16 Jan 2010

Sunrise (1927)

A look back at one of the most highly rated pieces from the silent movie era to celebrate its reissue on DVD and BluRay.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, better known as F.W., was one of the most influential filmmakers of the silent era. After enjoying much success in his native Germany he moved to America and was immediately snapped up by William Fox to work for his burgeoning Fox Film Corporation. Fox encouraged other directors belonging to his stable to pick Murnau’s brains, and the end result was seeing his movies take home the Best Picture statue at the first three Academy Awards ceremonies. The first of these films, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, was made by the enigmatic German genius, and is finally released this month on DVD and Blu Ray.  

 Released in 1927, almost fifteen years before Citizen Kane, Sunrise was truly one of the first films to postulate the theory that cinema is art. A treatise on the nature of love in the form of a deceptively simple fable about temptation and redemption, it is told through a three-way love affair (the plot is so generic that the characters are named The Man, The Wife, and The Woman From The City) that tragedy threatens to engulf at every turn. What separates it from other films from this era though is the extraordinary stylistic breakthroughs that Murnau achieved. The images have a power to them that is still overwhelming now, more than 80 years later, and the enormous Gothic sets only add to the feeling that you are immersing yourself in a inimitable fairy tale, quite unlike anything produced before or since.

 Sunrise represents the very best of silent cinema, speaking as it does to the audience in a universal visual language. Released when it was, literally days before The Jazz Singer became the very first “talkie” and changed the face of film irrevocably, Sunrise can be seen now almost as a requiem for a deceased medium. A distinctive blend of style that is best described as a German-American production, it perfectly marries the best of German expressionism to the vast sets and budgets that were at Fox’s disposal, resulting in a truly extraordinary film. In 1967, Cahiers Du Cinema named it “the single greatest masterwork in the history of the cinema”, and watching it now it is hard to disagree. Sunrise is one of the most beautiful and brilliant films of all time, and given the current nadir of studio filmmaking, one could argue that we are actually poorer for having lost this unique art form. In the space of a fortnight silent film achieved perfection, and then died. Thankfully its legacy will be preserved for longer than that.

Matthew Kleebauer

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