow out, and with an extraordinary tonal range. We get glimpses of the German expressionist style in the sparsely decorated and sometimes oddly distorted interior sets that seem in keeping with the simplicity of the plot and the characters, and in swirling, misty night scenes, but not all is gloomy and there are some very funny scenes--the pig chase, the photographer's studio, and, perhaps most memorably, the sequence with the obliging man trying to help a lady with a dress strap that keeps falling down. Considering the time that has passed, Sunrise has held up rather well.

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