Friday, May 25, 2012

Wordless Wednesdays: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

I got kind of lucky with this one; Sunrise was originally planned to be April's "Wordless Wednesday" screening at the Brattle, which mean I would have missed it in order to see Independent Film Festival Boston's opening night, but there was a scheduling issue of some sort and it got bumped to May. Of course, this does mean that I missed a different Murnau last month (City Girl).

I liked it quite a bit, although it did take me until I was actually writing the review to really appreciate its inside-out story structure. That's not to say I disliked it while watching the movie, even if I did look at my watch at a certain point because it seemed like the end of the movie but couldn't be. I found myself thinking that given bits were OK (and noting that it does sort of seem to have that "modular" feeling that many silents have), but because I felt like the movie was past its natural endpoint, I sort of discounted their worth.

A little knowledge, it seems, can be a dangerous thing.

Of course, it is subtitled "A Song of Two Humans", and songs don't necessarily have the same patterns as narratives. It does strike me as somewhat interesting that there's no real "written by" credit like we would typically see today. Hermann Sudermann is credited with the "original theme", Carl Mayer with the "scenario", and Katherine Hilliker & H.H. Caldwell with "titles", and none of those credits really seems to go to the story's structure.

I must admit, I find myself kind of surprised that this isn't available on home video except as an import - Fox put out a limited edition DVD ten years ago, but it's sold out at Amazon. Hopefully this new-ish restoration and a divisible-by-five anniversary year will have it available once again soon.

(Also: for some reason, I was under the impression that this was a long, stretched-out silent, but it's quite a manageable length. I wonder what I had it confused with.)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 May 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Wordless Wednesdays, 35mm)

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise has an odd-sounding subtitle ("A Song of Two Humans") which marks it as being decidedly from another era, and watching it confirms that feeling. It's from early enough in the history of cinema that its story is iconic rather than generic, but also comes from late enough in the silent era that its technique has been impressively refined. List-makers often call it "great" or "essential", and it's hard to argue with those categorizations.

During the summer, city folk often come down to the country for a vacation, and one woman (Margaret Livingston) has stayed longer than most. It's not so much for the fresh air, though; she's carrying on an affair with a handsome farmer (George O'Brien), who has sold much of his stock and put himself in hock to money-lenders for her. She wants him to come back to the city, but what, he asks, of his wife (Janet Gaynor)? Well, the woman asks, couldn't she possibly drown? A plan is hatched, but the man is not the murderous type, and soon finds himself literally and figuratively pursuing his wife anew.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Sunrise is that the story arguably reaches its emotional climax right around the midway point: Once the man and his wife have observed the young couple's wedding, it is clear that the most important journeys have ended and questions resolved, and it's not long until a perfect fade-to-credits scene appears; you could end the movie right there and it would be perfect, if short. And yet, Murnau and company keep going - in fact, most of the film's most memorable scenes happen after that scene, in complete defiance of conventional structure. It's a testament to the work of all involved that the second half of the film is not just an extended bit of wheel-spinning, but a frequently-delightful portrait of young love rediscovered that is beautiful in its own right. The movie is almost inside-out, and yet it works well enough that the audience either doesn't notice its unorthodox shape at all or wonders why movies have become so formalized.

Full review at EFC.

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