Sep 12, 2008

Sunrise: A Masterpiece Lost in Time


The early masters of cinema are fading in time with each passing year. The world has changed a lot since the silent years of cinema and the film audience has also changed. Ironically, not much has changed in the way of storytelling. People still desire to see a story about a couple in love and the conflicts they encounter. F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is no doubt one of the greatest love stories to have ever graced the silver screen. The film’s German Director F.W. Murnau managed to import elements of German expressionist cinema and bring them to the Hollywood studio resulting in a tale of aesthetically powerful and engaging rediscovered love. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a film that emphasizes the triumph of true love over sham of new subversive love, a film depicting the battle of the old rural life against the promises of a new life found in the form of a cosmopolitan city. In its essence, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a film expressing various related dichotomies facing human beings both during the time of the film’s release and even at the present.

F.W. Murnau stated in 1927, “It is very strange to me that we have a generation born and grown manhood since the motion pictures were invented, and yet so far, no great poet of the new art has arisen (Fischer 52).” I don’t know whether Murnau spoke these words out of pretension or when subconsciously thinking of himself. My belief is that F.W. Murnau was the first great artist and poet of cinema. Although cinematic artists came before him, Murnau was the first to truly master his art before his tragic and untimely death. When viewing F.W. Murnau’s small lexicon of films (most of his first being lost), it is obvious that there was an artistic progression with each film.


The artist known as F.W. Murnau was born F.W. Plumpe in Bielefeld, Westphalia. He adopted the pseudo surname of Murnau after a small Bavarian town in Germany famous for its artists’ colony, the Blaue Reiter group (Fischer 10). Murnau was educated as he graduated from the University of Heidelberg studying literature and art history. His background in history would eventually inspire his artistry as a filmmaker (Fischer 56). In fact, many filmmakers have compared Murnau’s mise en scène to that of still life compositions. This is also obvious when considering Murnau’s name change. The Bavarian town associated with the famous Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) movement in Germany of the early 1900’s (Fischer 57). It can be expected that a student of art history would have known of the famous art movement and its painters. The Blaue Reither group was lead by Russian immigrant painter Wassily Kandinksy and featured such other painters as Alexei von Jawlensky, Paul Klee, August Macke, Franz Marc, Gabriele Munter, and Marianne von Werefkin (Fischer 57). While most film directors seemed to be influenced by the theater, Murnau seemed to take influence primarily from painters. This is something that set him apart from most filmmakers of his time (and before him) and even the German expressionist film movement that he was a part of.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was the first film that F.W. Murnau would direct in America and for Fox Film Corporation founder William Fox. Fox’s biographer claim’s that the legendary producer stated Murnau was “the genius of his age” and that his previous German film The Last Laugh was “the greatest motion picture of all time (Allen and Gomery 93).” These are quite bold statements from a man of William Fox’s American cinema pioneering stature. Fox made a very risky move when deciding to import F.W. Murnau and many of his German filmmaking associates to make films for him at Fox Film Corporation. Unfortunately for both Fox and Murnau, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans failed to even recoup its costs as it was the most expensive silent film made by Fox at that time (Allen and Gomery 91). F.W. Murnau would only make two more films (Four Devils and City Girl) at Fox Film Corporation that both suffered from director’s nightmare of studio interference. Murnau’s last film would be a co-direction with documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty appropriately titled Tabu. Soon after the completion (and before the premiere), F.W. Murnau would tragically die in an automobile accident.


Although a financial failure, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is one of the greatest artistic achievements in cinema history. The very first Academy Awards (1929) took notice as Sunrise received an Oscar (among other awards) for “Unique and Artistic Production” despite the films lack of monetary success (Fischer 14). The award predated the “Best Picture” Oscar. Englishman Charles Rosher and German Karl Struss also received the first Academy Award for Cinematography (Fischer 15). To call the cinematography work in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans breathtaking would be an understatement. Englishman Charles Rosher learned a lot of his craft and techniques from German cinematographer Carl Hoffman while working on F.W. Murnau’s adaptation of Faust (1926). Rosher stated of Hoffman, ’I took several ideas back, including a dolly suspended from railway tracks in the ceiling which I adapted for Sunrise.’ Rosher’s assertation is no surprise when taking a look at the seamless and flawless long shots so prevalent in Faust. I would be lying to not acknowledge the crew members that contributed to Sunrise in very crucial ways.

F.W. Murnau

The story for Sunrise was written by Murnau collaborator Carl Mayer, which he adapted from a story written by Hermann Sudermann (Fischer 12). Carl Mayer, an Austrian writer, was a major player in German expressionist cinema and even co-authored the script of the iconic Das Cabient des Dr. Caligari. Mayer decided to stay in Germany during the production of Sunrise (Fischer 12). Another important member of the Sunrise team was set designer Rochus Gliese, who contributed a lot to the overall look of the expressive film. I can’t imagine a contemporary set designer putting as much detail as the atmospheric swamp found in the rural farm in Sunrise. This is a scene that no doubt caused a cold chill to sneak up the back of audience member’s necks upon viewing the film.

F.W. Murnau wasn’t the only German director to pack his bags for America. Out of all the other German Expressionist filmmakers to decide it was time to work in Hollywood, Fritz Lang is the only other one worth praise in the same league as Murnau. Lang’s German films were of a much grander scale than most of Murnau’s, as seen in Die Nibelungeon (1924), Metropolis (1927), and the sound film M (1931). Fritz Lang’s influence on contemporary Sci-fi films is obvious upon viewing (especially Metropolis). Lang even made cinematic politic attacks against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party with his film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Nazi Minster of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels said of the film: ‘I shall ban this film…because it proves that a group of men who are determined to the last…could succeed in overturning any government by brute force (Eisner 130).’ Unlike Lang, F.W. Murnau was a fairly apolitical film director that thankfully never saw the day that Adolf Hitler took power in his homeland. Fritz Lang was also supposedly offered (according to Lang himself) by Goebbels to be the head of the Nazi propaganda film industry despite being of half Jewish ancestry (Eisner 131). Lang would eventually make his way to America and direct Anti-Nazi propaganda film such as Man Hunt (1941) and Hangmen Also Die! (1943).

Unlike Murnau, Fritz Lang had a very long film career spanning four decades. Lang had his largest and most lavish production during his German era. Unfortunately, most of his American films are considered B films and some later ones even unwatchable. Fritz Lang did, however, direct some of his best films in America (despite their budgets). Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) is one of the greatest and most brutal film noirs to ever be made. A film that echo’s back to Lang’s shadowy German child murder masterpiece M starring Peter Lorre as the pathetic killer. Despite working in the same genres and film movements, Murnau and Lang are fairly different directors. Murnau’s films are much more soft focused and atmospheric in nature. F.W. Murnau was an individual more interested in artistic elements of the film being very specific to the very last detail. Fritz Lang seemed more interested in telling a very dark story and emphasizing the visual power (but not necessarily artistic power) of special effects. Fritz Lang’s influence can be easily seen in more recent Sci-fi films such as Star Wars IV: A New Hope(1977) and Dark City (1998). F.W. Murnau’s influence on cinema is much harder to find (aside from Nosferatu) nowadays. Of course, Fritz Lang’s career lasted much longer than Murnau’s, so who knows what type of influence (if any at all) Murnau may have had if he had lived a full life. Both F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang have contributed a wealth of important films to the history of motion pictures. To accurately compare them in terms of significance and quality would be pointless.

Fritz Lang

The year that Fritz Lang directed the first in his Mabuse series (Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) was the year F.W. Murnau released his most widely known film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922). Nosferatu is in many ways the polar opposite film in way of approach to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Nosferatu (based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker) takes a realistic approach to a supernatural story whereas Sunrise takes a sometimes dreamlike approach to a fairly realistic story. F.W. Murnau utilized real castles in ruins found in Eastern Europe to give Nosferatu an authentic feeling of gothic horror. This was in extreme contrast to the often elaborate sets designed for the typical German expressionist film. Sunrise uses a variety of dreamlike and surreal scenes to derive emotions you wouldn’t expect from such a simple story. Contemporary American auteur Martin Scorsese called Sunrise a ’super production, an experimental film and visionary poet (Fischer 52).’ Quite powerful words from a man often considered one of America’s greatest filmmakers. After a scene of making up between man and wife in Sunrise, they stroll down a busy street full of traffic that magically turns into a beautiful country field. The scene derives emotions of natural and pleasant love via surrealism. When one thinks of surrealism, they generally think of an image that is initially surprising and even absurd. Early surrealistic directors such as Luis Buñuel (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) and Jean Cocteau (Blood of a Poet, 1930) utilized surrealism and dream sequences as an unconscious ambiguous art. F.W. Murnau manages to use this abrupt appearance of the country field as a sign of a love that was thought to be lost, once again appearing. Scenes like this one (and countless other found within Sunrise) are a true testament to the magic of cinema.

Another important scene using the surreal (or dreamlike) is when identifying the dichotomy of differences between the city and the rural. The femme fatale vamp makes her intentions and desires apparent early on in Sunrise. During a very atmospheric scene bordering on gothic horror, the farmer protagonist of Sunrise meets the city girl (dressed like a flapper) in a secluded swamp. She convinces the farmer that he must drown his wife so that she and the man can move to the city together. A dreamlike image (playing like a movie screen for the farmer and the vamp) is then superimposed over the swamp featuring the farmer’s wife falling into a river with the inter title “couldn’t she get drowned?” Images of the city also float over the swamp to entice the farmer of a new life in a developing city. Like the images superimposed over this, the promise of a new life seems more dreamlike than real in the first place. The super fantasy element of living a life in the city is more a dream of the farmer than something he will actually commit to (which of course, he doesn’t). The farmer finally realizes the errors of his ways and almost ends up killing the city girl.


Sunrise wasn’t the only film that F.W. Murnau directed dealing with the “purity” of the rural and the appealing modern vices of the city. Murnau’s third and final film with Fox Film Corporation, City Girl (1930), originally titled Our Daily Bread, also confronts the crucial differences between the rural and the city (and the people in each). Murnau’s final film Tabu (1931) also deals with a similar theme. The sudden appearance of civilized Westerners comes to jeopardize the sacredness of Polynesian islanders and their spirituality. This also works hand in hand with the two Polynesian couples desire to go forward with a forbidden love (the ultimate “Tabu”) that predictably ends in tragedy. Many of Murnau’s films put trust more into nature (and its unexplainable natural mysticism) than that of science and logic. F.W. Murnau’s gothic vampire masterpiece Nosferatu also takes view. Initially, the people of the fictitious German city Wisborg, blame the sudden occurrences of death of the townspeople on the plague. Their rational and logical assumption is proven to be untrue when they realize that the killer is no other than the horrifying vampire Count Orlock. F.W. Murnau, a man that received a formal university education, still felt more compelled to look at the horrors affecting in a supernatural way than a logical one. This type of psychological escapism is most likely part of the same genius that made Murnau the cinematic genius that he was: a genius that was never truly understood in Hollywood.

Like many other German and Austrian immigrants who came to America to work in the Hollywood studio system, F.W. Murnau was a victim of discrimination. This antagonist attitude occurred almost immediately when the towering and lanky director began working on his first American film Sunrise. Many of the European directors were seen as ’Prima Donnas’ and their unique craft was seen as “weird” instead of innovative (Fischer 19). It can only be assumed that Americans were full of jealousy and intimidation when confronted with European filmmakers. After all, Sunrise combines elements of Europe and America into a hybrid of the highest of form of cinematic art. Fox studio head William Fox (who was an immigrant from Hungary) also felt it was necessary to make a statement about the discrimination and stereotypic labels that Americans placed on European filmmakers. Fox denied Sunrise being a “strange” and “weird” film. His reasoning for making this statement was, “because of the exotic and sometimes freakish character of the majority of foreign films which have been shown in this country (Allen and Gomery 102).” William Fox’s statement is obviously geared towards the common American filmgoer and critics as he felt Murnau’s innovative film The Last Laugh(as stated earlier) was “the greatest motion picture of all time (Allen and Gomery 93). It is obvious that F.W. Murnau had no type (at least openly) of hostility towards the United States upon viewing Sunrise and his subsequent films. The trend of discriminating against European film directors and crewmembers didn’t stop during the silent and early sound Hollywood studio era. Later exports like Roman Polanski would also face similar discrimination (prior to the charges brought against him). It is understandable that American born filmmakers working in the Hollywood studio system would be in fear of foreign born filmmakers making more impressive and superior films in their indigenous countries.


During the release of Sunrise, The United States was still a fairly puritanical nation in fear of the foreign “other.” This would explain the contrived moral element found in Sunrise in context of both female love interests. The farmer’s wife is a very traditional puritan looking woman. She seems to have completely dedicated herself to both her family and husband. Her long blond hair is tied back and her choice of dress is very conservative. The woman from the city, on the other hand, is in complete contrast to these puritanical elements. She is a woman that dresses in all black (very obvious symbolism for the time) and isn’t someone you would want to bring home to your mother. The woman from the city also has very short hair that flappers of that time period would have. Flappers were known to be very “loose” women who indulged in hedonistic activities. American flapper actress Louise Brooks, who starred in the German film production Pandora’s Box(directed by German G. W. Pabst), even posed nude during that socially restrictive time period.

Louise Brooks

During the silent era, women were generally split into two opposing categories, the virgin (pure in action) and the whore (usually a Vamp). When examining Sunrise, the farmer’s wife obviously being the virgin (despite having a child), and the promiscuous city girl as the whore. The “pure” woman of the silent era was often considered to be childlike, fulfilling the Victorian ideal of what a woman should be (Fischer 41). The farmer’s wife is certainly someone of that nature. The city girl, on the other hand, is independent. She has spent time conspiring and has concocted a plan for the farmer to kill his wife and go with her to the city. Feminist film critic Janet Staiger stated of the female character of the Vamp, “The character of the vamp seems almost to be merely a foil for an extensive examination of the power of sex, women’s rights in this new age, and the crumbling belief in the assertion that some nineteenth century notions of the family’s behavior were still pertinent for twentieth-century America (Fischer 43).

When examining F.W. Murnau’s film lexicon (often visually and thematically subversive in nature) and his own personal background (he was a Homosexual and family black sheep), it becomes apparent the dichotomy of women found in Sunrise was most likely formed by pressure put on Murnau. As I stated before, Murnau’s films were also fairly apolitical in nature and his mind strictly geared toward artistry (first and foremost). The thought of a woman that thinks independently is really not something you would expect Murnau to fear. Despite condemning independent and promiscuous women in his films, F.W. Murnau befriended these types of women in real life. Swedish actress Greta Garbo was a good friend of Murnau. She was such a good friend of Murnau that she commissioned a death mask to be made of the director after his death (Anger 246). The mask would stay on top of her desk during all of her years at Hollywood (Anger 246). Greta Garbo was also assumed to be a bisexual and had various relationships with women including Hollywood actress and screenwriter Salka Vietrel (Anger 246). Growing up in a proper family background, F.W. Murnau learned how to adapt to certain repressive and proper backgrounds. Having to do this in the Hollywood studio system for American audiences would have been no problem for the director.


Despite having to submit to the moral conformity of American culture and the Hollywood film studio system, F.W. Murnau had the potential to change the look of the Hollywood film. Had Sunrise been popular with the American film going audience, the aesthetic of American film would have most likely changed with it. William Fox took the chance with the “German genius” and the end result was not to his monetary liking. Sunrise was doomed (like the director) from the beginning. The film was poor promoted and released during the time when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer had changed the way Americas watched (and listened) films (Allen and Gomery 103). Although Sunrise features a variety of complimentary music and sounds, it was no match for the one man singing shows performed by the legendary Al Jolson. On top of competition with other groundbreaking films, Sunrise was just too European for American audiences. America’s animosity towards the European “other” (despite most American’s being of European descent) just didn’t help to make Sunrise appealing.

F.W. Murnau’s early death only caused the director to be forgotten in America much sooner. Considering only two of his American films survive in their entirety (Sunrise and Tabu) and the lack of public interest in the silent era, the chance of the average contemporary filmgoer stumbling upon Murnau’s work is very slim. The death of F.W. Murnau is even one of mystery and confusion. Rumors surrounding Murnau’s death in an automobile range from the late director crashing the car himself, to the director’s hired fourteen-year-old Filipino valet Garcia Stevenson riding off the road as Murnau performed fellatio on the teenager (Anger 246). The mystery of F.W. Murnau’s death parallels lack of information on who the German born director was and where he ultimately derived his genius from.


The influence of Sunrise on American cinema today is virtually (if not completely) nonexistent. F.W. Murnau’s most influential film ( in an American and international context) can be assumed to be Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Most filmgoers can vouch for having at least seeing an image of the frightening grotesque and icon vampire Count Orlok. German New Wave director Werner Herzog would pay tribute to his German cinematic grandfather with his remake Nosferatu: The Vampyre (1979). A recent Hollywood vampire film, 30 Days of Night (2007), features a variety of vampires that were obviously influenced by the ghastly stare of Count Orlok. Hollywood film Shadow of the Vampire (2000) also tells a fictional tale of F.W. Murnau and his cinematic quest to direct Nosferatu starring a real vampire. My introduction to Murnau was also with Nosferatu.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a film all serious fans of cinema should take upon themselves to view. A cinematic poem, Sunrise is a film which gave evidence that the form of the cinema couple be changed. This is a film that showed much promise for the future of cinematic and aesthetic achievements. Sadly, Hollywood found the film incapable of producing large sums of money. Hollywood has become less and less interested in art over the years and more interested in sneaking in advertisements in scenes. I hope that F.W. Murnau has no ghost as he would be haunted by what Fox Film Corporation has turned into.



Works Cited

Allen, Robert and Douglas Gomery, ed. Film History: Theory and Practice. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New York: Dell, 1975.

Eisner, Lotte. Fritz Lang. London: De Capo Press, 1976.

Fischer, Lucy. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. London: BFI, 1998.


-Ty E

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