Last night I attended the Northwest Film Forum’s screening of Sunrise, a 1927 silent feature directed by F.W. Murnau. Rather than listening to a generic score typically tacked onto these movies from the pre-sound era, the audience enjoyed live accompaniment from two gifted musicians: Lori Goldston played cello, while Greg Campbell handled percussion. Over somber strings and ghostlike cymbals appeared the opening title cards, which reveal the filmmakers’ truly universal aspirations. First, Murnau endowed Sunrise with the subtitle A Song of Two Humans which, though aptly identifying sound as a key element in this tale (more on that later), has a somewhat poetically grandiose ring to it. The film’s bid for universality clarifies with a look at the cast list; no proper names exist for any of the characters, just general labels like “The Man” or “The Wife.” Finally Sunrise’s preamble rolls onscreen, a statement of egalitarianism which includes, “…in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.” Somehow to me this claim doesn’t resonate with the story of a violent philanderer who plots to drown his innocent wife for his lover.
Just another day on the farm I suppose, in the life of one ordinary American marriage. I don’t have a wife as of yet, so maybe I judge too quickly. Maybe daydreams about disposing your better half in the nearest river once marital passions fade are more common than I imagine. Right?
Needless to say (so I’ll say it anyway) watching this 84-year-old relic of a film unfold before my eyes had many surreal, starkly emotional moments. The cinematography by Karl Struss and Charles Rosher, groundbreaking at the time, photographs not only the physical action taking place, but peers deeper than that, casts light on the hidden desires of this struggling couple. In one early scene, The Man (an uncanny Jon Hamm lookalike) battles himself over leaving home for a late-night rendezvous. He looks offscreen, then we see what he sees: a simple meal resting on the dinner table, prepared by his faithful spouse. Dialogue couldn’t capture the reservoirs of agony in this simple series of shots. Words monopolize, espousing a single interpretation as sole truth. With Sunrise, Murnau displays a mastery of the silent form by letting his viewers fill in the gaps left open by unspoken (and due to technological limits, unrecorded) human speech.
Though we cannot hear the sounds bombarding this silent world, we can imagine. We can imagine the seductive lilt in a vamp’s whistle, the stern timbre of a minister’s words that leads to The Man’s redemption, and his own voice, warbling with franticness over the night waters as he searches for his missing love. Our imaginations ran further with help from Goldston and Campbell, who did wonders with the few instruments in their arsenal. How the former morphed her cello time and again into the perfect backdrop for every sequence I couldn’t tell you. But the haunting soundtrack made for an experience as strange, as scarily wonderful as a rowboat tossed across a stormy sea.
Sunrise is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.