F.W. Murnau's career-peak nova, the crowning film from that sacred, edge-of-the-abyss year of 1927, is so commonly and universally hallowed that we can begin by running through what's crappy about it. Let's face it: Sunrise's archetypal "song of two humans" screenplay smells a little like 80-year-old cheese, and the film's sexual politics are conservative bordering on neolithic. (Not to mention that George O'Brien's "Man" tries to kill two women in a 24-hour period, including "The Wife.") But, oh, how little textual complaints matter if you're caught in the silvery path of this perennial, succumbing to its ordeal by light. Every discussion of camera movement and its marriage to meaning begins with Sunrise, a Hollywood "prestige" project that left '20s audiences cold (it debuted exactly two weeks before The Jazz Singer instantly turned silent film into yesterday's jalopy), but remains one of the medium's genuinely fresh experiences, despite the hoke of the wayward-man-reuniting-with-faithful-wife plot. But it's the individual passages (the marsh walk, the trolley ride, etc.) that are so lyrically tactile, so swoony as they transform spectatorship into something else, that they virtually defined what was/is "cinematic" from that point on, away from the old debts to novels and theater. It's also just a melodrama, a story of a marriage's collapse and restoration and mortal trial, but the achievement of Murnau and his team is having made the film move in ways that aren't narrative, only poetic. Of course Sunrise is on DVD, but living it in a dark theater is a true opportunity.
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