Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Murder, Love, Marriage

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Saturday, February 14, 2009
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco


“It’s a beautiful love story about a man who wants to kill his wife,” is how I once described F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) to a curious friend. Technically, this is an apt description of the plot, but the genius of the film lies in how Murnau transforms this rather simple story of murderous intent into a meditation on the cyclical, but enduring, love of marriage. The film's drama comes from the tension between these two stories, the one of murder and the one of marital love.

The Man and The Woman From the City

Sunrise starts with a scene of a lustful tryst between The Man, a simple farmer, and The Woman From the City, a flapper. In true femme fatale style, she promises him an exciting life together in the city, if only he’d dispose of his wife. He agrees and the story seems set, we are in for a tale of murder which will probably ending in the just punishment of this illicit couple. When he returns home, The Man tells The Wife, rightfully confused and scared, that he wants to take her to The City for the afternoon. He plans to drown her halfway across the river they must travel to reach their destination. The use of generic descriptions instead of character names in the title cards supports the impression that this is an allegorical story meant to teach a moral. We see them in the boat together; suddenly, he moves toward her and…doesn’t kill her. She simply stares at him, wordless, and all his plans go awry. His resolve fails and the audience expectation goes out the window.

In the same boat.

When they reach the shore, she, sensibly, flees from him into the sanctuary of a church. He follows and sees what she sees, a wedding. Both are profoundly moved by the ceremony, he realizes that he still loves his wife. They leave the church together and one of the most moving sequences in film history ensues. As they cross the street together, oblivious to the traffic dangerously whizzing around them, Murnau dissolves this shot into one of the pair walking in a woodland paradise. They have transcended reality and are in a world of their own, one of love and unity. Instead of an afternoon of murder, it is an afternoon of remarriage. The audience finds itself plunged into a deeply moving and personal story. The film follows The Man and The Wife as they explore The City, and one another.

Falling in love again.

But is it too late for redemption? As The Man and The Wife travel back across the river from their day out, their marriage born anew, a storm rises and sweeps The Wife out of the boat. Will she drown? Others know of his affair with The Woman, will The Man be blamed for The Wife’s death? Have we again slipped back into the murderous drama? Will he be cruelly punished for his former transgression with the death of his true love? Well, you’ll have to watch it if you want to find out.The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present Sunrise, the film that won the first and only Oscar for “best picture, unique and artistic production” accompanied live on the mighty Wurlitzer by Dennis James as part of their Winter Event at the Castro Theatre on Valentine’s Day. Those not lucky enough to see it in a theater can find it on DVD from Fox.


Here’s the whole SFSFF Winter Event line-up:


12 noon
Our Hospitality (1923)
Dir. Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone
Live piano accompaniment by Philip Carli

A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927)
Dir. Sergei Komarov
Live piano accompaniment by Philip Carli

Sunrise (1927)
Dir. F.W. Murnau
Live accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer by Dennis James

The Cat and the Canary (1927)
Dir. Paul Leni
Live accompaniment by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer and Foley Artist, Mark Goldstein

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