It is not a new or interesting argument to rain down laurels upon silent cinema for its vigorous, spirited transformative self-exploration. No time in cinema history matches the medium’s earliest years for pure ecstatic inventiveness and unbridled, unhinged storytelling experimentation. No time has seen directors and cinematographers and editors, and even producers for that matter, ever so consistently transfixed by the potential of exposing the cinematic mind by pushing it to its breaking point and moving beyond the grip of narrative storytelling to look for new and exciting ways to freshly portray the limits of fiction on screen. No time has ever been as hungry, or as infested in film for the sake of film itself.
It is also not a new or interesting argument to look to 1928, the last year of silent cinema’s monopolistic dominance in the medium, as the pinnacle of the form’s artistic exploration. Although no one work may equal the heights of what FW Murnau achieved with 1927’s Sunrise, the sheer plethora of major and minor classics, from Dreyer’s luminous The Passion of Joan of Arc to King Vidor’s cityscape tone peom The Crowd, to Josef von Sternberg’s hazy, mystifying The Docks of New York, proves that drama was in fine form as a selection of unarguable masters looked to close out the history of silent cinema on a high note. Of course, they may not have known it was coming, but we auteurists are no less guilty of assuming intent in our individuals than any one else (we’re perhaps more guilty, if anything). Continue reading →
Sunrise was one of “those” films. By those, I mean the films which changed cinema, which defined “before” and “after”. While the case is often made for Citizen Kane as the singular production which advanced what film could do the furthest for its time period, Sunrise is perhaps the only film to seriously challenge that claim. F. W. Murnau, the expressionist master behind classics such as Nosferatu, brought his talents to America here, and to tragic romance. In doing so he not only created an ethereal, transcendent romantic vision of the world, but he transformed what film meant for that world.
The narrative of Sunrise is simplicity itself. It’s a story of love and temptation, intentionally rendered universal through characters whose names are literally types. They are “The Man”, “The Wife”, and “The Woman from the City”. The first and the second are married, while the first and the last are having an affair. These two plot to end the marriage and run off together, having “The Man” take “The Wife” to the city on a vacation from their country abode and drown her there. When the time comes he finds he cannot continue with the plan; the trip to the magical chaos and clutter of the city only rekindles their love. Assumed tragedy later strikes and causes “The Man” to grow angry and even potentially murderous, but love looms large in Murnau’s vision and he isn’t about to give up his puppy-dog mythos of the world without a fight. Continue reading →