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February 07, 2011

Sunrise - Classic Film Pick

Sunrise F.W. Murnau's first American film is a tour de force of silent filmmaking. The celebrated German director of "Nosferatu" emigrated to Hollywood in 1926 to make a movie about a universal married couple. "Sunrise" is subtitled "A Song of Two Humans" as a way of reinforcing the story's theme: the universality of threatened love. George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor brilliantly play an unnamed peasant couple who live in a small lakeside village with their young child. Deadly temptation tugs at the heart and mind of O'Brien's patriarchal character, here in the form of an opportunistic vacationing city woman who convinces the farmer to kill his wife so they can be together. Cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss create fascinating split-screen and double-exposure camera effects that are stunning even by modern standards. Murnau's exquisite use of juxtaposed Expressionist set designs with subjective camera angles, pans, and zooms take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Using very few intertitles, "Sunrise" is a visual cornucopia. The film would work perfectly without them. Indeed, Murnau used no such text narration on his previous film "The Last Laugh" (1924). Natural light sources play an important role in evoking the shadows of mood which hang over every scene. Incorporating melodrama, comedy, romance, and fantasy, Murnau freely plays with genre, all the while remaining true to the story's humanist focus.
It's pointless to discuss the story beyond its initial parameters. To do so would be to give away secrets that any audience coming to the film for the first time will want to discover for themselves. There is a timeless poetry at play in "Sunrise" that takes your breath away. The performances are not purely representational, but they are polished with layers of nuance that Murnau's patient camera captures unmistakably. The film's dreamlike quality allows it to stay with you. You can't help but fall under its spell.


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