March 23, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. 1927. USA. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Acquired from Twentieth Century-Fox. Preserved with funding from Celeste Bartos

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. 1927. USA. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Acquired from Twentieth Century-Fox. Preserved with funding from Celeste Bartos

These notes accompany the screening of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which screens on March 24, 25, and 26 in Theater 3.

After the international success of Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), the film cognoscenti could legitimately argue that F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) deserved to be recognized as the most important filmmaker in the world; D. W. Griffith was coming off several interesting but unprofitable films and was about to lose his independence, Erich von Stroheim was fighting to salvage Greed, and Charles Chaplin had yet to make The Gold Rush. Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg were still on the horizon. Murnau followed up with two additional Emil Jannings vehicles, adapted from Molière (Tartüff) and Goethe (Faust). Both films continued to utilize the vast resources of the Ufa studio, and the latter film was especially spectacular. The eminent film historian, Lotte Eisner, wrote “No other director…ever succeeded in conjuring up the supernatural as masterfully as this.” Hollywood took note.

William Fox (1879–1952), a product of Eastern European Jewry, immigrated with his parents to a Lower East Side tenement when he was nine months old. In 1915, he formed the Fox Film Corporation, and though the studio was modestly successful by the mid-1920s (largely thanks to the popularity of Tom Mix and a stable of extremely promising young directors like John Ford, Frank Borzage, and Raoul Walsh), Fox still yearned for prestige. Ufa and Murnau had buckets of that.

To a significant extent, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, although shot in America (exteriors at Lake Arrowhead), is a Ufa production. Carl Mayer, who had written The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in addition to Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Tartüff, wrote the screenplay in Germany, where most of the planning for the film was done. Murnau brought with him the technological innovations that the German studio had pioneered, and he gave the film a look that revolutionized much of the American cinema. His presence on the Fox lot certainly inspired the cadre of in-house directors. John Ford actually shot some of Four Sons (1928) on the leftover Sunrise sets, and by the time of his Oscar-winning The Informer (1935), Ford had assimilated German Expressionism into his Naturalism and was well on his way to becoming perhaps the single greatest American filmmaker. Raoul Walsh was similarly influenced, and Frank Borzage would make his masterful 1928 Street Angel (to be shown in this series next week) in a Murnauesque vein.

William Fox could charge audiences an absurdly high two dollars to see his prestige picture, which won an Oscar for its “Artistic Quality of Production.” Janet Gaynor won the first female acting Oscar for her work on Sunrise, Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. George O’Brien, John Ford’s favorite leading man before Henry Fonda and John Wayne, was a limited actor, but he gives an intense and more-than-adequate performance for Murnau, to whom he would remain a loyal friend until the latter’s untimely death.

With its specially constructed city sets—which were ingeniously built in perspective, fantastically stylized but believable—Sunrise looks a lot like The Last Laugh. Murnau’s moving camera and sensual lighting were essentially unprecedented in American films. Instead of Karl Freund (his primary German cameraman), the director relied on Charles Rosher (who specialized first in making Mary Pickford look good and young and eventually in Technicolor musicals, and who also won an Oscar for Sunrise) and on Karl Struss (a distinguished still photographer who later worked for Griffith, Chaplin, and Orson Welles). The synchronized score (with sound effects) by Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld has become so much a part of Sunrise that it is hard to think of seeing the film without it.

Rodney Farnsworth has suggested that, “Human characters in Sunrise are secondary to the true protagonist—the camera.” Indeed, the plot is deceptively simple, and “the Man,” “the Woman, ” and “the Vamp”—drawn from Hermann Sudermann’s novel The Journey to Tilsit—are dangerously close to schematic. However, Murnau’s conviction and stylistic mastery reduce these concerns to insignificant quibbles. Relax and let Sunrise take you on its ride through the director’s imagination. The art of silent filmmaking was about to die, to be replaced by something both more accessible and less dreamlike. Orson Welles called movies “ribbons of dreams.” Sunrise is one of the purest, made by one of the greatest ribbon-makers. Grab hold.