Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), as in other works of F.W. Murnau and the German Expressionist movement, is a style of emotions triggered in service of light where the relationship between Movement-Image is also the same between Image-Light. The intensity of light and its relationship to form thrust Expressionistic ideas into a new era and few films exemplified this more beautifully than Sunrise. The intensity of light is measured in proportions of black versus white and brightness versus darkness. Each frame of the film becomes a physical object, an exploration of this gradation. Each frame explores the full spectrum of the gray scale, passing from the darkest shadows to a white light, evoking a true sense of the chiaroscuro. In each frame, light, framing and blocking leans towards a tendency to split the visual image along a diagonal or dentale line (See Picture 1 and 2). This visual idea communicates an idea of a rift, a growing separation between lovers and worlds.
Picture 1 – This image is illustrative of a diagonal of light emerging from the left hand side of the screen. While in darkness, this element of light casts a diagonal on action, separating the frame and creating a rich chiaroscuro (shades without contours)
Picture 2 – In this contrasting image, we similarly see the scene lit diagonally, however, this time it is daytime and it is lit from the right hand side of the frame. The wife is featured, alongside another friend from the village, the plainless and lightness of their clothing contrasting with the dark sensuality of the city woman.
Characters and places within the film, such as the man’s wife, the adulterer, the city, the countryside and the Marsh village, are each associated with a particular lighting style. The Woman from the City appears sophisticated and predatory, always dressed in the blacks of night. She is first introduced in the swamp area, a dark, atmospheric and sensual area lit by a blinding white moon. Associatively, we come to identify her with evil, corruption, sin and the sensuality of darkness (See Picture 3).
Picture 3 – The Vamp woman baring dark colors, invokes temptation by looking in the mirror and putting makeup. She stands in stark contrast to the plain faced woman of the country, and it seems she uses makeup as part to bewitch her lover.
The farmer’s wife is presented in antagonistic opposition to the city woman. Bathed in pale colours and light, she invokes values of purity, redemption and innocence. Her style is evoked by plain clothes which expressionistically represent the day, the sun and the luminous village and the space she inhabits; she is good. The characters don’t only exist narratively in opposition, but through light: darkness versus light. (See Picture 4)
Picture 4 – The wife of the farmer in bright robes in church watching a wedding. This moment becomes renewing for their love, set not long after the husband attempted to murder his wife. Again, the scene is lit diagonally, this time evoking an air of spiritual redemption. His expression reveals his redemption which allows for the marriage to be reinvigorated. In this moment he absolves himself of wanting to hurt his wife, and has broken away from the thrall of the Vamp woman.
The city appears initially associated with the vampire woman, the culture evil; whereas the country and the farmer’s wife, the good nature. However, as the young wife eventually joins her husband in the city, the city too can take on new connotations of happiness and light. Tables turn though, as the peace and goodness of nature turn on their renewed love: nature coming in almost fatal opposition to the struggle of new love. In this sense, the film refuses the desire to close the spaces down and tie them exclusively to the psychology of the characters.
Murnau stands apart from this aspect of expressionism and instead embraces the naturalistic theater. Rather than having the environments become mirrors to the character’s emotions, emotions of the characters are projected onto the space. This important distinction emphasizes both the point of view of the characters but also their ultimate helplessness as they do not have control over their world. One way Murnau emphasizes this stylistically is through the use of overlay images (see Pictures 5 and 6). Unlike an expressionistic film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Picture 7), for example, the spaces the characters inhabit are very much real, it is only our perception of the space that is expressive.
Picture 5 – An example of overlap, in this case the couple’s renewed love inspire a vision of dancing in the country above them. The world around them becomes hazy, as if forgotten. The spell will be broken moments later when the waiter interrupts them, bringing them back to reality.
Picture 6 – This is an example of superimposed projection that seeks to impress upon the viewer the intensity of the city through overstimulation. stimulus. Using diagonals and movements, music, sexuality and technology all blend together.
Picture 7: An image from the film that is evocative of a more traditional understanding of expressionism, tied closely to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Rather than use a dutch angle, Murnau created a crooked set and had the plates and food attached to the table. It evokes a sense of imbalance, as the purity and happiness of the country is disrupted by the presence of the Vamp from the city.
Murnau similarly created forced perspective in his set design.Sets were constructed to recede in the distance and oblique angles were chosen to emphasize a sense of depth. Other gimmicks like putting larger objects in close-up and dwarves as extras distance were similarly used to emphasize the breadth of this world. This can be seen in the evocation of the city (see Picture 8).
Picture 8 – This image is filmed taking into account the increase of the depth, as is characteristic of a perspectivist geometry.
Perspectival geometry becomes key in this sense. Another form of contrast becomes established, exploited by light and mise-en-scene. The deep angles created by light and composition embody a space in conflict. Even the monstrous presence of the moon in the swamp suggest a world in opposition, the conflict between present and past, good and evil, organic and mechanical. These ideas reflect and are projected from the internal world of man. The most symbolic figure of the mechanical side of man, representing both the in-organic and a loss of humanity, is without a doubt the idea of the automaton. While the Husband is never embodied as a literal robot, his movements and behavior mirror a dehumanization. Murnau shaped this performance style by literally weighing down the costume of George O’Brian, transforming his naturalistic movements into something heavy, slurred, hunchbacked and unnatural. Under the bewitching influence of the city woman, he becomes an automaton, a zombie (See Picture 9).
Picture 9 – Under the Vamp woman’s “spell”, the man always has a humping and heavy posture. He looks into the void, with a look that goes beyond reality to the place where the magic of the spell operates. Notice on the diagonal formed by the set of reeds and the hunchbacked man’s body.
This sublime encounter with light, the progressive intensification converges at the end the movie with the last kiss of the farmer and his wife. Now with her hair loosened, the image of the wife is transformed as she and her husband’s image dissolves in sunlight. The scene is transcendent as the effect inspires the look of burning celluloid. The film’s final moment go to the total opposite of darkness, ending in a bright white of the sunrise. (see Picture 10)
Picture 10 – Last frame of the movie where the two protagonists have to kiss up merging with the sunrise.
The expressionistic elements of Murnau’s craft transform a simple story about love into something extraordinary. The use of light in particular, something ethereal and intangible evoke feelings of love, loss and time. Through the use of gradient, geometry and superimposition ideas and emotions are evoked that cannot be expressed through words. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is one of the great films of the silent era, and one of the best examples of subjective filmmaking from the history of cinema and as Truffaut puts it, Murnau’s Genius Sunrise, a song of two humans, “Le plus beau film du monde” / “The most beautiful film in the world”.
Part of our monthly theme: Hatchet for a Honeymoon: Marriage and the Screen