So, where I left off talking about Wings, I was discussing a very unfortunate discrepancy involved in the very 1st Academy Awards on May 1929. You see, there were in fact TWO equally highest honors in the ceremony and while one of them – The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture – was adopted over the years into what would eventually become The Academy Award for Best Picture, the second honor was disposed of before the following year’s ceremony. That honor was The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture and the main source for ire and controversy comes from the fact that the former would be awarded to Wings while the latter would be awarded to F.W. Murnau’s lovely melodrama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and practically everybody who has had the fortune of seeing both films recognizes that Sunrise is far and away the much better picture, making the abandonment and denial of its place in Academy history feel something like a heavy slight. Then again it’s kind of very easy to find such actions a slight and recognize Wings as the inferior choice when Sunrise is among several consensus picks for the very best film ever made and if you’re expecting me to break with consensus, nahhhhhhhh son. I’m basic like that too.
1927 is a year like no other in cinema. It’s right in the middle of that fantastic period in the late 1920s where the early experimentation inherent in the creation of a new artform – particularly led by European filmmakers and film industries, where each nation had its own vocabulary to visual storytelling – led to it taking the sort of narrative shapes we recognize as common in the movies we watch today, yet at the time of those films’ release, they were probably fresh enough to be mind-expanding to audiences. It’s especially great, in my eyes, when such filmmaking techniques can be seen as innovative in modern circumstances, just from the roughness of their genesis having a kind of realness to what we’re watching. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans does not just feel innovative – like we’re watching the beginnings of cinema anew – it feels heavily expressive and moving to an almost schmaltzy way.
1927 also happened to be the era in which European filmmakers were now being brought over to Hollywood on the merit of their talents, particularly Germans with their heightened shadow-based Expressionism style heralding Hollywood Studios’ interests in using that for genre tales, such as horror. F.W. Murnau was one such filmmaker – with possibly his most famous work, the vampire story Nosferatu, and the fable adaptation of Faust under his belt – but horror was not the genre for which he was recruited for. In fact, William Fox wanted Murnau to make whatever film he wanted with Fox’s production.
Whatever film Murnau wanted to make turned out to be a picture about a tale written by Carl Mayer so simple and straightforward, it doesn’t even afford proper names to its subjects. Our primary couple is the Man (George O’Brian) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) and they both live in the Countryside separate from the City where the vampish Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) comes from to start an affair with the Man. The Man is so corrupted by this relationship outside of his marriage that he becomes malleable to the Girl from the City’s suggestions of leaving with her to live with in the City, but this would only be possible if The Man kills his wife (they are ambiguous as to what should happen with their infant child). The particular plan goes that The Man would take The Wife across the water that separates The Countryside from the City and arrange her drowning to look like an accident, but the Man finds himself unable to go through with it. The Wife, understandably frightened by her husband, rushes away when they get to shoreline while the Man chases her and her forgiveness into the City and it takes a while but they find their love for each other renewed in the day they spend enjoying the sites and sounds of the metropolis they found themselves in.
Certainly a story with major incidents but not much depth beyond the insistence on love triumphing over doubt and fear and a balanced ability to find room for the serenity in the simplicity of life in the Countryside – captured by cinematographers Karl Struss & Charles Rosher in a dreamy light haze that makes the day scenes glow and the night scenes become smoky and inky – yet merriment in the busy attitude of the City – brought to glorious toppling life from the ground up by uncredited art director Rochus Gliese in solid angular modeling and exciting lights, aided by an ambient soundtrack from Fox’s Movietone technology that gave us crowd noises, train sounds, and car sounds to immerse us into the city of The Man and the Wife’s pursuits.
In any case, Sunrise is not a movie that tries to hide what emotions it thinks you’re supposed to feel. Expressionism earns its name for a reason and Murnau was possibly the most well-regarded filmmaker to invoke Expressionism in the majority of his work (I at one point called him the greatest filmmaker of all time and would probably still hold him in my top ten. I certainly still swear by most of his stuff.), he was interested in using as many toys he could pull out of the box from rear projection to chiaroschuro (especially used in moments that imply the Man’s capability for violence) and even my favorite, title cards that transformed with the mood and morphed (the only other film I can recall doing this so effectively, maybe even better than Sunrise, is Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary of the same year from another German Expressionist filmmaker come to Hollywood). All of these toys are used to project those feelings as directly as possible to the audience and it feels fine for a story that intends to be nothing more than fable, devoted to traditional story tropes from the very beginning. The archness of O’Brien’s foreboding presence where it feels like every step he takes is dragged by a weight alone and Gaynor’s muted but spirited feminity (as opposed to the loudness of Livingston’s flapper stereotype) is just another tool for Murnau to use to present that.
Everything about Sunrise comes together well. It feels ambitious even in moments where it’s only character based moments like when the couple are in a church musing upon their ordeal. It has a sharp handle on tone, such as when the affair between the Man and the Woman from the City turns a bit more towards Murnau’s familiar horror in a psychological sense, or one of my favorite instances, a perfect tossaround between happiness at the couple freshening up at a barber shop, followed by uncomfortable black comedy at the Wife being hit on by an insistent patron there, followed by turning again into brief horror as the Man threatens said patron with a pocketknife, before back to comedy as he frightens him with a swipe. The abstractness of the story made it all just so easy for Murnau and editor Harold D. Schuster to form single scenes into great big emotions while indulging playfully in moments like the Couple dancing at a fair and chasing a pig.
This is silent cinema. It needs to be bold. It has no room for subtlety. Murnau was one of the greatest because he recognized that and yet he afforded his storytelling a level of sophistication because he took pride in his craft and looking for new ways to change up the shapes of emotions on the screen. And I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have been proud of the films he gave us nor should I be surprised that the director of The Last Laugh – my very first Murnau picture – is good at using award-winning visuals and performance (Sunrise also has the distinction of winning the very first Oscars for Best Actress and Cinematography) to manipulate our emotions and sympathies with our characters. Only that he was THAT fucking good, for Sunrise is a movie I’ve hardly ever seen improved upon in the 89 years since its release.
In the end, the arbitrary committee and decision-making that led to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans being unceremoniously snubbed feels unfair to this day, especially appalling to me given that it’s in my top ten favorite movies, and so if I had to utilize this upcoming series to rewrite history in any manner as befits my tastes, it would be to recognize Sunrise as one of the first recipients of what was one of the highest honors American cinema would receive, a good pin on what the movie would promise for the medium it took to such dizzying heights, even when Oscar had to be retroactive in its own recognition for its merits.