Silent cinema is the art form that died too young: “Not ripe for replacement,” aesthetician Rudolph Arnheim wrote in 1930, three years after The Jazz Singer broke the sound barrier, silent film “had not lost its fruitfulness, but only its profitability.” Indeed, many of the most innovative silent movies were produced in the mode’s last days: Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sjostrom’s The Wind, Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, Dovzhenko’s Earth, and—this week at Film Forum—Murnau’s Sunrise.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888-1931), a protégé of the great German theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt, was a formidable technician and arguably the supreme cine-aesthete of the 1920s: painter of light, choreographer of camera movement, and maestro of mise-en-scène. Murnau’s 1924 visual tour de force, known in the U.S. as The Last Laugh, was one of the first (and few) silent features made without the benefit of intertitles. Following this international success and Murnau’s ambitious 1926 Faust, movie mogul William Fox brought the “German genius” to Hollywood and gave him the key to the studio.
Sunrise would be the most expensive silent movie Fox ever produced—as well as the most expressionistic. Murnau built a mock German village by a lake and constructed an imaginary metropolis, complete with amusement park, on a tract of empty land just outside the Fox lot. The two locations were connected with a mile-long track on which, in one of the movie’s most celebrated sequences, Murnau’s estranged protagonists—Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien—ride a streetcar from the heart of the country into the center of town. Other landscapes were also constructed on an interior set.
Carl Mayer’s script, a synthesis of American and German movie motifs, is as elemental as Murnau’s visuals are complex. (O’Brien and Gaynor are billed as The Man and The Wife; the movie’s absurdly universalizing subtitle is “A Song of Two Humans.”) Virtuous peasant simplicity is posed against the sinful city, as personified by the flapper with bobbed hair and a smoldering cigarette (Margaret Livingston) who waits for O’Brien by the swamp of depravity and, like a succubus, drains his will with her kiss. The primitive male mind is similarly juxtaposed, with a nod to Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, against the diminutive Gaynor’s nuanced sensitivity. Emotion is everywhere manifest in the terrain. The glittering maelstrom of city traffic anticipates the vertiginous storm over the lake.
Everything in this fantastic realm is a potential prop, infused with a maximal amount of theatrical magic. Murnau placed an artificial moon over a real marsh, and used studio lighting on his back lot to create shadows even in the night scenes. He regularly deployed forced perspective, composed in deep space, lavished close-ups on Gaynor’s baby face, reflected bits of business in store windows as well as upon the surface of the lake. The camera is almost always in motion, most spectacularly through the vaporous country fields. Murnau’s superimpositions and dissolves achieve an almost mystical state of deliquescence. Light not only flows in Sunrise but also seems to melt.
Sunrise was shot silent, with very few titles, and released in late 1927, with a synchronized musical soundtrack. The early reviews were sensational; the grosses were not. Thirty years later, the ultimate cinephile magazine Cahiers du Cinéma declared Murnau’s first American movie “the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema.” It’s an assertion as reckless, romantic, and extravagant as the movie itself.
Film Forum’s 11-day Murnau fest is as complete as possible, with archival prints of the director’s earliest surviving film, Journey Into the Night (1920), the murder mystery The Haunted Castle (1921), the long-lost Burning Earth (1922), the noirish Phantom (1922), and the society comedy Finances of the Grand Duke (1924), as well as fragments of his second feature, Satanas (1920).
Of the canonical Murnau films, Nosferatu (1922), the original, and still the creepiest, version of Dracula, is paired with The Last Laugh, which showcases a fabulous big-city set as well as Emil Jannings’s definitive performance as a fallen hotel doorman. The gloriously baroque Faust, a rival to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as UFA’s supreme spectacle, is billed with Tartuffe (1926), which like The Last Laugh and Faust, stars the incorrigible Jannings, using a double story to update as well as stage Molière. Murnau’s final Hollywood production, the truncated City Girl (1930), is showing with his swan song, the 1931 South Seas romance Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, made with documentarian Robert Flaherty. All prints are 35mm except for Janet Bergstrom’s 40-minute documentary on the lost follow-up to Sunrise, Murnau’s Four Devils: Traces of a Lost Film.