Thursday, June 13, 2024

NFR Project: 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans'


Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Dir: F.W. Murnau

Scr: Carl Mayer

Pho: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss

Ed: Harold Schuster

Premiere: September 23, 1927

95 min.

This would not be the last time that critics acclaimed a film that the public ignored. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is self-consciously arty – it won the only Oscar for Unique and Artistic Picture at the very first Oscars ceremony in 1929. It won Best Cinematography for Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. The lead actress Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress award for this (and for her work in Street Angel [1928]).

However, it did not earn back its rather extravagant budget. It was the first American project of the famed German director F.W. Murnau, who up to this time had created classics such as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926) in his native country. He was brought to Hollywood with a reputation that gave him great leeway in the production of the film.

Murnau made the most of his opportunity. Often cited as one of the greatest films ever made, it sweeps the viewer into a penetratingly compelling story that needs no words to make itself understood.

It tells of a farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Gaynor). A “city woman” (Margaret Livingston) seduces him. We begin with the principals in mid-misery, one from guilt and the other from sorrow. The city woman urges the farmer to kill his wife, sell his farm, and come to the city with her.

Double exposures reveal the farmer’s thoughts, contrasting with his anguished features. The filmmakers track down complex paths through the studio-created marshes, embodying the meandering, wavering walk of the guilty husband. The two embark on an ominous journey via boat to the city. The farmer stands over his wife, ready to kill, then abruptly relents.

What happens next is the entire play of two personalities, running through the emotions of despair, fear, shame, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all in the context of a visit to a vivid, Expressionistic cityscape. Murnau moves the story on with economy and precision, mirroring camera setups, gestures, postures, using all the resources of the pictorial field and the actors’ skill to convey a true love story.

Murnau slows down the pace and lets the camera linger n the face of his actors. He allows them to move through multiple states of thought; patiently, he records their reactions and realizations. The story is a simple melodrama, but Murnau and his collaborators find the truth and beauty in the tale and bring it to life.

Not only are the visuals beautiful, moody, and expressive, but the film is graced with the addition of sound, of a kind. While not a talking picture, a soundtrack of music and effects was married to the print and played in the early sound-film houses. Hugo Riesenfeld’s score carefully reinforces the images and feelings onscreen.

The picture’s unexpectedly melodramatic ending could easily be seen as far-fetched (the farmer considered drowning his wife, and then loses her in a storm on the water on their way home), but the film is so involving that it allows the suspension of disbelief to continue.

Sunrise is a revelation of feeling couched in a familiar story of universal appeal. It does what silent film did best – it transcends cultural barriers, making itself intelligible to everyone.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Wings.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

NFR Project: 'Stark Love'


Stark Love

Dir: Karl Brown

Scr: Karl Brown, Walter Woods

Pho: James Murray

Ed: N/A

Premiere: February 28, 1927

70 min.

Independent productions were rare once the mechanics of Hollywood film production were established, by the early 1920s. This interesting film, saved from oblivion almost by chance, shows that quality movies could be mounted by committed people outside the purview of the big studios.

The filmmaker involved was Karl Brown, who had a long history in cinema. He found a job working with D.W. Griffith, serving as assistant to Griffith’s cameraman, Billy Bitzer. He developed into a skilled cinematographer, his best-remembered work being that he did on James Cruze’s epic Western The Covered Wagon (1923).

Brown cast primarily amateur actors in and around Robbinsville, North Carolina, set in the Great Smoky Mountains, to make this picture of hillbilly life. The story is of a young man whose ambitions stretch beyond the narrow confines of the valleys he calls home. He reads and studies, planning to get out of the mountains and into a settlement, joining the mainstream of life.

He is taken with a neighbor girl, who is limited by the lack of opportunity in the remote country where they live. When the young man’s mother dies, his father seeks to marry the neighbor girl to make her a slave to take care of his house and children. Her violent rejection of him leads to the escape of the two young people.

The film takes a semi-documentary approach, and its vision of mountain life is bleak, though not condescending (although the title cards are in dialect). The film stands as a screed against the oppression of women. As one of the opening titles states, there “MAN IS THE ABSOLUTE RULER – WOMAN IS THE WORKING SLAVE.” Its depiction of men as generally reprehensible morons is so grim as to be almost humerous.

In the end, it is the proto-feminist heroine who wields the axe that frees her from her servile situation. She, improbably, flees down the swollen river on a log to safety, taking finally the path that leads to small town they perceive as a wondrous city.

The camerawork is fresh and efficient, equal in skill to that of contemporary industry-made features. It received limited screenings at its premiere, but in 1968 film historian Kevin Brownlow found an original copy in the Czechoslovakian film archives, saving for posterity. It’s worth it to see a strong, simple story told in an authentic regional landscape.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Sunrise.