Saturday, February 25, 2012

F. W. Murnau | Sunrise

town and country
by Douglas Messerli

Carl Mayer (scenario, based on a story by Hermann Sudermann), Katherine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell (titles), F. W. Murnau (director) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans / 1927

Recognized as one the greatest movies ever made, F. W. Murnau's Sunrise uses a dazzling montage of imagery to tell one of the simplest of stories. Although Murnau's script, written by Carl Mayer, was based on an early Hermann Sudermann story, published in his Lithuanian Stories of 1917, the plot will remind American readers of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy of 1925—although with a much happier ending.

      A young farmer, simply called The Man (George O'Brien), has fallen in love with a woman from the city (The Woman from the City) (Margaret Livingston), ignoring his formerly beloved wife (The Wife) (Janet Gaynor) and their new baby. The intrigue of the story, in fact, has begun before the movie, and what we observe is simply the result of the affair and its aftermath.

      Called out into the night by the evil city woman, the man is overwhelmed by his love for the dark stranger, while the wife is left suffering alone. The city woman suggests that her lover join her in the city, and when he asks "What about my wife?" she has a dreadful suggestion: "Well, couldn't she drown?" Momentarily the man is outraged, but her kisses and embraces mesmerize him, and the plan is suddenly underway, as she suggests he buddle together bulrushes, like a surviving Moses, to help him float away from the boat after he has overturned it, drowning his wife.

     Despite his reluctance and obvious feelings of guilt, he invites his wife on a trip across the water, which she mistakenly perceives as a new chance for romance. Murnau brilliantly creates a sense of tension as the boat begins its voyage by having the family dog break its chains, jump into the water, and swim out toward them. They return to land where the man again tethers the dog before proceeding. The wife, delighted by the prospect of travel, is all smiles, dressed in her best bonnet; but the darkness and grimness of her husband gradually registers upon her face, changing it to fear and doubt. When he rises, ready to commit the dreadful act, she is suddenly aware of her fate, and pleads for her life. The man suddenly regrets his actions and rows to land, whereupon she races from him, catching a nearby trolley on its voyage to the city.

     He catches up to the trolley and joins her, attempting to reassure that will no longer hurt her. So has the couple unintentionally begun a journey into a world opposite of theirs. The rest of the story is one of discovery and reconciliation as the two attend a wedding, visit a barber, dine out, drink wine, and even dance. They are treated much like the country bumpkins they are: they are overwhelmed by the wine, encouraged to dance a peasant dance, and, at one point, even race after an escaped pig, the man capturing the beast who has created a furor in the music hall. Love and joy is rekindled, reflected most in of their quiet boat ride home—that is until the director riles up a terrific storm, wherein they are certain to be drowned. Pulling out the hidden bulrushes, the man straps them upon his wife's back, as he dives in to attempt to swim back to land.

     He is successful, but his wife appears to have not survived as he and others search the waters after the storm. An older neighbor, however, travels "around the point" where he knows the currents move, finding the nearly drowned wife and bringing her home to safety. The couple fondly look upon one another as the sun rises, the woman from the city returning to whence she has come.

     It is an almost mythical story, played out in polar oppositions, sunrise/sunset, light/dark, farm/city, quiet/noise, etc., and Murnau uses those elements to convey his film almost without any dialogue; there are just a few story boards. Still, if that were all there was to this film, it would be simply a slight melodrama, a tale of infidelity and its results. It is Murnau's brilliant use of images that brings this film to such significance.

     Although much of the film was shot in Lake Arrowhead, California, the farm setting looks like something out of the Baltic instead of any American space. The thatched huts at the edge of a what might be a huge lake seem an unlikely place for plowing, the raising of chickens and hogs. It is a fairytale world that is as unreal as the huge urban landscape of Murnau's city which might remind one of Paris or Berlin, but looks little like any American city I've seen. The huge glass-vaulted railroad station, the cavernous restaurant space, the crowded dancehall, the intense traffic of this city—all exaggerated by the director's numerous superimpositions of images (created in the camera itself by blocking out certain parts of scene and reshooting over them)—is something right out of German Expressionism or even Futurist art. This American film, the only one to win an Oscar for "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production," is, one might claim, the most un-American-looking film ever made in this country, which is perhaps what makes it an even more thrilling artifact, wowing us with its magical sets and images.

      The film also is far different in tone from what it might have been in other hands. Although Sudermann's story clearly is a rural apologia—a work in which the simple beauty and quietude of country life is presented as superior to urban living—in Murnau's hands the city wins out. For while the loving couple at film's end have returned to country life, their redemption has taken place through the vast energy of city living, even if it has been just for a day. And the film itself truly comes to life in its urban landscape. The last third of the movie is almost enervating after what Murnau has already shown us. The quietude of sunrise denotes a kind a protective stasis, in which both creators and audience can have little interest. And it is just that earlier dark fascination of energy and artificed beauty that so attracts The Man to The Woman from the City, that so overwhelms him he is ready to kill for it. This farm couple may live happily ever after, but for the audience it can only signify an "end" and is no longer of interest to us, and in that sense these characters metaphorical die, while we long for that glorious trolley ride and the clamorous adventure waiting at its destination.

Los Angeles, February 24, 2012


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