The silent film experience is worth your time and attention

Joshua Farley, Sophomore Contributor

We have already overviewed Mr. Jennings’s Film Study class and the Silent movies you can experience by taking it. Of these, I mentioned my favorite: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, directed by F. W. Murnau, and that I had more gushing to do about it than could have easily been finished in that article. There are so many aspects of it that are deserving of our attention after almost one hundred years, and that hopefully will be integrated into more movies in the future.

We already mentioned Nosferatu, and that it represented a step forward for the film industry. However, when watching this revolutionary movie today, something feels “off”. It’s hard to specifically pin down, but Nosferatu feels unrefined, like the format of feature-length narrative style films was still trying to find what exactly it was trying to be. Whatever the reason, the point is that there was still more legwork to be done to create film’s first masterpiece— something that would redefine what the medium would become as it transitioned to the sound era.

According to Mr. Jennings (and myself), the film that achieves these things the best is Sunrise. Almost everything it does would go on to be inspirational to future filmmakers, and when watching the film, it’s not hard to see why. The story is simple, yet strange: a man decides to drown his wife to be with a new woman he’s met recently. He can’t go through with it, and the two make up quickly. After spending a day in the city, the two are completely in love again, but a disaster strikes on the way back home that could change everything. The plot itself is intriguing, and it’s interesting to watch the couple try to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship. But, the movie is at its best when it stops focusing on the plot, and instead puts the attention on its characters, their performances, the settings, and the score.

During that middle section in the city, there is little in the way of actual plot, and instead the audience follows behind the couple as they explore and make up with each other (strangely quickly!). This part of the film is absolutely transcendent, and works for me for several reasons. First, the acting is perhaps the greatest I’ve ever seen. While we talked before about the broad and flailing gestures from the other movies, this is nowhere to be seen in Sunrise. Instead, Janet Gaynor, who plays the man’s wife, gives the most convincing and heartfelt performance I’ve seen in any film, absolutely selling every moment and making her character seem very real and fleshed out, even winning the first ever Oscar for Best Actress after starring in Sunrise. This performance brings the audience along for the ride as the two continue through their journey, mostly without intertitles explaining what they may be saying (which I didn’t realize was a real thing before I saw this movie), which has the pleasant effect of allowing the audience to use their imaginations as to what may be happening, creating a truly engrossing experience that requires a level participation that isn’t really possible in the “talkies”.

The score of the movie also goes very far to make this movie one of the best. In fact, Sunrise had another revolutionary breakthrough, in that it was one of the first movies to have its score included on the film directly, a major step towards sound in movies (it came out about a month before the first “talkie”). The score itself is incredible and very moving, using themes and leitmotifs to introduce characters and also for the love of the two main characters, further strengthening the immersion and engrossing the audience in the minds of the characters.

The last interesting aspect to mention is one that the creators of the film never could have intended, which is that watching the movie feels like stepping back in time. When the couple is walking around the city, they pass by countless people going about their business like normal in the year 1927, making the movie into a time capsule, where watching almost feels like living 95 years ago for yourself, due to the high levels of immersion that the experience creates. The visuals always would have been impactful, occasionally inserting shots that are detached from reality, pure swirls of unbridled emotion. The physical settings and sets are also breathtaking, but by this point, were much more realistic than the German Expressionism of old, as witnessed in Nosferatu.

All this is to say that Sunrise is a true masterpiece that must be seen to be believed, as this is the only way to feel its vast palette of emotions for yourself: from true joy and love, to the depths of sadness at losing everything you hold dear. I was in disbelief by the time I finished my first viewing of Sunrise, as my eyes were open to the untapped potential of Silent movies, then and now, especially as technology has improved greatly since then. I would love to see more films like this, that, as the title of Sunrise suggests, capture exactly what it means to be human. This is the film that made me fall in love with movies over again and with Silent media in general, so I highly recommend it. If you have ever felt any of these emotions, it’s likely that you will, too.