Friday, February 26, 2010

Notes on my Favorite Films (Year By Year) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

1927 was one hell of a great year for film, so it is a particularly hard 12 month period to to pick a favorite movie from. Works like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, Clarence G. Badger’s It and Edmond Goulding’s Love are all extremely influential and distinctive films made that could have gone on the top of my list, along with several others from 1927. For my favorite though, I would have to go with the beautiful and haunting Sunshine: A Song of Two Humans, the legendary first American film from German Expressionism director F. W. Murnau.
I first came into contact with Murnau’s Oscar winning film starring Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien and Margaret Livingston in the early nineties in an otherwise terrible film class I took at college. Long before the days before Blu-Ray and High-Def, we were forced to watch the film via a rather poor VHS copy on a small TV set. My spot in the room that day was worse than usual, and I still remember having to lean in an awkward way in an effort to get a good look at Murnau’s unbelievably unique cinematic vision.
Murnau is probably most famous among modern day film goers for his 1922 production, Nosferatu. I am far from being student of Murnau’s films and will admit that Nosferatu and Sunrise are the only two I have seen. Outside of the fact that both films are such memorable and original creations, I have always been taken by the way that Murnau incorporates nature in both works. Sunrise in particular is as far removed from most of the stuffy shot-in-studio productions of the day, as Murnau makes rather devastating use of the California Lake Arrowhead shooting locations.

Sunrise is also famous for Murnau’s ahead of his time set designs, something harking back to his Expressionism days, as well as for some astonishing long tracking shots. Sunrise is so ahead of its time that even eighty years later you can still see its influence on a work like P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood. It is also an incredibly experimental work and it remains one of the most daring Hollywood backed productions of the silent era.

Going along with the way Murnau incorporates the California landscape in Sunrise, my favorite thing about the film is just how much he lets his images and actors tell the story. Title-cards are used very sparingly in the film, certainly much less than many other films from the period, and Murnau smartly relies of the wondrous Gaynor and O’Brien to communicate the films storyline. It’s a true silent film and a tribute to the power of it.

Sunrise has had a rather frustrating home video history and it remains not the easiest film to come by. Used copies of the limited edition DVD can still be found at Amazon although the 2009 Blu-Ray version has apparently already slipped out of print (actually, check the comments for more info on this matter). Track it down anyway you can though, as it is an unforgettable film from one of cinema’s earliest masters.


Jeffrey Goodman said...

Great piece! I particularly like this sentence of yours and couldn't agree more:

"Sunrise in particular is as far removed from most of the stuffy shot-in-studio productions of the day, as Murnau makes rather devastating use of the California Lake Arrowhead shooting locations."

I recently saw Murnau's FAUST, which is a more difficult watch, but I would recommend it. I thought it was really powerful stuff. I also read that it's one of Michael Mann's ten favorite films of all time, and I thought that was interesting.

Josh said...

This is one of my favorite films of all time and the Blu-ray is in fact still in print. It is a UK only release which is why it's priced so high in the US store. It goes for £15.88 right now on Amazon UK (they'll drop the VAT off when you checkout which pretty much covers shipping), is a region free movie, includes both the US and Czech versions of the film and looks amazing (for what an 80 year old film can look like).


Amazon UK page

DVD Beaver Review with high def screen caps and comparisons.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Jeffrey!
I wrote this rather quickly this morning before work so I hope it is readable. I have been correcting typos since posting it. I will absolutely check out FAUST, thanks for recommending it!

Thank you Josh for that info and those links. I have updated the post to let folks know to check the comments. Thanks again!

MrJeffery said...

great writeup. one of the best all time films. still dazzling all these years later.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thank you very much MrJeffery!

MovieMan0283 said...

Great feature here, I'm a sucker for countdowns, particularly chronological. And this would probably be my pick for '27 too (though I haven't seen It or Love).

Check out Faust and let me know what you think - it's probably my favorite Murnau and visually, his most striking (which is saying quite a bit).