The history of cinema is filled with tales of once prestigious films now relegated to the dustbin of history. Such is the fate of the silent version of Ben Hur from 1926. Others, such as Citizen Kane and Rules of the Game, victims of bad release timing, distribution ineptitude, or censorship, see their status grow through the decades. F. W.Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is such a film. Ironically, while Ben Hur occupies a full chapter in Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By… Sunrise merits less than a full page in his 1968 history of silent film and then only in the context of a chapter on the career of cinematographer Charles Rosher.
Sunrise did not prove to be a popular film at the time of its release. It opened at the end of the silent era when audiences were clamoring for sound. It debuted in larger markets with an effects, music, and a few non-synchronous words, on a soundtrack in the new Fox Movietone sound-on-film system; since it was filmed as a silent picture it posted inter-titles rather than dialogue. In this sense it is a real anomaly, not quite a silent, not quite a sound film. And the brilliant German director whose American career promised to be boundless on his arrival in Hollywood, did not even live to see his film rehabilitated as one of the great movies of all time; he died at 43, within a few years of its release, in a car accident near Santa Barbara.
It is the DVD and home video market that is largely responsible for the revival of interest in this film. Like most badly preserved silent films, it was often judged harshly by later audiences—until digital techniques that could restore contrast and resolution, as well as adjust the projection speed, revealed its once lost photographic subtleties. Even worse, the original negative was lost in a fire in 1937 in Fox’s New Jersey storage facility; subsequent prints (until one from an alternate European version was found recently in the Czech Republic) were made from a di-acetate print or from a damaged dupe negative. One of the reasons the film may have failed at the time of its release despite critical acclaim is readily apparent to an audience today. It is really a foreign film—a German Expressionist one at that, but made in Hollywood. It represents along with a few German films of the mid-twenties, the apogee of the silent era, films that had all but conquered the apparent limitations of the mute medium. At the end of “The Talking Picture” chapter of Brownlow’s book there is a quote from Mary Pickford about the merits of sound versus silent cinema. She says, “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way around.” I also remember cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, hardly a man of the silent era, saying in an interview in the film Visions of Light that movies were all downhill after the introduction of sound, a perspective shared by many cinematographers.
In recent years so much has been written about Sunrise that it is more than time for an anthology of critical essays to be published. But the film itself is now readily accessible and it reveals its riches on multiple viewings. We are fortunate to have several versions to choose from. In 2003 Fox Studios released a beautifully restored version for home video without overworking the film by exploiting digital tricks. After the restoration was done, I was asked to provide a commentary track for the DVD. Having loved this film since I was a film student, having met Struss at a museum retrospective, and having collected his still photography, I felt a special connection to him. I initiated what research I could at that time to help me place the film in the context of its era’s aesthetics.
The only problem with this DVD release was that it was not available for separate purchase, but was gifted by submission of a coupon after purchase of a boxed set of other Fox classics. But, a few years later another edition was released through the British Film Institute, and then last year came a 12 DVD box set from Fox that includes a number of films of Murnau and Borzage:
Just recently a Blu-Ray version has also appeared. All of these iterations have included the commentary track, which is a running shot-by-shot discussion, principally of the production design and cinematography. Some reviewers have found the perspective of a working cinematographer to be interesting; some would have preferred a more historical analysis from the perspective of critical studies— but that semantic thicket is my own personal bête noire.
In June 1926 Murnau arrived in Hollywood at the invitation of William Fox to begin production on a film of his choosing; he was promised full creative control with unlimited resources—and he used them. The resultant film, Sunrise, was from a story by Hermann Sudermann, with a scenario written by Carl Mayer. The art director was Rochus Gliese. Much of the initial pre-production was done in Germany; Gliese even built some of the set miniatures there and had them transported to Hollywood. Sunrise reveals its Germanic roots in every way imaginable. It looks and feels like a German Expressionist film but exploits all the technical resources of a major American studio.
For the clips that will be referenced here the YouTube version will be helpful as time markers only. The image quality is poor, so please secure one of the DVD versions readily available in order to watch the whole film.
The opening montage section, “Vacation Time,” like all of the even more complex multiple exposure sequences throughout the film, was done in camera on a single strand of film, by masking part of the frame, then rewinding and exposing another section.
Sunrise was made several years before optical printers were developed; some of the really intricate city montage sequences had well over a dozen separate exposures. It is believed that Struss rather than Rosher executed these scenes as principal cinematographer; this was exactly the kind of technical material that was red meat to him.
The film’s first full scene, about three minutes into the clip, shows a boat arriving at a lakeside dock and the passengers disembarking. The approaching village looks positively Old World, but the entire set was built and shot at Lake Arrowhead in the Southern California mountains. We know that the cinematography of this sequence was the work of Struss alone; Rosher was ill at the time and missed the first week or so of filming. There is a wonderful rising crane shot from on board the boat that reveals the village; it drops again as the boat docks.
Next, there is a cut to an interior scene that introduces the Woman from the City. As she moves about the room where she is staying, we see the sloped floors built with a rake, much like a Broadway stage. This and the forced perspective of her room and the dining room where the older couple is eating soup at a tilted table with a somewhat diagonally hanging lamp, show dramatically the Expressionist art direction that will pervade the interiors of the entire film.
At about four minutes, forty seconds into this clip the woman exits the house at night. The camera records it in deep focus, from the foreground couple watching, all the way to her at the distant door.
As she crosses the lens the camera pans and tracks with her, swinging around to follow her from behind as she approaches the man’s house and calls out to him. Like the famous scene in the swamp a few minutes later, this shot was likely done with the camera suspended from an overhead track. The man hears her call out and decides to sneak out of the house even as his wife prepares dinner.
As he puts on his jacket and exits frame, we can clearly see the sloped floor and false perspective. After his exit the empty frame holds for a long, almost Antonioni-like moment, until the wife enters.
The next clip contains the most famous scene in the film, the meeting at the swamp between the Woman from the City and the Man.
It opens with another overhead tracking shot that sweeps across the marsh, over a fence, pans off the man, and becomes his POV as it clears some bushes to reveal the Woman waiting; a full moon backlights her. We know that Struss operated this shot; his Bell & Howell camera had an electric motor and it freed him from hand-cranking so he could pan and tilt to follow the circuitous walk.
The man then enters his own POV. The couple engages in an intense love scene; the Woman tries to entice the Man to drown his wife and come with him to the city.
There is a rapid montage fantasy of the city, done with highly stylized miniatures and in a dizzying, surreal abstraction. It gives way at 4:00 to a brief multi-exposure scene of frenzied dancing and a jazz band playing, before dissolving back to the swamp:
The entire film is filled with many virtuoso shots that can go easily unnoticed, so intense is the unfolding drama. This story of love, adultery, betrayal, expiation, forgiveness and re-found love is so elemental in its raw simplicity that it has invited deep positive reactions as well as scorn from generations of viewers. Seldom has a film narrative been so visually sophisticated and so humanly raw. The art direction and cinematography create a fascinating dialogue between the scenic stylization and the primal emotional performances of George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor.
There are a number of film historians and critics who have written very insightfully about this film. Here are a few links to their essays. The first one, by Roger Ebert, best describes the state of Hollywood movies at the time of Murnau’s arrival. It is also clear just how much Ebert loves the film, a personal revelation, not usually common to critics:
This next one is from Edward Lamberti on a London re-release:
This next link provides both an historical slant on the film, full of production details, as well as a discussion of the 2003 restoration for DVD in the Fox Studio Classics series. It was written by Mark Bourne.
And here is a discussion of the Masters of Cinema edition and the recently discovered Czech alternate version that is almost 15 minutes shorter. It includes many comparative frame grabs:
The next section I’d like to look at begins when the couple is already in the city and they watch a church wedding. The man experiences remorse for his infidelity and murderous thoughts.
He begs his wife for forgiveness; they exit the church as if their own vows had been renewed at the altar. From behind, we see them walk though the din of traffic; as they walk, the scene dissolves into a sylvan glade, then back to the city as they have stopped traffic with a kiss in the middle of the street; klaxons sound, breaking their reverie. The stopped traffic in front of them is captured either by rear projection (as Nestor Almendros believes):
They were walking on a roller (conveyor belt) and behind them was a projected film which included the dissolve from the city to the country, and back to the city.
Or, it may have been done by another complex matte shot, as we see in a famous photo of grips carrying a black backing in front of Gaynor and O’Brien.
After a series of cutaway inserts, we see the couple standing in traffic, but now in a production shot with live background; an angry driver comes into frame to berate them.
There is a clear mismatch in the traffic positions, as well as the angle of the sun, between the production shots and the matte ones. This clip begins with their exit from the church at 2:00 and the camera follows them at 2:30. The camera booms down (or possibly is descending the ramp on the church steps). The in camera dissolve begins at 2:45 and at 3:25 the cutback is to a production shot with the driver coming up to the couple from off frame right as they kiss.
It is known that Struss made the camera notes for the footage and frame matching in this scene; in the photo with the grips and the black backing, we see him standing on the church steps next to the camera as it dollies behind the couple.
In June of 2003 American Cinematographer Magazine re-published an analysis of Sunrise that was extracted from a 1984 student seminar conducted by Nestor Almendros, ASC. Writer Rachel Bosley has a sidebar at the end of the article that explains in detail how the 2003 Fox restoration was made; this new video master became the reference for all subsequent issues of the film. Here is the link to the Almendros/Bosley article:
Like Citizen Kane, Murnau’s masterpiece fared poorly at the box office and like the Welles film it became for many years more of an historical citation than a film seen. In many ways, Sunrise anticipated a lot of the production design and cinematography conceits that have become so familiar to us in Citizen Kane. Unlike Gregg Toland who was able to use a high-speed 24mm lens to accomplish his deep focus effects, Struss and Rosher had to content themselves (per Almedros) with a 35mm lens for the wider shots. But it is this lens that captures the illusion of great depth through the planning of Rochus Gliese’s raked and forced perspective sets. Though Gliese was also nominated for an Academy Award, he did not win. My own suspicion is that his work was just too far out of the Hollywood mainstream and too deeply embedded in the dark shadows of Caligari-esque Expressionism for the Oscar to find a home on Rochus’ own raked mantel.
Sunrise is a film easy for cinephiles to appreciate on the level of its technical brilliance. More problematic for many people is its very open display of raw emotion. This mix of sophisticated technique and elemental drama may sit uncomfortably with some contemporary viewers. Scarcely more than a decade separates Citizen Kane from Sunrise; yet it is one that saw a major revolution in filmmaking technology. Some film historians have insisted that silent and sound cinema are almost different mediums. This is not a difficult case to make if you compare the sophistication of late silent German Expressionist films to the first few years of sound films. It can be argued that it was not until Citizen Kane, with its overlapping and rushing dialogue, that sound film truly began to equal the heady freedom that silent cinema had in its visuals.
One of the great unanswered questions in film history is what might have happened to American cinema had Murnau lived and continued working deep into the sound era the way that Ford, Hitchcock, Walsh, Dwan, King, and Wellman did. What if he and Struss had formed a real ongoing relationship? Would purely commercial factors have consigned Murnau to the margins of film production, since his two films after Sunrise also were commercial failures? Or would the old studio system have found a place for such an idiosyncratic artist? Would Struss have had a partner whose visual sophistication and daring rose to the level of his own inherent abilities? Sadly, we will never know.
Murnau’s last film was a docu/drama called Tabu co-written and produced with Robert Flaherty. It was not meant to be a studio film and its making was not a happy experience for either men, both of whom displayed outsized egos during the filming. The one bright spot is that Floyd Crosby received an Academy Award for his cinematography; it was also a validation of the powerful visual acumen that Murnau exercised in all his work. But he died in that auto crash just a few weeks before the film’s premiere.
A measure of the regard that Murnau had in the international film industry were the filmmakers attending his funeral: Robert Flaherty, Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo, and Fritz Lang were, sadly, among the scant eleven people in attendance. It was Lang who gave the eulogy.
As I’ve done research for this piece on Sunrise I’ve realized how little is widely known about the actual making of the film. Even Lotte Eisner’s book on Murnau is not especially revealing. I would enjoy sharing any new information from a scholar. I also want to say that though my emphasis on Sunrise is focused on the known contributions of Struss, it is not my intention to neglect Charles Rosher’s work. It was Rosher who brought Struss onto the film.
And as a final word, I would encourage you, even if you feel you know this film, to find one of the restored editions and view it with fresh eyes. It will be a reminder yet again of what a magnificent history we have in silent film, which grew from nickelodeon amusement to high dramatic art in a mere two decades.