"Sunrise": Between two worlds

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.

Then the archetypes of Sunrise proceed to dissolve—quite literally—into something striking and modernist, through Murnau’s innovative use of split screens, projections, and other optical effects.  From the very first shots of the film proper, a whirring montage of urban life which is then juxtaposed against the slow rhythms of the village, Sunrise creates a palimpsest of images representative not only of different spaces but also of different levels of reality and fantasy, the boundaries of which are constantly blurring into each other, perhaps most memorably when the central couple wanders out into traffic in a blissed-out daze, and the busy street dissolves into an enchanted forest.  (A friend of my roommate who happened to wander into the living room in the middle of the film remarked that it was “trippy.”)  The dazzling power of a film like Sunrise has much to do with the instability of its modes and styles, and its fluidity in moving back and forth between the familiar and the new.


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