1927 was a pivotal year in the history of film. A pivotal year, and also a great year.
The roaring twenties were still roaring and money was aplenty. For the past 15 years or so, the making of feature films had seen a rapid development from an unwieldy curiosity into a full-fledged art form. Not only had the use of angles and cutting improved vastly, but the cameras themselves were much more advanced and also more light-weight, allowing for shots that seem modern even today.
Artistically, Hollywood and Europe had gone in separate directions. Hollywood was producing masterworks in the adventure genre with stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. In Germany, a very different style had developed, called German Expressionism. While Hollywood strived for realistic sets and fantastic action, the Germans used sets and techniques which placed the characters in dreamlike, deliberately unrealistic environments. The themes were often the supernatural and macabre.
One of the leading expressionists was F. W. Murnau, mostly remembered today for making Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), the first movie adaptation of Dracula. In the mid 20s he came to Hollywood to make an American expressionist film. The result was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
Sunrise is a true masterpiece, a groundbreaking film and one of the best silents ever made. It is not a horror film (although there are definitely elements of psychological terror in it), but rather a romantic drama. None of the characters are named. They remain throughout the film “The Man”, “The Wife”, and so on, creating perhaps a deliberate distance to the viewer.
Combining his own expressionistic visions with the money and craftsmanship of Hollywood, Murnau was able to create some amazing sets and a story which balances delicately between dream and reality. The acting is exquisite and if some of the character development may seem a bit extreme, that only serves to harmonize with the film’s dramatic imagery.
Sunrise stands as a symbol of the height of the silent film’s artistic achievements, but at the same time, that art form was already doomed. For that very same year another pivotal film was released: The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized sound. Within three years, this would mean the definite end of silent films, and with them the elegant but noisy cameras that made possible much of the visual technique. And that same period would also see the beginnings of the Great Depression. The 1930s would be a totally different society with totally different film-making, for better or worse.
This film is best enjoyed in a calm and relaxed mood.
Addendum, 2014-08-08: Since first writing this review, the version I linked to has been taken down, possibly because of copyright considerations regarding the score. I have now changed the link (and the relevant information below) to point to the only remaining version on the Internet Archive known to me. It has good music, free to distribute, but has low resolution. So low, in fact, that had that version been the only available at the time, this review would not have been written.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Low (400×304)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Ogg (424 M)