I went to see pianist Joanna MacGregor and saxophonist Andy Sheppard play their new live score for Sunrise, F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent film, more for the jazz. I thought I might be slightly irritated and distracted by the flickering images above the musicians’ heads.  I could not have been more mistaken: I was totally enthralled by Sunrise, and now understand why it is regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. Images from it have haunted my mind ever since the screening.

The event – staged in the impressive surroundings of the Leggate Theatre in Liverpool University’s beautiful Victoria Building – was part of this year’s Open Circuit Festival of New Music and Audio-Visual Performance, organised by the University Music department. With the film projected on a screen above them, Joanna MacGregor and Andy Sheppard’s performance was a musical tour de force in which they met the challenge of providing live accompaniment to a silent film for over an hour and a half, and in perfect synchronicity with the mood of the scenes we we were seeing. Their music enhanced the film without dominating it.

Deep River: original sheet music, 1927
Deep River: original sheet music, 1927

Many of the musical passages were recognisable from the musicians’ superb collaboration of a few years back, Deep River. That album was inspired by visits made by Joanna McGregor to the American Deep South and her attempt, being the daughter of a lay preacher in an Evangelical church, to ‘tread a path round all the songs and styles I grew up with’. From Deep River we heard their arrangements of gospel and blues numbers such as  ‘Up Above my Head’, and ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, as well as Johnny Cash’s gorgeous ‘Spiritual’, Tom Waits ‘Picture in a Frame’, and the duo’s interpretation of the 1927 recording of ‘Deep River’. It was remarkable how much of these pre-composed passages matched the mood of scenes from the film whose essence arguably is summed up in lines from ‘Deep River’ which speak of ‘crossing over’ and ‘going up to heaven where I’ll walk about’.

Because in Sunrise a man and wife cross a river and arrive in the big city, imagined by Murnau as a modern heaven, a vision of a fairytale metropolis with its glass-vaulted railroad station, cavernous restaurant space, crowded dance hall, and surging motor traffic where the couple find redemption.

Murnau is probably best-known for his 1922 film Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I saw many years ago. Sunrise is the film he made after he had been summoned to the United States by William Fox to make a film for his new studio. Sunrise Murnau worked with the cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss to achieve an extraordinary stylistic breakthrough; of their luscious black-and-white photography and sweeping camera moves one critic has written: ‘The motion picture camera – for so long tethered by sheer bulk and naiveté – had with Sunrise finally learned to fly.’

Sunrise: the big city
Sunrise: the big city

But the film was released in 1928, right at the end of the silent film era, at the very moment when silent films were giving way to sound, and was not a great success at the time. It was only decades later that Sunrise came to be recognized as one the greatest movies ever made, a swan-song for a vanishing medium and one of its greatest expressions, a story about innocence and experience, urban and rural America, love and violence.

Its full title Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Murnau’s film begins with this lyrical intertitle:

This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets, in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.

Sunrise 2
Sunrise: the promise of sex and violence in the air.

Sunrise begins at nightfall in a lakeside village, with the promise of sex and the threat of violence in the air. The Man steps out from his cottage home, leaving his Wife and child to meet Woman of the City (a seductive vamp in black satin and bobbed hair, smoking cigarettes) in the moonlight. She encourages him to commit murder so that they can be together in the city. But is he really prepared to drown his sweet young wife?

Sunrise 1

In the end, he doesn’t follow through with the plan to drown his wife as they cross the lake in their boat. Instead, they make their way to the city, where they fall in love again amidst the joyous vibrancy of city life. But then, as they return across the lake, a storm overturns the boat and it seems that she may have been drowned.

Sunrise: The Man the Wife
Sunrise: The Man, The Wife

It’s very broad melodrama, and the realism of spoken dialogue would have made it impossible to take. But the dreamlike nature of silent film, and Murnau’s skill at juxtaposing dark and disturbing images with lively and sometimes comic scenes of unalloyed pleasure make it work.

Unalloyed pleasure: a drunk piglet
Unalloyed pleasure: a drunk piglet

The film defies your expectations, the mood changing constantly: one moment it’s a dark story of betrayal, the next a tense thriller, then a happy story in which love triumphs. Because in silent film, everything is stripped back to bare essentials, the whole thing takes on a kind of moral clarity, with the couple’s choices standing for fundamental decisions about life and death, hinted at in that opening intertitle (and by the by, there are very few intertitles in Sunrise: Murnau became famous for doing away with them almost completely and telling the story entirely with images).

Sunrise: boat overturned, Wife drowned?

I imagine it is possible to see ‘Sunrise’ for the first time and think it simplistic; to be amused that the academy could have honoured it. But silent films had a language of their own; they aimed for the emotions, not the mind, and the best of them wanted to be, not a story, but an experience.

Murnau, raised in the dark shadows of expressionism, pushed his images as far as he could, forced them upon us, haunted us with them. The more you consider “Sunrise” the deeper it becomes — not because the story grows any more subtle, but because you realize the real subject is the horror beneath the surface.

Sunrise conquered time and gravity with a freedom that was startling to its first audiences. To see it today is to be astonished by the boldness of its visual experimentation.
Roger Ebert

Seeing Sunrise for the first time, spellbound by its artistic vision and lyrical quality set me thinking about the poetry of silent film and how, though now it tends to be regarded as a primitive form, it may have been a perfect medium for expressing the deepest emotions of human beings. And it was done with light, as Arthur Tessimond (born in Birkenhead, and a student at Liverpool University in the 1920s) observed in his poem ‘Silent Cinema’:

Light you have sung:
opalescent, iridescent, wineclouded,
shadowlaced, hyaline,
barred and fenced with darkness,
furred with darkness (velvet
dust-bloom-delicate), light
prismed, imprisoned,
plumed, inwoven

Brittle arpeggios of light,
light long wave upon wave,
pressing our eyelids backwards,
liht slow-opening a flower
(fire-rose), light unpetalling,
dusting with flakes of pollen
our upturned faces

Rondo of light on waves,
scherzo of light on leaves,
light webbed by wings to a wild toccata,
counterpoint – fugue – of light

Birth of light
slight white
blurring dark’s mirror

Death of light
as night’s
broad slow fans

Sunrise truly is poetry, a ‘Song of Two Humans’, the intensity of its emotions heightened by the silvery, voiceless images, the fluidity of the moving camera, and the acting without words. Just as poetry relies on words to express thoughts, ideas, and feelings, words are used concisely, condensed to their essence through image and metaphor; in the same way, the limitations of technology imposed on silent film a similar discipline. Intertitles came to be used sparingly to narrate story points or present essential dialogue, but silent cinema relied on the stylized gestures of its to express thoughts and feelings, and on its gifted directors and cinematographers to evoke mood and thrill the audience.

Sunrise: the Big City
Sunrise: the Big City

But, of course, no silent film was entirely silent. In cinemas live music would accompany a film: in larger city theatres played by an orchestra, while even the smallest flea-pit would hire a soloist to help set the mood. So Joanna MacGregor and Andy Sheppard, with their new soundtrack for Sunrise, are continuing a silent era experiment, exploring the effect that music has on film and vice-versa as they put it in the programme note. Coming out of the Leggate theatre, I wasn’t sure that I could disentangle the one from the other. I just knew that I had been swept away.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans on YouTube

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