Several years ago I wrote about how the pleasures of American silent cinema so often resemble the pleasures of the 19th-century realist novel—something that Sergei Eisenstein (among others) began theorizing even before silent movies went the way of the horse and carriage. For me, those pleasures have to do with well-made plots, melodramatic turns, crashing sentimentality, brushes of Gothic gloom. One of the things that make such films exciting is the way they yoke together these old-fashioned conventions with the speed and kineticism of cinema as a modern technology.
I’m thinking about this now in the wake of having re-watched F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), an extraordinary film by any standard. A cynical viewer would see its plot as driven by the hoariest of clichés; a more generous one would see it as a film working within the realm of archetype, in which familiar structures and oppositions (night/day, country/city) are drawn upon in order to evoke a kind of universal dramatic power. This is a film, after all, that establishes its characters as figures out of time and space; nameless, they are meant to stand for men and women everywhere, and the logic of the plot is that of fairy tales, with true love acting as a kind of magic antidote to death.