22 July 2008

SUNRISE: A Song of Two Humans (Dir. F W Murnau, 1927, US) - One of the great achievements of early cinema

Early silent cinema produced many masterpieces that are still considered to be influential today, and few filmmakers can lay claim to having helped contribute to the lexicon of film grammar, shaping to a large extent what cinema is today. German filmmaker, F W Murnau graduated from the ranks of the post war expressionist movement, creating the first definitive horror film with the vampire classic, ‘Nosferatu’. His most notable Hollywood feature film production was ‘Sunrise’, a film made for the Fox Studio, and considered by many to be a creative high point in early Hollywood cinema. Murnau status as a pioneer is undiminished and he stands alongside greats like D W Griffith, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock for having given birth to the language of film that could be used to tell a story and provoke an emotional response from the spectator.

Though it would be crude to categorise Murnau, it is interesting to do so when comparing him to early silent filmmakers who became recognised for a certain specialism within the art of movie making. If Hitchcock was the master of suspense, Lang was a stunning social commentator, and Griffith a fantastically astute editor, then Murnau was one of the first visually aware filmmakers who privileged the mise en scene over all other cinematic elements. Thus, it is interesting to see ‘Sunrise’ as almost a visual poem rather than a conventional Hollywood film, even if it is handicapped by a soppy and conservative love story.

I first encountered ‘Sunrise’ when Martin Scorsese’ journey through American cinema aired on Channel Four in the 90s, and having finally had the opportunity to watch ‘Sunrise’, what strikes me more than anything else about this silent masterpiece is Murnau’s technically complex and startling use of film language when at the time cinema was still considered to be quite primitive and very much in it’s infancy. Many of the German filmmakers who emerged out of the short lived expressionist movement expressed a fascination with the image of the city, and ‘Sunrise’, like Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ is one of the first Hollywood films to worship and celebrate the city as a symbol of industrialisation and architectural achievement. Ideologically, Murnau represents the city as an extension of paradise, and in contrast to the corrupt rural heartland of America, the city is depicted as a force of moral goodness, offering the chance of redemption and a prosperous future to idealists and dreamers.

Much of what Murnau achieves in terms of emotions is through a visually forceful use of superimposition's, cross dissolves and stark symbolism that offers direct links to his background in expressionism. Though this was a studio film and offers explicit closure in the form a conventional happy ending, it is not the story or the performances that stand out, but the fact that Murnau made the film in Hollywood on his own terms and mastered the technical achievements that he had helped pioneer earlier in German cinema.

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