Murnau is a director who has impressed me before, especially with Faust, and seeing as this film is often considered his finest, although it is far from being his most well known, I had high expectations.
Thankfully I was not disappointed, although the film was not exactly like I had thought it would be.
Made in 1927, by this time Murnau had left his native Germany where he had made his most well known works, such as Nosferatu and installed himself in Hollywood, where he was surely a respected figure.
But most European directors that leave for Hollywood see a large decrease in the quality of their work, I'm thinking of Fritz Lang for example, or even a couple of more recent ones such as Mathieu Kassovitz and Tom Tykwer.
But luckily my fears were proven to be useless, as Sunrise turned out to be one of the best Silent films I've ever seen. Far surpassing Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, and coming up at about the same level as Faust.
Sunrise tells a very simple story, in fact compared with some of the other films I've reviewed it might even appear to be mundane, but I can assure you that it is far from being so. It is a simple, straighforward story, but with great depth and complexity of emotion.
It tells the tale of a young couple who live in the countryside, which happens to be an idyllic holiday destination. But their life has been disturbed by the arrival of a City Woman, she seduces the Man and disrupts the couples peace. She urges the Man to arrange the death of his wife to make it look like an accident, she suggests drowning in the lake near their house. The Man sets out the next day with his Wife and a conscience that is clearly tortured. Thankfully, he doesn't carry out the dastardly deed, and during the course of the day, him as his Wife fall in love all over again, and mend their relationship. But on the return journey tragedy strikes again.
I must admit that as this was a film from German director Murnau, I was expecting something closer to an Expressionist film, I suppose I should have expected something different as he did make it in Hollywood after all.
But nonetheless, I was expecting to see some of the main themes of the Expressionist movement, even if they were only left-overs from Murnau's earlier days. Themes such as Destiny, Insanity, True Love etc... and elements such as Death or the Devil made flesh and other such things. But the film is in fact very realistic and humanist. It avoids romanticised views of Love for a more realistic approach, and while this surprised me at first, I became very impressed as the film moved on.
The interest of the film does not lie in it's narrative, which is straightforward and only contains two main characters, both of which go unnamed. The narrative is very minimal, it moves leisurely, and sometimes seems to deviate, but what is of interest is the myriad of emotions woven into this simple narrative.
The film was shot in a near perfect fashion, enough striking imagery to make the film seem like it's breaking new ground but without overshadowing the narrative and appearing as little more than a series of great images tied loosely together, the film strikes the right balance between. Several images are very striking, but I don't think they are what will stay in my mind after watching the film. I think the main aspect I will remember will be the emotional performances.
These performances were quite amazing, really two of the best I've seen of the entire Silent Era. George O'Brien plays the Man and Janet Gaynor plays The Wife. In fact Janet Gaynor won the Best Actress Oscar that year for this performance.
Both performances were mesmerising, so natural and very moving, with a perfect transition between the intensely dramatic scenes and the lighter ones.
The film basically tells of the complex relationship between a Man and his Wife, I don't think it's meant to be realistic, but it does contain some very interesting themes that can surely be applied in real life, such as forgiveness which makes up a large part of the film.
It's not exactly a romantic film, as they have their share of troubles as well, just like any people will. But it is fascinating in the openness and honesty with which it presents it story. An non-romanticised view of life and relationships, at a time when such films were very rare indeed, when sweeping romances were far more common.
Although there are elements of comedy, such as the sequence with the escaped pig, they never really break up the films generally serious atmosphere, in fact they served as a welcome balance.
The film evokes many emotions over the course of it's relatively short run time (94 min) such as horror and pity during the suspenseful scenes in which the Man considers taking his Wife's life. Happiness during the scenes in the city, in which they fall in love all over again and the Wife forgives the Man. Sadness at the eventual fate of the Wife and relief at the final reveal. I think I've already given a bit to much a way, so I'll leave it at that, to know more you may as well watch the film for yourselves. I'm sure you won't regret it!
The film was shot on a rather large scale for such a simple story, an extensive set was built for the scenes in the city, it was built especially for the film.
The scenes in the circus were equally impressive, especially the shot of the exterior:
The print of the film also happened to be in near perfect condition, this is by far the cleanest restoration I have seen so far in the marathon.
This is further helped by the excellent lighting employed on the film, it creates a great atmosphere and causes the film to appear like it was made a decade or more later than it actually was.
Another aspect I must mention are the close ups, I've found it fascinating to see the evolution of the close up's as I work my way through this marathon at first when I watched the earliest film Cabiria, there were few close ups and they were handled clumsily, but the technique had come a long way when this film was made, and some truly great close ups were captured for this film which enhances the already great performances.
Sadly the film wasn't very successful with the audiences, for although it does marvellous things with it's sound design, it arrived just at the rise of the talkies, and that is what the audiences wanted to see.
It was forgotten for many years despite the awards it won. But over the past few years it has been gradually been resurging and a new appreciation for this film has arisen, it is now included on many Best Films lists, professional or amateur, and it my opinion, it deserves to be.
The rising sun, hence the title of the film, represents the cycle of life, as the sun rises and sets, so does life have it's ups and downs.
The film begins with the couple near breaking point, yet they had been so happy not long ago, gradually they regain there love and by the end of the film are at their happiest. But will this really last ? I personally don't think so, but then again there is no problem with being unhappy, for as I said earlier, happiness cannot exits without sorrow. The bad times will only make you appreciate the better times more, and this is something that is demonstrated perfectly in this film.
All in all, Sunrise is a charming film with a story that will not leave you unaffected. It easily ranks among the best films of this Era I have seen so far, for it's a great technical achievement, combined with an affecting story and some of the best acting I've seen of the era.
As always comments will be answered, so don't hesitate to post your thoughts on this film below!
Next up is a film I'm greatly looking forward to, The Passion of Jeanne D'Arc.