The camera's freedom to move is taken for granted in these days
of the Steadicam, the lightweight digital camera, and even special effects that
reproduce camera movement. A single unbroken shot can seem to begin with an
entire city and end with a detail inside a window -- consider the opening of
"Moulin Rouge!" (2001). But the camera did not move so easily in the
cameras employed in the first silent films were lightweight enough to be picked
up and carried, but moving them was problematic because they were attached to
the cameraman, who was cranking them by hand. Camera movement was rare; the
camera would pan from a fixed position. Then came tracking shots -- the camera
literally mounted on rails, so that it could be moved along parallel to the
action. But a camera that was apparently weightless, that could fly, that could
move through physical barriers -- that kind of dreamlike freedom had to wait
until almost the last days of silent films. And then, when the talkies came and
noisy sound cameras had to be sealed in soundproof booths, it was lost again
for several years.
Murnau's "Sunrise" (1928) conquered time and gravity with a freedom
that was startling to its first audiences. To see it today is to be astonished
by the boldness of its visual experimentation. Murnau was one of the greatest
of the German expressionists; his "Nosferatu" (1922) invented the vampire
movie, and his "The Last Laugh" (1924) became famous for doing away
altogether with intertitles and telling the story entirely with images.
to the United States by William Fox to make a film for his new studio, Murnau
worked with the cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss to achieve an
extraordinary stylistic breakthrough. The Murnau admirer Todd Ludy wrote:
"The motion picture camera -- for so long tethered by sheer bulk and naiveté
-- had with 'Sunrise' finally learned to fly."
film was released at the very moment when silent films were giving way to
sound; "The Jazz Singer" was already making its way into theaters.
Murnau's film actually had a soundtrack, avoiding dialogue but using music and
sound effects in sync with the action. By the next year, audiences would want
to hear the actors speaking, and that led to an era of static compositions and
talking heads, unforgettably lampooned in "Singin' in the Rain."
in what Peter Bogdanovich calls the greatest year in Hollywood history, when
silent films reached perfection and then disappeared, "Sunrise" was
not a box-office success, but the industry knew it was looking at a
masterpiece. When the first Academy Awards were held, the top prize was shared:
"Wings" won for "best production," and "Sunrise"
won for "best unique and artistic picture."
story can be told in a few words. It is a fable, denying the characters even
names; the key players are The Man (George O'Brien), The Wife (Janet Gaynor,
also an Oscar winner that year), and The Woman from the City (Margaret
Livingston). In a quaint lakeside village, the city woman has come for a
holiday, and lingered on to seduce and entrap the man.
a remarkable early sequence, we see her smoking in her room, prowling
restlessly in lingerie, and then walking through the village to the lighted
window of the man's cottage, where she whistles (there is a low and ominous
musical note on the soundtrack). Inside the cottage, the man hears her, we see
torment and temptation in his face, and finally he slips out of the cottage;
when his wife returns to the table with their dinner, he is gone, and the movie
juxtaposes her embracing their child and the woman from the city embracing him.
look at the shot that shows the man and the city woman slipping off into a
foggy marsh area. Although the ground is muddy and uneven, the camera seems to
glide smoothly along with them, pushing through shrubbery, following their
progress, finally watching them embrace beneath a full moon. I've seen "Sunrise"
several times and always noted this shot without quite realizing how impossible
I have had it explained. The commentary track on the 20th Century-Fox DVD is by
the gifted cinematographer John Bailey, who is a student of early camera
techniques and a particular admirer of Struss. He explains that the marsh is a
studio set, that the sky and the moon are actually quite close, and that the
camera platform is suspended from overhead cables so that it glides behind them
as they push through the mud and the shrubbery.
the poetry of this scene is haunting, listen to Bailey as he analyzes some of
the famous later scenes, including two boat trips across the lake and a
fantastical interlude in the city on the other shore. He has the gift, rare
among experts, of explaining his art with such love and clarity that everyone
can understand; he uses the writings of Struss, still photos taken on the set,
and above all his own instinct and experience to explain how extraordinary
shots were created.
of the best moments involve superimposed images. At one point, we see the man
being enveloped by two ghostly images of the woman from the city. We see a
train passing in the foreground while extras walk in the middle distance, and
the city rises in the background. We see a frenzied nightclub scene, musicians
on the left, dancers in the center, all seeming to float in a void.
shots, Bailey explains, were created in the camera. It was an era before
optical printers, let alone computers; the camera operators masked part of the
film, exposed the rest, then masked the those portions and exposed what
remained. Meticulous control of the lens and the counting of individual frames
was necessary. In addition, they were made of different kinds of reality; the
train was a model which looked large in the foreground, the extras were real,
the city was a form of matte drawing.
I listened to Bailey, it occurred to me that the best commentary tracks are
often by experts who did not work on the film but love it and have given it a
lot of thought. They're more useful than those rambling tracks where directors
(notoriously shy about explaining their techniques or purposes) reminisce about
the weather on the set that day.
power of "Sunrise" comes precisely through its visual images, and
Bailey makes a good case that Struss, who got second billing after Charles
Rosher, made the key contribution. He had purchased his own camera, powered by
an electric motor, which set it free to glide through space and give
"Sunrise" its peculiar dreamlike quality. And he devised techniques
to create some of the effects; looking at stills taken on the set, Bailey takes
hints from such details as a black back cloth that was used to obscure part of
an image so it could be replaced with another.
story, as I said, is very simple, but it has power. The woman from the city
persuades the man to drown his wife so they can run away together. The film has
few titles, but they are dramatic: the word "drown" swims into view
and then appears to run down the screen and disappear.
the man and his wife begin their boat journey across the lake, Bailey notes
that the camera always regards him from a high angle, even when he is towering
over his wife and the natural angle would have him looking down at the camera.
This strategy keeps him subservient to the camera and emphasizes the pressure
he's under; and Murnau underlines his tortured psychological state by making
the actor, O'Brien, wear shoes with lead weights in them, so that he steps
slowly and reluctantly.
does not after all drown his wife. In the city, which is constructed from
fanciful sets that suggest the "city of the future" often seen in
silent films, the man and wife fall back in love -- and then, as they return
across the lake, a tempest overturns the boat and it appears she may have been
drowned by chance.
very broad melodrama, and the realism of spoken dialogue would have made it
impossible. But silent films were more dreamlike, and Murnau was a genius at
evoking odd, disturbing images and juxtapositions that created a nightmare
state. Because the characters are simple, they take on a kind of moral clarity,
and their choices are magnified into fundamental decisions of life and death.
imagine it is possible to see "Sunrise" for the first time and think
it simplistic; to be amused that the academy could have honored it. But silent
films had a language of their own; they aimed for the emotions, not the mind,
and the best of them wanted to be, not a story, but an experience.
raised in the dark shadows of expressionism, pushed his images as far as he
could, forced them upon us, haunted us with them. The more you consider
"Sunrise" the deeper it becomes -- not because the story grows any
more subtle, but because you realize the real subject is the horror beneath the