At the time studio head William Fox coaxed him to Holly- wood with the promise of an unlimited budget and complete control over the final product, F.W. Murnau was Europe's best director. Working out of Berlin, which hosted the continent's largest and most important film industry, Murnau had made seventeen films, including two classics of the era, Nosferatu, still the best telling of the Dracula story, and The Last Laugh, possibly the only silent movie ever made without title cards.
Fox's offer was a rare gift in the history of anything, much less motion pictures, and Murnau grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The movie he made, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, was not only the best picture of 1927, winning three Oscars in the awards' inaugural year, but is one of the greatest movies ever made.
Sunrise is the story of a marriage in crisis told in a lyrical style that taps into the audience's most basic emotional memories to make it feel the events on screen rather than to simply observe them. The exaggerated story—with attempted murder, near drownings and illicit trysts in muddy fields—is a prime example of Expressionism, an artistic style that appealed to emotions rather than intellect and influenced not only movies but also painting, literature and even architecture.
Because I have already written about Sunrise as the best picture of 1927-28, I want to focus here on Murnau's technique, first, his use of the camera and second, his use of sound.
Watching Sunrise, I was struck by how fluid and modern the camera work is, not just compared to other silent movies but to every movie that followed it until 1941's Citizen Kane. Murnau took advantage of a new electric-powered camera belonging to cinematographer Karl Struss to create swooping, seemingly hand-held tracking shots that helped establish the unsettled and unsettling mood of the story. Because Struss (who with Charles Rosher won the first Oscar for cinematography) did not have to hand-crank the lightweight camera from a stationary position, the camera could be hung from wires and float along with the actors as they moved through fields or through crowded city streets. This floating camera created a sense of "displacement" in the audience, that is, making the seemingly familiar just strange enough to force the viewer to see again as if for the first time.
Murnau also drew on other Express- ionist tech- niques to force his audience to see the familiar again for the first time—sets that looms over the farmer and his wife at impossible angles, strong lighting reminiscent of much-later film noir, and double exposures that reveal a character's thoughts such as the ghostly image of the man's lover embracing him and urging him on to murder.
Murnau also made effective use of sound at a time when other directors saw the new technology as a simple novelty and an excuse to shoe-horn a musical number into every movie. Released two weeks before The Jazz Singer, this was Fox Studios' first tentative foray into sound, and while Sunrise is silent in its lack of dialogue, it included a film score, sound effects, and although not yet synchronized to the images on the screen, even human voices.
After watching dozens of silent films while working on this blog, I was reminded again from the first moments of Sunrise just how powerful a music score is and what a difference it can make in setting a mood. Even before the opening credits are finished, the violin score establishes a sense of foreboding and the viewer is prepared for the conflict and violence that soon follows.
It seems obvious to say that a score written specifically for a movie creates a deeper emotional involvement that does a little random Wulitzer music, but if you see enough of these back-to-back-to-back, it jumps out at you nevertheless.
The score does something else, too. By creating a mood with a simple tune, it eliminates the need for many of the movie's title cards (those bits of written dialogue or explanation inserted between frames) which is a welcome relief. Pure exposition doesn't work any better in a movie than it does in a novel and it certainly doesn't work well when it's typed up and inserted into the middle of a love scene or an action sequence.
The use of sound isn't limited to the score and its effect is not merely a way to keep your ears busy while your eyes are working. Any number of sound effects—train whistles, barking dogs, squealing pigs—convey information beyond mere ambiance. Chiming clocks, for example, signal shifts in mood in Sunrise that might otherwise come as a surprise to the viewer.
And shifts in mood is as much what this movie is about as any mechanics of the plot. That Murnau was one of the first to understand how to use sound to create a specific effect is just one more reason why he is still considered one of history's greatest directors and wins the Katie for best director of 1927-28.
Unfortunately, Murnau's achievements went largely ignored. Sunrise was a masterpiece but failed in the only way that mattered to the studio—at the box office—and although the Academy acknowledged the film with three awards, including the only Oscar ever given for "Unique and Artistic Production," Murnau himself was not nominated for best director (neither, for that matter, was William A. Wellman who had directed the "other" best picture winner, Wings). The studio clipped Murnau's wings, limiting his budgets and reasserting control over the content and final cut of his movies.
Worse for the development of movies themselves, however, was the fact that cumbersome new sound-recording cameras made it impossible for other directors to follow Murnau's lead even had studio owners encouraged them to do so. Cameras of the era, even the hand-held ones used in Sunrise, were so loud they made sound recording impossible and they had to be enclosed in soundproof booths with the camera operator locked inside. The result was the theater stage look—medium and long shots with no movement whatsoever—that makes early sound movies so off-putting to a modern audience. It was not until 1958 that France's New Wave directors rediscovered the hand-held camera.
His creative freedom drastically limited, Murnau made two more movies for Fox, both critical and commercial failures, then left America for the South Pacific to work on the last great film of his career, Tabu, a love story between a young fisherman and a woman whom religious authorities have deemed sacred and therefore taboo. A week before the film's premiere, Murnau was killed in an automobile accident. He was 42.
I find it interesting that the greatest directors of the silent era, Murnau, Keaton, Chaplin, von Stroheim, Griffith, largely failed to make the transition to sound movies. There were individual reasons in each case—Griffith never progressed beyond the same simple story of virginity imperiled, Keaton's new contract with MGM proved to be a straightjacket, von Stroheim was an egomaniac, Chaplin was a slow-working perfectionist. And of course Murnau had the best excuse of all: he died.
But the overall impression is that an entire generation of great directors vanished, leaving the field to inferior hacks, and that this is how the studios wanted it. Film historians have suggested that the studios used the transition to sound as an opportunity to break well-paid directors (and actors) who had become too big for their britches.
I also suspect that to a degree, the directors themselves failed to adjust to the necessity of telling stories so badly after a decade of telling them so well. I'll note that given the opportunity to make Tabu as a sound picture, Murnau chose to make it a silent. Like many great directors of that era, if given the choice, he preferred silent pictures. The marketplace simply didn't allow that choice.
In any event, with the greatest directors gone or their output severely limited, and with the technology restricting their artistry, the directors who were left seemed to have forgotten how to make movies. It was more than a decade before John Ford, Orson Welles and others rediscovered the lessons Murnau taught and used them to bring motion pictures into the modern era.
A final postscript. Almost seventy years after Murnau's death, John Malkovich played him in the movie Shadow Of The Vampire, a fictionalized account of the making of Murnau's most famous work, Nosferatu. The movie is a sometimes funny, sometimes violent meditation on the damage an artist does in creating a masterpiece. In the case of Sunrise, a true masterpiece, the damage Murnau did was to his own career.
Meaningless Trivia: Out of curiosity, I looked up the total number of votes on the Internet Movie Database for movies made during the Silent Era (1900-1928). Not the average vote, mind you, just the raw totals, to get a sense of how many 21st century eyes have watched silent movies and which ones they're watching.
The top ten movies released before 1929 in terms of total imdb.com votes (with the director's name in parentheses):
Metropolis (Fritz Lang) 32,291
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau) 24,422
The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin) 17,038
The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman) 16,397
Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein) 14,815
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine) 14,115
The Kid (Charles Chaplin) 10,275
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer) 9,048
Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau) 8,851
The Birth Of A Nation (D.W. Griffith) 7,524
Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton) 5,284
Well, there it is, for what it's worth, which is, admittedly, not a lot. I would recommend any of the movies on the list except The Birth Of A Nation which would come as quite a shock to a modern audience and likely turn you off silent movies for good unless you've really prepared yourself for its stunningly racist views on American history not to mention its three hour running time which in a silent movie can feel like three weeks.
By the way, in case you're wondering, the most voted upon movie (as far as I can tell) is The Shawshank Redemption with 421,872 votes ...