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"One would hesitate to call any film the finest of its era," wrote William K. Everson in his influential book American Silent Film, "though as a climax to the art of silent film, one could certainly defend that statement if it were applied to Sunrise."
Released in 1927, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans represents the artistic pinnacle of the cinema as a purely visual medium, before the sound revolution changed the way films were made. Everson explains, "It is a textbook illustration not only of what the silent film could achieve despite the lack of dialogue, but, on the contrary, what it could achieve because of it."
George O'Brien stars as a rural farmer adulterously involved with a vacationing city woman (Margaret Livingston). Under her vampish influence, he sells off the family farm and conspires to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor). When he is unable to drown his trusting spouse as planned, he follows her to the city. There, the naive couple rediscover their love as they explore the decadent pleasures of the teeming metropolis. During their trip back to the countryside, a storm capsizes the reunited couple's boat and the young wife is lost. The city woman and the townsfolk begin to suspect that the husband may have committed the foul deed.
The project began when William Fox invited German director F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu , The Last Laugh , and Faust ) to America to make a project of his choice, with almost total creative control. It was common practice for Hollywood studios to recruit the finest actors and filmmakers from other countries' film industries, but it was highly unusual to essentially hand a director the keys to the studio. Murnau was also allowed to bring a handful of German artists to collaborate on the project, and what resulted is a fascinating synthesis of the German visual sensibility with American technical bravado.
The novella upon which the film is based, The Journey to Tilsit (from Hermann Sudermann's Lithuanian Stories, 1917) was a naturalistic fable, but Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer (The Last Laugh, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ) chose to transform it into a modern-day fairy tale. The location became indistinct. Murnau wrote in 1927, "It is neither French nor German nor Italian. It might be called modern, yet it does not comply with the modern standard of any particular nation." The characters were symbolic figures (The Man, The Wife, The Woman from the City) rather than individual personalities. Gaynor remembers how Murnau described her role, "He said that I was to be the spiritual type, but not coldly spiritual. I was to be the kind of woman who is every man's dream of a good wife."
"I'll never forget that first day when he called the three principals together," Gaynor recalled, "and outlined to us his plan for the picture. He was so terribly sincere, as he sat there trying so hard in his halting, though very perfect English, to make his meaning plain. He said Sunrise was to be a study of the melody of life and that the melody was to be expressed by emotion. He wanted to take all the emotions -- the loves, the hates, and the hungers, and even the little whimsical tendernesses -- and blend them all together into one big rhythm."
A crucial component of this fairy tale vision of human emotion was the visual style. Production designer Rochus Gliese created a series of drawings (heavily influenced by German Expressionism), and the filmmakers endeavored to faithfully recreate these stylized sketches on film. This involved the construction of settings tailor-fitted to the camera's perspective.
Although uncredited, Edgar G. Ulmer served as an assistant production designer on Sunrise and later discussed with Peter Bogdanovich his collaboration with Murnau. "Our sets were built in perspective, with rising or sloping floors; everything was constructed through the viewfinder. So what happened was, if you had a room, you could only take one shot in that set. If there were ten shots of it, you built ten sets of that one room; because the one camera eye was the point of the perspective -- the furniture was built in perspective. That's where the great look of the pictures came from; it gave you, of course, a completely controlled style."
In the scenes within the peasant cottages one can find beautiful examples of the stylized perspective and custom-built sets that Ulmer describes. The floors are steeply ramped in the background so actors' feet are visible, and the beds and tables in the foreground are constructed at oblique angles so their surfaces are visible to the camera. In order to have a lamp appear in the extreme foreground of one shot, an oversized prop had to be constructed. Such unusual tasks became a challenge to the Fox Studios prop department. "We found obstacles that my associates had not been called upon before to meet," said Murnau in 1927, "When we needed a smaller or larger wheel than the average we had to make it. When we required a bed that was not constructed according to the specifications of any special period, we had to make it. When we wanted a lamp that was not of the usual proportions, the technical department had to produce it."
This expensive approach was not limited to interior scenes. Swamps were constructed, cityscapes erected and, perhaps most impressive of all, a variety of sets at an amusement park, with the rides and attractions swirled together in unbelievably complex constructions (combining full-size sets and miniatures).
Cinematographer Charles Rosher recalled a scene in the metropolitan cafe, "All the sets had floors that sloped slightly upwards as they receded, and the ceilings had artificial perspectives; the bulbs hanging from them were bigger in the foreground than in the background. We even had dwarfs, men and women, on the terrace. Of course all this produced an amazing sense of depth."
"We forced Winnie Sheehan [head of production] to accept the idea and do all the sets in perspective," Ulmer said, "They had to buy Fox Studios in West L.A. because we didn't have enough space down on Western Avenue."
In one sequence, Murnau wanted to show a dust storm buffeting the amusement park just prior to a rain shower, but in shooting the scene, the rain machine began to pour before the wind machine had finished its job. Rosher recounted the episode to author Lotte Eisner: "'That doesn't matter,' said Sol Wurtzel, of Fox, 'we can do without the sequence where the dust heralds the storm.' But Murnau, whom William Fox had given carte blanche to spend all that he needed to make a spectacular, was implacable: he must have a dust storm first! 'But we've got three thousand extras waiting.' cried Wurtzel. 'Let them go home and come back in three days, when the sets and stands are dry,' answered Murnau. And he wouldn't budge. It cost Fox an enormous amount of money."
In time, Murnau's perfectionism began to test the patience of the studio. Gliese recalled that "Our producer took the precaution of staying with the company in New York for nine months, to undo the damage we did by overspending the budget. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to finish the film."
In the end, the effort and expense were worthwhile. Sunrise was a huge critical success, and the film was awarded Oscars® for Most Unique and Artistic Production (there was not yet a Best Picture category), as well as Best Cinematography. Janet Gaynor won the Academy Award for Best Actress, for this film as well as her work in 7th Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928). Afraid that their luck might not hold out with another high-stakes gamble, Fox restrained Murnau's extravagance in his subsequent films, to the point that Murnau ultimately left the studio system and shot a film in the South Seas with documentarian Robert Flaherty (Tabu, 1931).
Producer: William Fox Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Carl Mayer, based on the novella The Journey to Tilsit by Hermann Sudermann Cinematography: Charles Rosher and Karl Struss
Production Design: Rochus Gliese, assisted by Edgar G. Ulmer and Alfred Metscher
Music: Hugo Riesenfeld
Cast: George O'Brien (The Man), Janet Gaynor (The Wife), Margaret Livingston (The Woman from the City), J. Farrell MacDonald (The Photographer).
by Bret Wood