Dir: F. W. Murnau
USA 1927, 79 minutes
With: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Feted for his mould-breaking German films including Faust, Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, there were huge expectations of F. W. Murnau when he first arrived in America in 1926 to make a feature at the new Fox studios. Over $200,000 was spent constructing a village and a city, using a combination of life-size sets and miniatures to create a sense of scale, and within this world Murnau plotted out a high-velocity melodrama of simple, rural values up against jazz-age urban sophistication. The Woman from the City, a chain-smoking femme fatale, convinces her lover to kill his wife. On the verge of doing the deed he finds himself incapable, and instead chases her into the city in a remarkable sequence shot onboard a tram.
The camera continually moves in Sunrise, prowling through heavy traffic or soggy marshland, and like Orson Welles after him Murnau was prepared to try out every cinematic trick in the book to crank up the drama and emotion. Along with the pyrotechnics there’s also a genuinely affecting love story as well as some bizarre slapstick involving a pig, and the film as a whole is a good deal more thrilling than you might expect from something labelled by French critics as “the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema.”
Silent movies spawned multiple versions for different territories, and the one screening tonight is from a print recently discovered in the Czech Republic; a little shorter than the better known Movietone print, but it looks gorgeous. It will be accompanied by Alcyona Mick on piano, Jon Wygens on guitar and Geoff Hannan on violin.
Presented in association with Birmingham Jazz.