Master of German Expressionism, Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau was along G.W. Pabst and Fritz Lang the most important German director of its time. He is also one of the main influence on the young career of Alfred Hitchcock. It is interesting and also a little unsettling how Patrick McGilligan in his biography of Hitchcock, A Life in Darkness and Light, emphasizes on Murnau’s influence first, and also his sexuality. The German being a notable homosexual, McGilligan wrote that it had an important effect on Hitchcock at the time. However, the quality of Murnau’s German films: The Phantom, Nosferatu, Faust, and The Last Laugh and the fact that they are multiple times celebrated masterpieces can’t lie on his effect on any filmmaker of the 1920’s. In 1927, Murnau was invited by the Fox studios in Hollywood for whom he directed Sunrise, the most sublime and accomplished Silent Film of all time. Sadly, in 1931 Murnau died from a road accident at only 42 years old. Nonetheless, the films he left behind are enough to place him amongst the pantheon of directors. Imagine just if he could have lived twenty or thirty years older how many great films he could have had directed. We’ll never know for sure but let’s have a look at his greatest film: Sunrise.
It’s been almost a decade since I’ve seen Sunrise for the first time, I was slowly discovering Mediafilm’s list of masterpieces following my recent love for Murnau’s Nosferatu. The university where I was doing my degree in History had a decent DVD version of Sunrise in its library and I rented it in order to place this giant name into my references. Naively, I wasn’t prepare to fully digest such a cornerstone of the Seventh Art. It is indeed a piece of Art of grand beauty and mastery.
The story of a married farmer (George O’Brien) tempted by his mistress (Margaret Livingston) to get out of his life and get rid of his wife (Janet Gaynor) is the center story of this masterpiece. The mistress is a woman from the city and she tries to convince the man that they could live a passionate love story in the city if he gets rid of his wife. In 1927, it was more than a reality that there was a duality between the people of the country and the people of the cities. The late ones were still considered as evil or mad because of the industries, the stress, and the many problems like the lack of space, time, and the fast evolution of technologies. Just look at another masterpiece of the same year from fellow German, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The depiction of the city and the future is not so bright while being on the spot. So it is more than appropriate to understand that Murnau’s temptress comes from the city. It also carries a romantic vision of the country and no matter how appealing the city looks the country side still is where the roots of men and women are. It is also the translation of the intense and human emotions on the screen with the minimum title cards for a Silent Film. Murnau wanted to almost get rid of them and be able to tell his story with only his visual mise en scène and exact directing of the actors.
Beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted Murnau’s masterpiece depicts the perfect Silent film and it will always be listed as the ultimate mastery of this media. Furthermore, it is one of the best films of all time and it is celebrated in many lists and tops. Personally, I love Sunrise but I prefer Nosferatu over because of the little flaws and the eerie cinematography. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a must see and a highly recommended flawless film.