Essential viewing: 'Sunrise' and the last glorious days of the silent film era

Essential is a series by Dallas Morning News writers spotlighting timeless works of art and culture.

Essential Viewing: Sunrise (1927, directed by F.W. Murnau)

The silent film era ended for most intents and purposes in 1927. The death happened slowly, as movie theaters were outfitted for the emergence of sound, and seismically, as The Jazz Singer became a smash hit and a cultural sensation. It was enough of a miracle when the pictures started moving at the end of the 19th century. Now they were talking, too. These were days of wonder.

But silent film still had a few arrows in its quill, none more glorious than F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. It's the apotheosis of silent cinema, the flowering of a form that lay on its deathbed. It marked the peak of Murnau's career, which also included the proto-vampire thriller Nosferatu. And it remains a luminous example of pure cinema, the kind that conveys story and meaning through visual ecstasy, no words needed.

Heavily allegorical ā€” the two main characters are simply called The Man and The Wife ā€” Sunrise conjures blissful abstraction from universal themes. It as, as they sing in Beauty and the Beast, a tale as old as time, or at least as old as 19th-century melodrama: a man (George O'Brien) lives a simple life with his faithful wife (Janet Gaynor, who won an Oscar for her performance) and their small child in a country village. Temptation comes calling in the form of a woman from the city (in sticking with the allegory, she is actually billed as The Woman From the City). She wants to sweep The Man away and into the urban high life. She suggests maybe he could murder his wife and run away.

The visual innovation begins in this setup, as the city gal, a vampish flapper, seduces her prey with descriptions of big-city life. We can't hear her, of course, so Murnau superimposes images of frantic urbanity over their heads as the city gal dances madly. No film uses dissolves and superimposed images quite like Sunrise. Murnau was a master of layering images within the frame, synthesizing one shot with another to create an effect bigger and richer than either individual impression. The fact that he did all of this in the camera, without the aid of postproduction effects, makes his feat all the more remarkable.

Murnau and Fritz Lang (Metropolis, M) were the giants of German Expressionism, a style that would go on to have a massive influence on American film noir. The unnamed city of Sunrise is a visual cacophony of extreme camera angles, forced perspective and unwieldy crowds. When The Man and The Wife visit a carnival, their senses are bombarded along with ours. A pig escapes from a park attraction and proceeds to get drunk on a bottle of wine left spilled on the floor. We even get a close-up of the pig's face. City life is a surreal mechanism here; one could draw a line between Murnau's vision and the foibles faced by Jacques Tati in his satires of modern living.

Through it all, the camera moves, and moves and moves. The best late silent films move the camera as a means of opening up cinematic space, creating possibilities for greater realism and lyricism. It's still funny to watch the static quality of many early sound films, where the primary concern was where to hide the microphone.

Sound technology would quickly improve, and filmmakers would adapt to the brave new world. But some still insist sound knocked visual innovation down a peg at a time when the likes of Murnau were reaching new heights. Sunrise is a sterling piece of evidence for this argument. It's a visual feast that speaks beautiful volumes without ever uttering a word.

You can watch Sunrise on DVD or stream it on YouTube or Amazon.

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