mandag 21. juni 2010
German Romanticism in Hollywood
In 1927, William Fox hired German film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau to make movies for Fox Studios. On the first feature, Fox gave Murnau full artistic freedom and a big budget to make what was to become Sunrise, A song of two humans. What is the movie about and how is this manifested cinematically? I will try to answer these questions as well as using film reviews to further my arguments.
The story of the film is said to take place “Every place and no place” and consists of characters as types more than individuals which is manifested by calling them simply “the man”, “the woman” and “the woman from the city”. This creates a fable-like backdrop in which the film takes place. Murnau had large and elaborate sets made for the film. This enabled him to use lighting more accurately and also creates a very special aesthetic look. Movement is an important feature in Sunrise. Murnau and his coworkers revolutionized cinema just three years before Sunrise with the use of the unchained camera on the film Der Letzte Mann (1924). They wanted the camera to be able to move about freely. They achieved this effect with a new, lighter and more convenient camera strapped on to the cameraman (Eisner,155). The unchained camera gives the spectator the effect of moving around in the filmic universe, enhancing the illusion of real life or maybe more accurately; give the spectator a more active part. With a static non-moving camera the viewer would feel like he was merely observing something being acted out, but with a free moving camera he feels like he is participating. This is most clearly illustrated in the sequence where we, as a spectator, follow the man through the forest to meet with the woman from the city (which I will from here on refer to as “the vamp”). We literarily walk through the misty forest with the help of the unchained camera, even brushing away bushes to be able to get a view of the vamp and the man. And if not the camera itself is moving, it is strapped to a moving vehicle e.g. the boat and the tram. Murnau uses movement to heighten the drama; the violent rowing of the man, the cathartic tram ride with the speeding tram and the dizzying and violent traffic in the city.
Nature and animals are recurring motifs. The dog senses fear and danger right before the man sets out on the boat ride, the woman notice the stillness and sense of danger through observing a flock of ducks on the lake and the pig creating havoc inside the restaurant. Jo Leslie Coller, in her book From Wagner to Murnau connects this with the tradition of romanticism and compares it with German romantic composer Richard Wagner’s work: “Nature also pervades the works of both artists as a living force, usually in terms of weather or of the animal kingdom. (…) There is little difference between the birds who warn Siegfried of Mime’s murderous intent and the dog in Sunrise(…) (106). It also seems to be Murnau’s intent to criticize the modern, urbanized world: The city, embodied by the vamp, corrupting the rural utopia, the economics forces the man to sell his livestock and the chaotic impersonal, egotistical and dangerous urban life symbolized by the speeding cars and the innocent little pig creating chaos at the restaurant. Murnau’s view of paradise and happiness seems to lie in nature. After the couple have reconciled in the church, they walk across the road with the camera moving along with them. Murnau transports them from a chaotic street to nature with the means of double exposure. They walk down a path with peaceful and beautiful scenery unfolding before them. An abrupt cut back to the city is made and to chaos with the honking cars.
German expressionistic methods are frequently used in Sunrise. Internal matter is shown explicitly. Emotions and psychology become part of the misè-en-scene, the acting and the camera angles. Murnau has O’Brien walk like a monster, literally carrying his mental burden, staggering with a transfixed stare as being under a spell. Also when the man sits on the bed, the image of the vamp is shown holding around him in a double exposure, having a tight grip of him. He uses the color black on the promiscuous dark-haired vamp’s costume expressing her evil state of mind whilst the blonde wife is dressed simple in an innocent farmers dress. The materializing of thoughts is also used a lot. By filming a face and the dissolving to an image and back to the face, the filmmaker signals to the spectator that we are watching the character’s thoughts. In one example, the man is lying on the bed. Murnau cuts from his face, to his wife, indicating that he is watching her and then a slow dissolve to the water in the lake outside the house. This alludes to the man’s thoughts of drowning her. In another instance, also indicated with a dissolve, he visualizes himself pushing his wife into the lake from the boat.
Lighting is also an important feature of Sunrise. The opening of the movie uses chiaroscuro lighting to emphasis the dark, disturbing and sinister motives of the man and the vamp. Murnau shifts to natural lighting and traditional three-point lighting for the city-scenes, in which the couple rediscovers love. The holy sanctity of marriage is also emphasized by having a “divine” light shine down on the marrying couple in the church. Darkness is once again used for the capsizing of the boat and finally bright light fills Janet Gaynor’s face as she wakes up after being nearly drowned, alluding to the title of the film.
There is a sense of romanticism in that the man and wife are also depicted as children. The neighbors recall them being “like children” and they fool around like children in the photographers studio, even knocking down a statue and trying desperately to cover up their folly. Coller links also this to Romanticism and thinks this creates an asexual innocence, contrasting the sexually alluring vamp and the pure Madonna-like wife (124). It is also worth noting that by using Fox’s Movietone technology, Murnau was able to combine music and image, and to get just the right expression he wanted. It is used very effectively when the man is searching for his wife. A melancholic trumpet mimics his desperate calls with a descending two-tone motif. This is reversed later when his wife is found with an optimistic ascending two-tone motif. Sound effects, such as car horns and crowd noises are used while in the city.Sunrise could be seen as a melodrama with the heightened emotions and the love-triangle drama, but it also has elements of comedy. In the city; Murnau uses comic relief to remove the previous tension of the film with the pig incident. It is a story of redemption, of temptation, but also of nature and man’s removal from it.
Lousie Bogan, film critic for The New Republic, states that: “Sunrise is not fortunate in its art director. It has had contrived for it a village evidently molded from marzipan, artificial trees (…) and a claptrap moon. Mr. Murnau does not need this “art” super-imposed upon his reality” (195). I disagree with this judgment. It is not Murnau’s intention to create a realistic universe, and I will argue is deliberately done this way to emphasize the fable-aspect of the movie. Sunrise starts with a drawing of a train at a station, which cuts and the same exact image of train, except now it is real. It seems like Murnau is suggesting already in the opening frame that this is a fable. It is not realistic and he does not want you to get that impression either. It states in the opening intertitle: “of no place and all places”. The characters do not have names, only generalized as the man or woman from the city. Murnau had shown that he could work on location and do it well, as he does in Nosferatu (1922), so it was a deliberate choice to film it using the full potential of the studio. Bogan is right in that there is a kind of reality to the picture, namely the moving camera. It makes Murnaus fairytale world come alive, but he does seem to not want the spectator to forget that this is not real. Murnau does not want his film to be transparent, to just show us an objective reality. He wants it to be like paintings; un-transparent, showing the viewer a magical world outside of reality. He was not interested in making films of Lumiere-esque realism. His aim with cinema was to elevate it from reality. This is obvious when looking at his previous films Faust, Der Letzte Mann and Nosferatu.
Pare Lorentz, film critic and film maker, wrote in 1927 a positive review about Sunrise, but had one objection:
“Then something happens. (…) Sunrise deliberately becomes slapstick and at loose ends, and my theory is that William Fox either would not let Murnau produce the film as he wanted or else scared him so that he felt an American audience would not stand for a movie without a Prohibition joke in it. It is as terrible as Hamlet suddenly leaving off his soliloquy to do the Black Bottom” (6-7).
Lorentz does not like the radical changing of mood in the film, but is this an error within the art work itself? The movie suggests even in the title of an optimistic tale, and it seems like Murnau deemed laughter an important element in reconciling the man and wife. It is if Murnau wants to depict transformation and redemption by making the piece itself and its effect on the spectator a transformation. The mood changes all through the film, from the eerie opening, the brutal murder attempt, the melodramatic and melancholic forgiveness, the laughter, the shock and finally the relief. Murnau plays the whole range of emotions, but somehow laughter is deemed inappropriate by Lorentz. It may be the way it is done, that troubles Lorentz, but he does not articulate that in the review.
Coller, Jo Leslie (1988). From Wagner to Murnau; The transposition of Romanticism from stage to screen. Umi Research Press, London.
Eisner, Lotte (1973). Murnau. University of California press, California.
Kauffmann, Stanley.ed. (1972) American Film Criticism; from the beginnings to Citizen Kane. Liveright, New York.
Lorentz, Pare (1975). Lorentz on film. Hopkinson and Blake, New York.