1927 was a crucial and ironic year for cinema. For one, silent films were dying. Warner Bros. had unleashed the studio’s technical gambit The Jazz Singer, the first ever full-length feature that paved way to the sound era. Yet, on the other hand, two silent movies were released that year that somehow eclipsed The Jazz Singer‘s status in the annals of filmmaking history, and both dazzlingly demonstrated silent cinema at the peak of its powers – Fritz Lang’s sci-fi behemoth Metropolis and F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Today, what the former has contributed to the science-fiction genre is comparable to what Sunrise has done to melodrama. Murnau’s first ever Hollywood gig (he was invited by William Fox to direct a feature) illustrates the fruition and marriage of two very distinct filmmaking styles: German Expressionism and Hollywood mainstream craft. Despite its breezy title, underlined with A Song of Two Humans, this begins as a dark psychological domestic thriller, all warped sets, noirish lighting and intensified expressions, as local farm husband The Man (a brutish yet engaging George O’Brien) is seduced by Margaret Livingston’s city-vamp femme-fatale to drown his lowly, dowdy Wife (Janet Gaynor) in the nearby lake. What seems to be a twisted film that initially celebrates unfeigned hedonism miraculously transforms into a genuinely heart-wrenching melodrama, a moral journey from betrayal, devotion and subsequently, redemption.
Many have accused Sunrise as being simplistic, but they have completely missed the point: simplicity is where silent cinema draws its power, and Sunrise is a far better film than hundreds of noisy, brassy movies that came during the advent of sound. Take Janet Gaynor’s performance for example – her transformation from dramatic strength to another, from shell-shocked to being repulsed, from frightened to wounded, beleaguered, and ultimately forgiving and loving. All this range of emotions without even a line of dialogue. That first ever Oscar for Best Actress in the history of the Academy is wonderfully deserved. There is also Murnau’s masterful direction and superb technical authority. He lends Sunrise a flowing cinematography that seems impossible in 1927’s standards, employing long takes, following characters through farmlands, cameras gliding through trees, marshes and even lakes. And from the idyllic, moonlit rural setting, he brings the entire film into a bustling Jazz-age metropolis as the couple regain what they’ve lost, and here Murnau brings the film fully alive. His camerawork doesn’t stop moving, tracking the couple in busy streets, shops and even nightclubs. Watch that showstopping sequence with the Man and Wife causing a traffic jam as they vanish into a sun-dappled countryside stroll. It’s a sweet hymn to human love that forever influenced modern day cinema. See Pixar and its abashed romanticism.
One of the greatest testaments to the power of silent cinema. F. W. Murnau’s sublime wordless weepie transcends crowd-pleasing melodrama into high art, luminous poetry and a virtuous moral fable. This is, arguably, the Citizen Kane of the silent era.