Friday, February 5, 2010

1927: Sunrise (FW Murnau)

1927: Sunrise (FW Murnau)
I've seen Sunrise twice in theaters.  The first time must have been in France.  But I can't remember the exact year or theater.  The second time was definitely in Los Angeles, probably in 2000, at the Silent Movie Theater.
It had two different musical scores the two times I saw it, which is not terribly uncommon for films of this period.  But, this tendency is something that can really alter the experience for me.  In fact, I wasn't too keen on the second score and remember having a less positive experience the night I saw it at the SMT. 
But, all this to say, I am still fascinated by Sunrise.  It's one of these early movies where you really feel a director, dazzled by all the possibilities of this new medium.  It's been ten years or so since I last saw it, but when I think of it, I remember Murnau's amazing use of the dissolve, some incredible scenery, and of course, one of the greatest "romantic" stories the cinema's ever produced.  
Another Murnau film I like quite a bit that didn't make the list is Tabu. But of the Murnau (often thought of as one of cinema's giants) films I've seen so far, Sunrise would have to be my favorite.

Other contenders for 1927:  There are some highly thought of films from this year that I still have never seen.  These especially include Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven, Josef von Sternberg's Underworld, and Abel Gance's Napoleon.  Other films from this year that I still need to track down are Jean Renoir's Charleston, Alfred Hitchcock's The Ring, Rene Clair's The Italian Straw Hat, Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, and Howard Hawks' Paid to Love.  I have seen Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which I greatly admire.  It pains me a little, to be honest, to put Murnau's film ahead of it.  But, I guess I finally gave the edge to Sunrise because its story grabs me a little more.  I also love the visuals of Buster Keaton's The General. For me, it's the most visually impressive of all of his films I've seen, and one of the greatest visual accomplishments of the period.  I remember watching it and at times my jaw dropping at some of the set pieces and the sheer complexity of some of the things Keaton is doing in the film. Sergei Eisenstein's October, though interesting and somewhat instructive, leaves me a little indifferent.   And, another Keaton film from this year, College, is a fun romp, but I can't remember it for much more than that.

2/13/10 I watched Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven.  It wouldn't contend for my top pick.  As much as I have a soft spot for romance and unrequited love, melodrama like this goes a little too far for me.  

4/16/10 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Ring.  It definitely shows how dark Hitch could be at times and how much he liked to push the boundaries of form.  But it seemed a little flat to me for most of the film.  

3/28/11 I watched Josef von Sternberg's Underworld.  An amazingly important early American crime film as you can almost feel it saying, "Okay, now here will be the shape of the next fifty years of crime films, here are how the characters will act, and here's what they'll look like. " I'm no fan of Bancroft, and he hurt my ability to fully connect.  But von Sternberg's ability to tell a story, create a world, and tell a plot-driven crime film in the silent era are all truly impressive.  And he even finds the time for some great cinematic style and more subtle character moments.  

8/15/13 I watched Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.  Most impressive to me were some of the unusually mobile camera movements for the time and Lubitsch's feel for nature which I have never noticed before.  The story fell a little flat, but I am glad to have finally caught up with this one even if it does not rank among my favorites of the master.  


  1. SUNRISE makes a strong claim to be the greatest film in the history of the cinema; certainly for me it's one of the two greatest silent films ever made, with Dreyer's THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (the latter of which I am thrilled to see as your #1 film of 1928) The moody, atmospheric expressionistic photography by silent master Charles Rosher (who also lenses many of the great Pickford films) in collaboration with Karl Struss resulted in one of the most poetic of films, with a number of justly celebrated set pieces. Janet Gaynor, of course was radiant in the central role that secured her Oscar, and this is Murnau's masterpiece, even with THE LAST LAUGH, NOSFERATU and FAUST in his extraordinary catalogue.
    I saw the film once in a theatre (that is fantastic you saw it in France Jeffrey!!!)
    As far as the 1927 runners-ups, I would go with the following. (Jeffrey, Keaton's THE GERNERAL is actually a 1926 film I believe)

    Napoleon (Gance) This comes the closest to SUNRISE, and is surely one of the five greatest silent films ever. However, the nearly 5 hour version with Carl Davis's score is the one to see. Francis Ford Coppola's truncated edition with his father Carmine's inferior score, is vastly inferior.

    Barbed Wire (Lee)
    Italian Straw Hat (Clair)
    Seventh Heaven (Borzage)
    Wings (Wellman)
    Chess Player (Bernard(
    Hindle wakes (Elvey)

    Terrific presentation here Jeffrey!

  2. Sam, thanks for the fantastic comments here! You really do SUNRISE greater justice than I (I should have included the adjective "poetic" at least once for God's sake!) I'm in total agreement with you. It's one of my favorite silent films. I also would have to include Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS on that list, which unfortuantely fell just behind LA CHIENNE for my 1931 choice. And, of course, I'll be addressing the Dreyer tomorrow.

    Thanks also for the runners-up! I'm a lame 0/6 on my knowledge of those, but I do plan to rectify that at some point. And I will do as I have with my "Favorites of my favorites" post and keep updating this in red as I fill out some of my viewing.

    Great to have your incredible knowledge here, Sam! I really appreciate it.

  3. I would agree with this choice, although I haven't seen many other 1927 releases, so the competition is limited! Still, this is a towering work and among the best of the era that I have seen. That first half is just eerie the whole way through.

    And scratch what I said yesterday about The Lodger being the only 1926 film I could think of. The General would take 1926 for me, because I think that it is a '26 release.

  4. Dave, good to see you here! I completely agree about SUNRISE and the greatness of THE GENERAL. I'm enjoying these and look forward to the years ahead where I've seen a little more of the pot.

  5. As with Faust, I love the way Murnau packs so much into a single film. Let me paraphrase myself from Wonders: with the way the film opens, would you ever imagine that in an hour's time you'd be watching a drunken pig in a nightclub? Great scene with the squishy head on the antique statue as well - lighthearted moments that sometimes get overlooked but really give the film color.

  6. MovieMan, extremely well put! It is another extraordinary film and full of layers.

    Great to have you here!