Lured to Hollywood by producer William Fox, German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau created one of the silent cinema’s last and most luminous masterpieces.
“Along with Sjöstrom’s The Wind and Vidor’s The Crowd, Sunrise marked the summit (the end) of the silent period’s achievements and was a portent of the cinema to come.”
Jean-André Fieschi, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, 1980
Associated with 1920s German Expressionism, with its exaggerated sets and lighting techniques, F.W. Murnau brought the style with him to Hollywood for this expensive super-production.
The simple story of a husband’s betrayal of his wife with a treacherous city girl, the film moves from a fairytale-like depiction of rural life to a dynamic portrait of the bustling modern American city. Explored in elaborate tracking shots by Charles Rocher and Karl Struss’s pioneering camerawork, as when the unnamed Man and Wife first arrive by tram, the city set was one of the most costly yet produced.
The result was a commercial flop, though the achievement did not go unheralded: Sunrise was awarded a special Oscar for unique and artistic production at the first ever Academy Awards.
A companion piece to Sunrise, in Murnau’s City Girl (1929) a farmer’s son marries a big-city girl and brings her home to live on the farm.