Sunrise

The next time I visit Berlin I’m going to visit to F.W. Murnau‘s grave at Stahnsdorf cemetery. Last night I watched Fox Home Video’s new Bluray of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), which I hadn’t seen since…I forget but sometime in the early ’80s. We all know it’s a work of pure cinematic poetry and a masterpiece of compassion and redemption, but I’d forgotten (a) how long those extended tracking shots by dps Charles Rosher and Karl Struss go on (truly groundbreaking for their day), (b) how design aspects of the amusement-park sequence resemble Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis, (c) the heartbreaking current between Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien, (d) the subdued acting styles (i.e., not entirely naturalistic but certainly leaning toward subtle by the standards of 1920s emoting), and (e) how much better Sunrise is than Murnau’s absolutely over-rated Nosferatu, which I saw for the first time not long ago and was mildly disappointed by.


Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien in F.W. Murnau’s ?Sunrise (1927).

I’ve never liked the longer title — Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans – so apart from this mention I’m going to ignore it henceforth and for the rest of my life.

Poor Murnau went through some rough career patches after Sunrise won an Oscar in 1928 for Best “Unique and Artistic Production” (and Gaynor took the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Sunrise along with two other films). Sunrise didn’t make much money (the forebears of the fans of Saving Mr. Banks didn’t think it was entertaining enough), and his next three films — — 4 Devils (’28) and City Girl (’30) and Tabu (’31) — underperformed and/or were financially troubled.

The poor guy was killed in a car crash on his way up to Santa Barbara in March 1931, just before the premiere of Tabu. Only 11 people attended Murnau’s funeral in Stahnsdorf. Among them were Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Fritz Lang, who delivered the eulogy.

In my 10.30.13 review, I wrote that Nosferatu “is even stiffer and more constipated than I anticipated. I realize that I’m talking in part about my own head as well the film. My respect for Nosferatu is sincere, but from my 2013 perspective it seems as if the relic-y aspects have almost entirely overwhelmed what was once a very avant-garde and out-there (if uncredited) adaptation of Bram Stoker‘s 1897 novel of ‘Dracula.’

“Heavy-handed acting styles are inseparable from any silent melodrama, but the over-acting in Nosferatu is beyond grotesque at times. There’s a certain high-style aesthetic going on here, I realize, but the comically demented expressions used by some of the performers demand disengagement.

“The fact is that while Nosferatu is full of striking or startling images, it may be better — preferable — to process it as a series of stills (particularly those highlighting the makeup and production design aspects) rather than as a film. I used to think Todd Browning‘s Dracula (’31) was a bit creaky and dusty, but it could almost be Run Lola Run compared to Nosferatu — the new bitch on the block.”

  • K. Bowen

    You know, there’s a topic in present-day American movie culture that no one is really talking about. I’ve been thinking about bringing it up, and this seems like a good place.

    Right now, there is probably more opportunity to see classic movies onscreen than there ever has been in my lifetime. That includes silents. It may even be easier to see silents nowadays than anytime since the twenties.

    It seems like some theater chains are putting old movies in during weeknights. Cinemark does through the CInemark Classic Series. Alamo Drafthouse shows a lot. And so on. .

    I live in Dallas, and earlier this week, I sent an email to a friend with the roughly 60 classic movies that I could see on a big screen between now and May. And that’s just what is announced right now.

    I say this because I’ve seen Sunrise twice on a big screen in the past 18 or so months and I have the opportunity to see it again in a couple of months.

  • Glenn Kenny

    Nice appreciation, Jeff. I have to admit, relative to “Sunrise” you have a point about “Nosferatu.” Much of it still rules—I don’t think the scene of the vampire taking over the deck of the ship will ever be topped.

    Have you ever seen “City Girl?” It’s really something, in its own way “Sunrise”‘s equal, I reckon. The Masters of Cinema UK Blu-ray is a honey.

    • Perfect Tommy

      Thanks for the heads up on City Girl. If it compared to Sunrise, I want to see it.

  • brenkilco

    Even for 1922 Nosferatu is awfully static. A real letdown if you come to it expecting a masterpiece. The technical advance from Nosferatu to Sunrise is truly extraordinary. The design, the mobile camera, even the special effects. How did they do that shot of the couple walking across the street with the traffic whizzing by?

    OBrian never did much else of note after though he remained busy through the forties. Apparently had a stormy friendship with John Ford. They patched things up eventually and OBrian is quite good as the passed over, second in command in Fort Apache.

    • Glenn Kenny

      A cinephile friend was pals with George O’Brien from the early ’70s until his passing in 1985. Said you couldn’t have asked for a nicer guy. Darcy O’Brien, his son with Marguerite Churchill (see “The Big Trail”), became a scholar and writer and penned a very interesting roman a clef called “A Way Of Life Like Any Other” that’s quite good.

  • JoeS

    Many agree that SUNRISE is a masterpiece. But, I’m not sure why it’s necessary to run-down another Murnau masterpiece, NOSFERATU, because one prefers the later film. It’s like saying that MANHATTAN is Woody’s best film, therefore, ANNIE HALL is a lesser achievement that lacks the technical style and sophistication of the later movie (which IS true, but, that’s no scratch on ANNIE HALL).

    • brenkilco

      It isn’t just a question of technical polish. And I’m not saying that Nosferatu is without value, but Sunrise simply represents a quantum leap for Murnau as an artist. Nosferatu is a fascinating artifact. Sunrise is an extraordinary movie.

      • JoeS

        Still don’t think it’s a fair comparison, but, so be it. Every artist, hopefully grows, and the technology and polish was rapidly growing even in the few years in between.

      • JoeS

        Further, Murnau made FAUST and THE GREAT LAUGH in between. Four terrific films. As great as SUNRISE is, I wouldn’t call it a “quantum leap”.

        He was already a great filmmaker.

        • brenkilco

          Fair point. Was really just talking about the qualitative difference between Nos and Sun. Have only seen bits of Faust but Last Laugh is, of course, very impressive for its time.