A story transforming from adultery and attempted murder to one of cinema’s most romantic and uplifting pictures is an unlikely event originating from a wholly unlikely source. Carl Mayer’s The Cabinet of Dr Calagari is the origin of film horror and the birth of German Expressionism whilst F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu ushered in a shadow draped horror icon. However, the first collaboration of these two creatives lead to The Last Laugh, a totally silent emotional downfall captured in new dolly track cinematography. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is arguably their greatest picture and a culmination of artists skilled in creating epic innovations through intimate storytelling.
Mayer’s premise is striking because it should be laughable and earn that dreaded title synonymous with damning criticism. Melodrama is defined as ‘a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions’. This is the basis of all silent cinema. Exaggerated emotional, not psychological, experiences are the hammer to break a wall of silence. Narrative is treated equally by simplifying specifics like location, character background and even names to create an emotional and universal connection.
Mayer’s writing is explicit in this regard, as the commencing titles state – ’This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at anytime’. Characters are definitively labeled archetypes; Man, Wife and The Woman from the City and locations are as broad as the Countryside and the City. The time period itself is unidentifiable, the idyllic country surroundings suggest the past whilst navigating the bustling metropolis suggests the future.
Mayer and Murnau’s choice of leads further this by trading classic screen idols for actors we can deeply empathise with for such human imperfections. George O’Brien is not a classic heart throb but a brute with tenderness, and Janet Gaynor removes oozing sex appeal for innocent purity. O’Brien and Gaynor surge a palpable chemistry in the peculiar heart of the narrative – a couple reverting from weary spouses to giddy lovers over the course of a single day.
Prior to 1927, camera movement was restricted to stasis, pans or the recent dollying technique. Murnau, with the help of cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Strauss, fully liberated the camera as a floating omnipotent eye. This revelation would lay the foundation of cinema’s most beloved scenes; following a feather’s descent in Forrest Gump, a short cut through the Copacabana club in Goodfellas and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil opening.
Murnau wields his invention in favour of intelligent storytelling and atmosphere rather than stylistic excess. Take the scene of the illicit meeting, the omnipotent eye floats effortlessly over the marshland to the city woman dressed elegantly and perfectly composed. The director later mirrors this sequence as the Couple obliviously crosses through careening traffic melting away to visions of their bucolic home before reality rudely blares back. Both scenes further story and imbue symbolism, the first suggest the woman is unnatural in the natural world of Man and Wife, the other strengthens our image of the leads as pure and intimate against an intrusive world.
An unchained camera was a magnificent achievement in 1927 when considering the constant hand cranking required to drag each successive frame for exposure. Complex rigs, wires, suspension and detailed sets created sequences like the swamp sequence. Others, like the cross town traffic scene, were constructed trough further complex travelling matte effects. These techniques were laborious and delicate, requiring multiple exposures, rewinding and masking. The opening image of a colossal train station alone is an elaborate composition of toy trains in the foreground, real extras in the centre and matte painting the background.
Aside from the visual, Sunrise also boasts a progressive experimentation with synchronised sound. In perhaps one of the earliest examples, the adoring couple are characterised by a leitmotif of angelic harps, a device Jaws would scar into audiences in only two notes. Much like Murnau’s cinematography, music illuminates character emotion without dialogue. After dancing, Man’s tipsy and elated head swirls with harps above blaring jazz in an early layering effect. Interestingly, the auteur did include dialogue outside of collective crowd jabber, perhaps the spoken word was as detested as title cards.
1927 was something of a zenith for silent cinema and Murnau stood at the bridge. On one side was silence, on the far side was the landmark talkie The Jazz Singer to usher in the new language of sound. The omnipotent eye would be grounded by clunky sound cameras and dialogue would become expected. Murnau died tragically before sound cinema was the norm but it is impossible to imagine his transition. Murnau had perfected the art of silent storytelling.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, like any good fable, is timeless and simplifies the world into duality. Men are good or evil. There is love or despair. There is life and death. Sunrise taps that human desire for hope of positive transition from evil to good, despair to love and death to life as the sun rises on a new day.
Man and Wife awkwardly alter to the whim of the photographer’s instructions. Man tries to appear dashing, and his Wife elegant. It is unnatural for the couple who helplessly fall into laughter and steal a kiss. The photographer smiles and captures the unusual image for the usual couple.