Tuesday, November 17, 2015

2015 Blind Spot Series: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Based on the short story The Excursion to Tilsit by Herrmann Suderman, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is the story of a man who falls for a woman from the city as he is tasked to kill his wife and run away to the city. Directed by F.W. Murnau and screenplay by Carl Mayer, the film is an exploration into the idea of love as it’s presented as a silent film with sound effects and music. Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is an exquisite and enchanting film from F.W. Murnau.

The film explores the life of a simple farming couple whose marriage is on the rocks when the man falls for a vacationing woman from the city who urges him to kill his wife and move to the city with false promises. It’s a film that isn’t just about a man torn into what he has to do but it’s also a film where a man and wife try to salvage their marriage in their situation. Especially where they embark on an adventure through the city to see what it’s really like as it’s one of confusing and excitement. Carl Mayer’s screenplay does have an odd structure where it’s about not just the man (George O’Brien) and the wife (Janet Gaynor) going through struggles as the man is embroiled into an affair with the woman from the city (Margaret Livingston).

The script shows the man and wife in happier times which is a sharp contrast to where they’re at as the man is with the woman from the city who would seduce and charm the man into a plot where she has a much bigger motive. The second act would be about the man doing the act but things don’t go well where he and the wife go on this adventure in the city. An adventure that isn’t just about what they would encounter but also to see if there is still something between them.

F.W. Murnau’s direction is definitely spellbinding not just in some of the simplicity in his direction but also in some of the visual language that he creates. Especially in the way the city is portrayed as some fantasy world that is enthralling and decadent from the view of the woman of the city that is very different from the simple farm life that the man and wife live in. Murnau’s presentation of the farm world does have some bits of stylistic shots yet much of it simple in its medium and wide shots along with a few close-ups. By the time the film moves into the city, it is presented as a world that is just chaotic and lively where the usage of dissolving images and slanted camera angles that are part of the Murnau’s trademarks in the world of German Expressionism.

At times, the images are dizzying but it would play into moments that can be perceived as fantasy that includes a shot of the couple walking in the very busy streets of the city. It is among these images that are just astonishing to watch as Murnau would also employ some lively and comical moments into the film. Even in little moments where a man is trying to fix a woman’s dress while watching a dance where the results are funny. By the time the film moves into the third act which has the protagonists return to the countryside, it does become about what the man and wife had endured and see if there is a possibility of reconciliation or will the man be tempted by this other woman. Especially in what he had seen in the city as well as what is really important to him. Overall, Murnau creates a mesmerizing and evocative film about a man torn between two women and two possible worlds.

Cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss do amazing work with the film‘s black-and-white photography with its unique approach to lighting for some scenes at night as well as creating gorgeous images for some of the scenes set in the day including in some of the interiors such as the photo studio. Editor Harold D. Schuster does fantastic work with the editing with its stylish usage of dissolves, rhythmic cuts, and transitions to not play into the drama but also in capturing the exuberance of the city. Art director Rochus Gliese does brilliant work with the set design from the look of the fair to the design of the home of the husband and wife and the places they go to in the city.

The special effects work of Frank D. Williams does excellent work with some of the film‘s minimal visual effects which were primitive for one of its famed sequences but still has an air of beauty that is effective. The film’s music by Hugo Riesenfeld and Erno Rapee is superb for its orchestral-based score filled with some sound effects to play into the world of the city as well as somber yet lush string-based pieces to play into the drama and romance.

The film’s incredible cast include some notable small performances from Ralph Sippery as a barber, Jane Winton as a manicure girl, Gibson Gowland as an angry driver, Arthur Housman as an obtrusive gentlemen who got in trouble with a lady, Bodil Rosing as the man and wife’s maid, and J. Farrell MacDonald as the photographer who would take a photo of the man and wife. Margaret Livingston is brilliant as the woman of the city who is vacationing at the small town where she seduces the man to kill his wife and present him with this fantasy of city life. Janet Gaynor is amazing as the wife as a young woman who feels hurt and upset over what is going on as she wonders why her husband hasn’t been so loving towards her. Finally, there’s George O’Brien in an excellent performance as the man who is torn between these ideas of city life but also the life he already has with a wife and child where he becomes lost in these decisions where he tries to ponder the choices he is making.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is an outstanding film from F.W. Murnau. Armed with gorgeous visuals, lush music, and a phenomenal cast, the film is truly one of the finest films in the silent era. Especially as it manages to find ways to use sound effects in an imaginative presentation without the need for dialogue or other elements of sound to create a story that has so much to offer. In the end, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a spectacular film from F.W. Murnau.

© thevoid99 2015

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