Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 18.46.35It’s curious that despite the huge technological strides cinema has taken in its relatively short history, some of the greatest films are still the earliest – the work of Dreyer, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Dozhenko, Chaplin, Keaton, amongst others. I particularly adore early documentaries like Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927).

Of silent fiction films, Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is superb. It is pre-talkies, but uses the Fox Movietone sound-on-film technology, with an embedded musical score. The absence of speech is not a shortcoming in these movies but a technical constraint imposed by history that led to the development of a purely visual language before Garbo – amongst others – opened their mouths and talked. The result in this film is stunning. It is highly pictorial, like the Victorian photos that aspired to be oil paintings, and yet with a mastery of visual techniques that is spellbinding – oneiric sets, incredible cinematic innovations, tracking shots, forced perspective. 

Murnau’s film is a Country/City tale, about a farmer who is seduced by a flighty city girl who wants him to murder his wife. He is on the point of doing so by staging a drowning accident, but draws back in the nick of time – and he and his wife end up in the big city, wining, dining, dancing, nipping into the most wonderful hair salon ever seen, having their photograph taken, and then, on their return boat trip, a storm hits and the wife is lost in the waters in an apparent twist of fate. This is German expressionism going to Hollywood, with no expenses spared for the urban or rural sets. It is chockfull of humour and pathos.

It’s hard to say whether such early films are compelling for their naivety or for their sophistication, just as Neolithic cave paintings can surpass much in 20th-century art that aspires to the same innocence of vision. In neither case can they be seen as derivative, because the language was pristine and new – though silent film borrows from other vocabularies extensively. One reason I find the films of the contemporary Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin so beautiful is that he is a silent movie aficionado, and his own films recreate that wonderful patina of a lost world. Films like Sunrise – or the documentaries I mentioned – knock a lot of contemporary claptrap into a cocked hat. This one is up there with Murnau’s Nosferatu, a visual feast of the highest order.

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