Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans</strong> (1927)

(On Cable TV, January 2018) As much as I like exploring classic Hollywood and rarely even notice the difference between colour and black-and-white movies, I still have a bit of an uphill climb where silent films are concerned. The lack of sound and use of title cards still draws me out of the story—they compound the fact that it took a while for basic cinematographic grammar to settle down. While sound movies of the 1930s still play decently well today (some films of the late thirties are almost indistinguishable from modern ones in terms of pacing and execution), silent films from the 1920s are another matter entirely. But there are significant exceptions, and as I started watching Sunrise (whom I’ll keep arguing was a Best-Picture Oscar-winner just as surely as Wings), I was struck at the sheer artistic ambition of the film. Scenes aren’t just shot awkwardly and shown simply like many films of the period struggling with the basic grammar of cinema—there are authentic attempts at art, at style, at soliciting emotional responses to the images. Director F. W. Murnau clearly worked at a level above many of his contemporaries and as a result Sunrise works on a basic emotional level that transcends the obstacles in watching a silent film. (Murnau’s decision to often forego title cards as much as he can certainly works in the film’s favour, as it lowers the barriers to watching the action as a continuous unit of storytelling.)  There’s no denying that the film will occasionally feel unpolished by contemporary standard—setting up the antagonist as a scheming “city woman” coming to corrupt the humble city folks is blunt to modern audiences. On the other hand, the film does get better as it goes along, and the unfolding story of an estranged couple getting back in love with each other is effective. By the ending, I was expecting the worst and ended pleased beyond rational expectations at the shape that the ending took. I am grading Sunrise on a curve here, and partially on the novelty of being surprised at a silent film’s effectiveness. This being said, I now understand and approve of seeing the film pop up on AFI’s Top-100 list, or mentioned as one of the great silent films. It still has things to tell us today, and it’s effective at a basic narrative level rather than just an imposed exercise in film history.

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