Historian William K. Everson dubbed 1927 “the absolute zenith of the art of the silent film.” Metropolis, from Germany, and Napoleon, from France, are noteworthy enough to mark the year as significant. But that September also saw the release of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, F.W. Murnau’s celebrated first American feature. Imported from Germany by William Fox to lend his studio prestige, director Murnau had been given unprecedented carte blanche to make the film.
He built a village on the shores of Lake Arrowhead and a marshland at the Los Angeles studio, complete with two moons, as well as spent more than five months in production at a time when quickly made “programmers” were the bulk of Fox’s output. Murnau brought with him all the innovative techniques he had developed making his previous 17 films. Chiaroscuro lighting effects evoked mood and characters’ state of mind. His entfesselte kamera (unchained camera) meandered in long unedited takes throughout elaborate sets notable for, among other things, an impressive depth of field. The trade press followed the making of the film, relishing the production’s high cost. In February of that year, more than six months before the world saw Sunrise, even the New York Times saw fit to report about the film’s enormous sets: “Fox builds city a mile and a half wide.” When the movie finally made its world premiere on September 23 at New York’s Times Square Theatre, the big-name director was not even in the audience.
Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in 1888 into a middle-class family in Bielefeld, Murnau studied philology and art at the University of Heidelberg, later abandoning school to become an actor. Eventually settling in Berlin, he gravitated like many adventurous artists of his day to Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, playing roles in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Karl Vollmoeller’s The Miracle. In 1919, after serving in the German infantry and air force during World War I, he directed his first two pictures. Der Knabe in blau (The Boy in Blue) was made with a Deutsches Theater colleague, and the episodic Santanas was a collaboration with Robert Wiene, whose The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) heralded the arrival of expressionist cinema the following year. For his Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors (1922), Murnau adapted Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula and fused the palettes of Gothic, romantic, and abstract expressionist painting styles. But it was the purely visual storytelling of The Last Laugh (1924) with its single intertitle and its use of an inventive tracking camera to convey the downtrodden psyche of a demoted doorman that brought Murnau worldwide acclaim and an invitation from William Fox.
Fox had great ambitions for his studio. He began busily scooping up theater chains in 1925, expanding his West Coast operation, and investing in a sound-on-film process invented by Theodore Case. To fill his newly acquired movie palace screens with quality pictures, he cultivated homegrown talent, counting Raoul Walsh, John Ford, and Frank Borzage among his top directors. After seeing The Last Laugh at a preview screening held in New York before its Berlin premiere, he enticed Murnau to America with a six-figure salary and the promise of complete creative control.
The night of Sunrise’s New York opening, Murnau’s film was not the only attraction. Rather than the usual stage shows and live orchestral accompaniment that splashy premieres entailed in the silent era, the evening instead promised an “all-sound program” courtesy of Movietone technology. The Cadets at West Point, the first Movietone short subject, had screened for the New York press in February. In May, the Movietone crew filmed the sight and simultaneous sound of Lindberg taking off on his historic trans-Atlantic flight and rushed back to the lab to develop the footage. That same night at the Roxy Theatre, the audience gave the newsreel a ten-minute standing ovation.
For Sunrise’s unveiling, the studio commissioned a sound-on-film score that included crowd noises, clanging bells, and a blowing storm. Before the feature, the audience saw freshly minted Movietone short subjects: the Vatican Choir singing, a military parade (with band), and a speech urging international peace delivered partly in English by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The October 1 issue of Moving Picture World devoted an entire review to the 20-minute newsreel. “What impressed the audience most at the opening of Fox’s Sunrise … was not so much the fine picture made by Fred W. Murnau … as it was the Movietone accompaniment for the picture and the Movietone scenes … which preceded the main feature. … The perfection of the synchronization of sound and picture has at last been attained and hereafter anyone who doubts the future of this form of entertainment must be classified with those who thought that the ‘movie’ was only a passing amusement for children and folks of inferior mental capacity.”
After completing Sunrise, Murnau returned to Germany to fulfill an obligation to Ufa, which required he direct one more film. From Nine from Nine was never made, but Murnau, released from his contract, extended his visit home, missing the much-hyped New York premiere. He did return in time for Sunrise’s West Coast premiere on November 29 at the Carthay Circle Theatre. The star-studded evening featured a live orchestral score prepared by conductor Carli Elinor, who had built a reputation as musical director for high-profile premieres such as The Gold Rush, The Big Parade, and What Price Glory. In addition to fellow Fox director Frank Borzage, whose 7th Heaven had already demonstrated Murnau’s powerful impact on the Fox lot, the audience reportedly included Clara Bow, Clarence Brown, Joan Crawford, Dolores Del Rio, Hal Roach, Norma Shearer, and Irving Thalberg. The crowd burst into applause after the film’s stunning camera effects.
As it turned out, 1927 was also the zenith of Murnau’s career. After Sunrise’s record-breaking expense and anemic box-office returns, Fox encouraged the director, now signed to a four-year contract, to limit the budget and scale of his next projects. The specter of sound also haunted his final works. Both 4 Devils (1929), about a family of circus acrobats, and Our Daily Bread (1930, released as City Girl), set on a wheat farm, were partially reshot to fill the pressing demand for talking pictures. Film scholar Janet Bergstrom says that 25 percent of 4 Devils and about half of City Girl include new dialogue scenes made without Murnau’s participation.
While the entire industry was frantically converting to talkies, Murnau was far from studio control, working on an independent silent production with Nanook of the North director Robert Flaherty. Their 18-month adventure in French Polynesia resulted in Murnau’s last film. Tabu premiered March 19, 1931, one week after the director sustained fatal injuries from a car crash along the Pacific Coast highway. Both silent film and one of its leading artists were dead. Eleven people, including Greta Garbo, attended his wake in Los Angeles. His body was shipped back to Berlin, where fellow German director Fritz Lang offered a final, prescient farewell: “Many centuries hence everyone would know that a pioneer left us in the midst of his career.”
Preceded by an outtake from the orphan film F.W. Murnau and George O’Brien Leaving Paris for Berlin (1927)
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Giovanni Spinelli on electric guitar