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A Song of Two Humans - music made sublimely visual
on 10 June 2015
This is a stunning and absolutely essential Masters of Cinema release of F. W. Murnau's iconic silent masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). No.1 in this fine company's catalog, the film has justifiably always been high on Top 10 lists of greatest films ever made and in this incarnation the film sparkles as never before. Alas, a 1937 fire in the Fox studio vault destroyed the original negative and a new one had to be struck from a surviving print. This means everyone has been deprived of seeing the film in its full pin-sharp glory for the last 75 years. The version (actually two versions) offered here is as fine as we are ever likely to have. MoC present the film on 3 discs. The first disc has the initial release Movietone version, the 'standard' one that everyone knows. The aspect ratio is 1.20:1 and comes with the option of two soundtracks - the standard Hugo Riesenfeld compilation of Romantic classics from Liszt through Wagner to Gounod (in Mono), and a more recent highly effective score composed by Timothy Brock (in stereo). The second disc has a version found in the Czech Republic which has an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The film is cut by about ten minutes and has Czech supertitles. However, the visual quality of the print is astounding, far better than the Movietone version even if the same Mono soundtrack has been added to it. My personal preference is for the Movietone version together with the Brock default score. I wish the print could be as sharp as the Czech version, but feel a slight sacrifice in visual quality is justifiable in view of the film's apparent completeness. Murnau's fastidious visual style combining long languorous takes and exquisite painterly compositions with skillful montage and superimpositions is substantially clipped by the Czech version. The marvelous long trolley car journey into the city is an unforgivable loss as is the cutting of most of the Summertime montage at the beginning. Virtually every shot is chopped of a frame or two and the expressionistic titles which move to suggest emotion are gone. I doubt very much if Murnau would have been happy with this version. The third disc offers both versions on Blu-ray. Not having a Blu-ray player I can't comment on it, but other reviews here praise it highly.
MoC support their release with a barrage of highly interesting extras. The commentary (both on the Movietone version and on outtakes) is by John Bailey. A noted cinematographer who operated the camera for Nestor Almendros on Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (a loose reworking of Murnau's next still extant Fox picture City Girl), he has a lot to say about Charles Rosher and Karl Struss' astonishing cinematography, if not so much about Murnau's direction. Of outstanding interest though is Janet Bergstrom's excellent 40 minute updated documentary reconstruction of 4 Devils (1928). Inexplicably lost, it is said to be one of Murnau's most outstanding achievements and with a mixture of production stills and drawings Bergstrom guides us through what looks to have been a wonderful drama set in the circus world of a family trapeze act and with yet another love triangle (again involving Janet Gaynor). As well as the usual trailer there is also a decent booklet with articles which cover the film restoration, but again with no hard information on Murnau. The way William Fox plucked Murnau away from Germany by offering him absolute control over his films and the way this control was subsequently withheld as the studio tampered with every film after Sunrise, leading eventually to Murnau's flight to the South Seas to make Tabu (1931) and his eventual tragic early death in a car crash at the age of 41 makes for a fascinating story which could and should have been told here, if only to stir public interest in both City Girl and Tabu - outstanding films which barely register in the public consciousness today. No matter, I shouldn't complain. This is still a generous issue which needs to be in every film collection worthy of the name.
So what makes this film special? Most critics will point to the sheer originality of the work. Coming towards the end of the silent era, William Fox wanted something new for the American market and decided on Murnau's brand of expressionism. He didn't want another American picture. He wanted a German one which would really seize people's imaginations in a radically innovative way. Therefore though Sunrise is Murnau's first American film, in essence it is as German as Faust (1926) or Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh,1924). An adaptation of Hermann Suderman's German short story Die Reise nach Tilsit (A Trip to Tilsit) by Austrian Carl Mayer, the only Americans involved in the film apart from the Fox studio technicians were the actors, Karl Struss (of German extraction) and Fox himself. The film was shot on the Fox backlot at amazing expense with exteriors done at Lake Arrowhead, California, and yet we never feel we are in America. The city is left deliberately unnamed (as are the three central characters) and could be anywhere. Interiors (a farmhouse, a city café, a church, a barbershop, a photographer's studio, the amazing Luna Park funfair) are close to the German Weimar republic ones as shown in earlier Murnau and in Fritz Lang's German films, showing typically shadowy lighting and angled perspectives achieved by raised floors, optical illusions and even the use of midgets in crowd scenes. Exteriors (especially the buildings around the lake) look Austro-German. The influence of Austro-German Romantic painting of the 19th century (Arnold Böcklin, Casper David Friedrich, even Egon Schiele) is particularly striking as per the German expressionist remit. The Dutch masters also exert their influence as shown by numerous languorous studio shots which are Rembrandt-lit (John Bailey) exquisitely. The use of light sources is radical especially in the farmhouse scenes which depict the Man's tortured conflict. The length and the sheer sophistication of many of the camera set-ups in which the camera moves (The Woman from the City's night walk, The Man's famous swamp tramp, the trolley car ride into the city, the entrance into Luna Park, the storm) just hadn't been seen in American films before, Fox continuing the radical modernity of Der letzte Mann in particular with stunning success. That film did away with intertitles and this one could easily exist without them as well.
After the film's staggering mise-en-scène, it's worth emphasizing the amazing sensitivity of the acting - Margarite Livingston as the vampish `Woman from the City' who distracts George O'Brien's `The Man' from his wife, `The Woman' played by Janet Gaynor. Of these it is Gaynor who really lights up the screen in one of the most astonishingly touching performances ever seen in the cinema. She desperately wants her man to love her and through his attempted murder of her on the lake, the escape away on a trolley car, the blind rush into busy city traffic, the gradual rapprochement with him via a café scene, flowers and then a pivotal church scene wherein the couple renew their vows to each other, her performance is simply pitch-perfect. She makes the improbably swift transition from petrified fear to radient happiness seem so natural. Her celebrations during the central funfair sequence are never mawkish and when she returns with her man on the boat atop the moonlit lake we have a miraculous picture of Paradise Regained which feels entirely organic.
The splendid photography and wonderful acting are two things, but the key to the film's greatness really lies in its stupendous narrative structure, one of the most perfect in existence and one which is completely symmetrical. I have commented elsewhere on the amazing sophistication of Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924) and here we have the same extraordinary craft, but on a human scale. The film is in three parts denoted by the settings - the country, the city and the country again. Each scene from the outer parts is refracted in its opposite number either side of the city episode with the whole film pivoting on the Luna Park funfair sequence and the ecstasy of the couple's love reignited. To make things clear I offer the following overview which should be read bottom up as well as top to bottom:
Part I: The Country - Infidelity and planned murder
(a) Prologue: Summertime montage (gradual sunset)
(b) The Woman from the City has arrived
(c) The Man and Woman in crisis
(d) The nocturnal tryst between The Man and The Woman from the City
(e) The boat trip across the lake toward the city (attempted murder)
(f) The Woman petrified and burning to escape The Man
(g) The trolley ride into the city (anger and torment)
Part II: The City - Reconciliation and Celebration
(h) The café (disharmony)
(i) The church wedding service (Man and Woman renew their vows)
(j) The barbershop / The photographer / the Luna Park funfair
(i) The 'wedding reception' dance (a peasant dance "Midsummer")
(h) The wine restaurant (harmony)
Part III: The Country - Fidelity and Love
(g) The trolley ride back to the country (love and bliss)
(f) The Woman relaxed and happy with the Man (sleeping)
(e) The boat trip across the lake away from the city (love and storm)
(d) The nocturnal fight between The Man and The Woman from the City
(c) The Man and the Woman in love
(b) The Woman from the City leaves
(a) Epilogue: The Woman awakes. The start of a new life (sunrise)
Within this strict symmetrical structure Murnau/Mayer build the narrative out of a series of binary opposites - sunset/sunrise, day/night, good/evil, sun/moon, corruption and sensuality/purity and innocence, country/city, rustic simplicity/urban sophistication, blonde/brunette, fidelity/infidelity, love/hate, sin/redemption and more. Murnau/Mayer not only balance entire scenes, but they carefully bookend each one with a powerful emphasis on the idea of fate, inevitability and the whole wheel of life moving around inexorably. Note the nocturnal tryst where the Man throttles the Woman from the City for suggesting he murder his wife balancing the corresponding scene near the end where he again throttles her. Then there are the reeds which the man prepares in the boat for his own safety which end up saving his wife. The funfair sequence begins and ends with the same shot, the couple walking past a giant fountain to be confronted by the extraordinary scene replete with rollercoasters only to walk back past the same fountain at the end. The man's search for the Woman is framed by identical shots of the Woman from the City lurking on a rock just above a path. A number of bookends exist in this film and repeated viewings reveal more of them. The film stays remarkably fresh no matter how many times you watch it.
Beyond this somewhat cold and schematic reduction of the film's narrative (one which perhaps is beter intuited emotionally than stated intellectually) lies a second structuring feature which I would argue is what primarily makes this film such a potent emotional rollercoaster ride. The film's subtitle, A Song of Two Humans guides us to the idea that the film is in essence music made visual. Murnau had already given us 'Eine sinfonie des Grauens' (a symphony of horror) in Nosferatu (1922) and here he gives us another three-part symphony, one on the scale of a work by the Austrian song-symphonist Gustav Mahler. Contrary to the classical tightness of Beethoven and Brahms, Mahler's huge symphonies seem to embody entire worlds and express extra-musical ideas/storylines. The 30 minute first movement of the Third Symphony for example is an extraordinary account of spring over-powering winter. His nine symphonies vary in structure, but they tend to open in total darkness and surge towards blinding light with a strong (often Adagio or Andante) opening movement (almost a symphony within itself) followed by one or even two jokey Scherzo dance movements, a tranquil Largo and then culminating in a joyous life-enhancing Rondo-Finale. Not all the symphonies follow this pattern (Nos. 3 and 9 end with astonishing slow movements of the most exquisite poise), but for the purpose of my comparison with Murnau, I would say that the structure of No.5 broadly fits Sunrise. Mahler expert Henry Louis de La Grange calls the symphony, "Dankgesang eines Genesenen" (a song of thanks of one restored to health), an entirely apt possible title for the film! Like the film, the Fifth Symphony is in three distinct parts. A dark opening movement (marked Trauermarsch - Funeral March) is followed by a tormented violent Allegro (marked Sturmisch bewegt, mit größter vehemenz - stormy with gross vehemence). Part Two is a long and highly complex Scherzo movement full of dance and joy which acts as a pivot for the whole work. Part three opens with a miraculous Adagietto introduction which leads through stormy episodes towards a blindingly exultant Rondo-Finale conclusion.
Looking closer, the first part of the film (which in my schema conflates the first two movements of the Fifth Symphony) takes on the even larger scale of one of Mahler's other huge opening movements, perhaps the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony. After a quick and lively montage suggesting the city emptying of people (especially the Woman from the City), the film quickly settles into a series of long languorous shots which tell the story in the manner of a composer leisurely stating his themes, his first and second subjects, the development, the recapitulation and so on with the tension of the film building inexorably towards the blind madness of the murder scene. We see the Woman from the City first walk towards an assignation with The Man who is established as a farmer trapped in an unhappy marriage. Why he should be unhappy with his devout wife is a moot point, but every man will acknowledge the universal truism that Man cannot be married to Woman for a long time without his head ever being turned. The nocturnal tryst leads to the suggestion to murder his wife, his initial outraged reaction, but then his careful preparations for the fateful boat-ride in which he will push his wife overboard. Tension escalates as he is tortured by his desire for the Woman from the City - skillful superimpositions from Struss of the vamp embracing him as he works up the courage to suggest a picnic to the Woman. Then once the trip is underway the dog escapes his tether which forces the boat back to shore. The whole mood of the film up until this point has been of ever-deepening gloomy mental torpor as the Man gradually turns into a maniac looking like the Golem from Paul Wegener's famous 1920 feature. As he advances towards his wife on the boat in the middle of the lake she starts to pray. This is the moment in the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony when it bursts into an extraordinary atonal dissonance as the music structure is rendered asunder. So it is with the Man here, but he recovers at the last moment and (like the music) gets over his crisis. The Woman however is still shaken to the core and runs away from the Man. Just as that burst of dissonance can't let things settle completely in the music, so things can't settle for the Man. He pursues the Woman (the trolley car ride) and tries unsuccessfully to woo her with cakes and flowers. It is only when they enter a church and witness a wedding service that the Man shows sincere repentance for his sin and the Woman forgives him. They renew their marriage vows. The first part of the film ends on one the most amazing shots in film history as the couple wander out of the church straight into traffic which dissolves into a view of the country as they kiss oblivious to the traffic around them which they have brought to a standstill. It is typical of symphonic structure that the first movement ends in a recapitulation of the early main theme and just as in the Adagio, the first part of the film ends with a sense of circular completion.
The film's story in a sense finishes with the end of Part I. The Man has been reunited with the Woman, but of course the main subject of the film (the surge back to iridescent life) has yet to be told. This is also the sense we get at the end of any one of Mahler's opening movements. In the Fifth Symphony the hero is dead and is tortured by the powers of the beyond (conflating the first two movements), but in the second part of the symphony (the third movement Scherzo) he surges back to life with an unstoppable life-force. Just as the dance themes are numerous and complex, so in the film there are many strands of comedy/dance that work brilliantly together - the visits to the barber and the photographer and then the funfair. The funfair is an extraordinary polyphonic outburst which seems chaotic but which is carefully structured. As said the whole sequence is book-ended with the same shots of the couple entering/leaving past the fountain. Then there are two dances, one (a 'city' waltz) which the Woman looks at and then the other (a 'country' landler) which the Woman forces the man to take part in. In between there is an astonishing sequence as a pig runs loose in the fair. The animal upsets people, scares a waiter and even gets drunk. The close-up of the drunken pig's face is probably the very center of the film's symmetrical structure, underlining Murnau's true theme of the film - that life should be celebrated as a raucous crazy circus full of love and delight. It is perhaps significant that the couple perform an Austrian peasant dance (named "Midsummer") which is actually a ländler, Mahler's preferred dance form which inform all of his Scherzi. The composer/arranger Riesenfeld was astute in choosing the tune for the Movietone soundtrack (in fact, he had played the violin under Mahler in Vienna and had moved to New York in 1907, the same year Mahler began conducting seasons there - Jeremy Barham in his article "Plundering Cultural Archives and Transcending Diegetics: Mahler's Music as 'Overscore'" says, "His score for F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans (1927) is cast in a rich late-nineteenth-century idiom, its scenes in the city pleasure palaces offering an unusual tour de force in collage techniques of composition that conceivably derived much from a Mahlerian multidimensional musical aesthetic."). The film's 'Scherzo' ends here on a sequence which is clearly designed as a kind of wedding reception, the dance complimenting the earlier wedding ceremony and ending the second part of the film on an ecstatic burst of adrenalin.
The tender (and much loved) strains of Mahler's Adagietto open Part III of the symphony and this could be said to echo the opening of Part III of the film with a comic/romantic restaurant scene in which cupids are superimposed flying around the lovers as they slumber love-sick at their table. This effect may seem mawkish now, but it is in keeping with the tradition of 19th century German painting. The scene comments ironically on the film's earlier dark café scene as does the scene where the Man whisks the Woman onto the tram which counters the Woman's earlier headlong rush into traffic. The quiet still mood carries over onto the return trolley-ride and then most tranquilly of all onto the boat. Another peasant dance takes place in the distance to offset the feeling of Paradise Regained as these lovers reach out for each other. But of course that is not the end and as the Adagietto is only a prelude to the stormy Finale of Mahler's symphony, so this quiet scene is merely the quiet before the storm of the film. The Man had started the day wanting to kill his wife and now he must pay the price as hubris catches up with him in a violent storm which capsizes the boat and seemingly kills the Woman. The Man's grief is rendered extraordinarily effective by the shots of him scouring the lake, one of them having his face leer famously into close-up (one of only two close-ups to compliment the one of the pig!) as the boat carries him toward the camera. The business with the Woman from the City has to be tidied up (one of the themes of past movements which a Rondo-Finale must deal with) which involves a second night walk to parallel the first and a second throttling. Her death is averted by the news that the Woman has been saved by the reeds that were initially meant to save him and the Man and Woman are united for a euphoric conclusion, the sun rising on a new day and a new beginning for their lives. This is of course exactly how Mahler's Fifth Symphony ends with the hero miraculously brought back to life and the world set to rights on a glorious chorale. The film works in the end for me partly because of the amazing narrative structure, but mostly because the film appeals to the same senses that respond to music. We shouldn't forget that the greatest music is also structured with astonishing intellectual acuity to work its visceral emotional effect on the listener. Murnau here achieves the rare feat of creating a cinematic visualization of music which is as appealing to the intellect as it is over-powering to the senses. Completely satisfying in every respect, for me it is cinema's greatest love story, a truly glorious Song of Two Humans.