1927 is perhaps the single most important year to date in the development of the film medium. It is the year when first the Hollywood continuity system and subsequently the cinema of the entire world was at a turning point between two paths, that of pure image, or that of image combined with sound. The latter of these does not inherently suggest a greater level of realism, though in practice it has nearly always been the case that sound is used to create a more naturalistic, authentic mise en scène in narrative films, particularly in American cinema. Thus the sound/silent distinction can be sketched as the difference between poetic abstraction versus solidity and narrative clarity, and committing definitively to the latter of these fundamentally shifted the development of American cinema forever after. In recognition of the sheer magnitude of this development, our Hollywood Century marathon will be spending a little extra time in 1927, considering two of the most important and iconic movies of that year. Let us now consider the movie that represents the absolute pinnacle of the image-driven, non-realist tradition that was about to be forcibly retired.

For another look at the cinema of 1927, elsewhere I consider The Jazz Singer

For me, the question has drifted, after five viewings spread over some 12 years, from "what are the arguments that Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is the best movie ever made?" to "what are the arguments that it isn't?". And over that same period, the answers to the second question have grown increasingly unpersuasive. Making an absolute pick for the Single Best Movie Of All Time By An Objective Measure is clear idiocy, of course, but I have to say this much: if all the films that had ever been made were all going to be destroyed, and I was given permission to save just one, I'm pretty sure this would be it.

The brilliance of Sunrise does not lie in its cunning: it's a film that reveals itself quite readily, in fact, requiring very little explication at all. It also does not lie in its intellectual profundity: the very sweet and very sincere themes add up to the utterly groundbreaking message that it's better to love people than to not love them. The brilliance lies entirely in the film's comprehensive perfection: this is, flatly put, a movie in which every single moment is exactly right - the correct compositions with the correct lighting and focus are onscreen for the correct length of time before cutting to the next, when all the same words apply. The people onscreen do the correct things at the correct moments. I think it's fair to say that every technique that anybody had come up with in narrative film by the period of the film's production is showcased within it; it is an encyclopedia of What Cinema Can Do, circa 1927, much as The Great Train Robbery filled that role in 1903, The Birth of a Nation filled it in 1915, and a very small handful of films have intermittently done it since (I am not sure that it has yet been done with any film since the coming of color, though The Young Girls of Rochefort or PlayTime, both from 1967, probably come closest)

And why not? It is, after all, the movie that happened when one of the most talented filmmakers in the world, F.W. Murnau, selected precisely because he was one of the most talented filmmakers in the world, was given free reign to do basically any damn thing he wanted to with all of William Fox's money. This is, then, what happens when German Expressionism (if not inherently the best, then certainly the most overt and present of all stylistic movements of the '20s) meets Hollywood's resources. And, moreover, it's an example of Expressionism being employed not in the service of horror, but of domestic melodrama (though one that is tinged heavily with horror of a sort in its first act), making this something of an unprecedented film at the time of its creation: the explicit emotional immediacy in the sets, staging, and acting that are what Expressionism is, and where it gets its name from, applied to a wholly different set of emotions. Love, tenderness, companionship, happiness; these are among the feelings that Murnau and his excellent crew of collaborators were to explore using the tricks of psychological expression that the Germans were perfecting while the French were busy making connections between film editing and music (and if Sunrise falls short of my absurd claims for it, it's in that there's really only very little influence of any non-German European film style of the period, and absolutely no influence at all at all of the Soviet cinema).

The film flags its intention to be about basic, essential emotions over all else early on, giving its central character no names beyond The Man (George O'Brien) and The Woman (Janet Gaynor, in one of the three performances which won her the first-ever Best Actress Oscar). They're a married couple living on a farm in The Countryside, just alongside The Water; their community is apparently a popular destination for summer vacationers from The City, for it is on that note that the film begins: people merrily enjoying themselves in the relaxed rural atmosphere, with one particular tourist hanging on a bit: The Woman From The City (Margaret Livingston), who has been having an affair with the man, and whispering poisonous thoughts to him about how maybe he could drown his wife in the marshy stretch of shore by the farm. Besotted, the man agrees to this hideous plot, but when he takes the woman out on a boat trip and is about to make his move, the look of absolutely pitiable terror on her face melts his heart, and he brings her to shore. She flees, sensibly enough, and he follows; they both end up hitching a ride on a convenient tram into the city, where he begs her forgiveness, eventually finding it when they rest in a church during a wedding, and the solemnity of the occasion breaks him down completely. From here, the rejuvenated and reborn couple enjoys the spectacle and play of the city, falling deeper in love than they ever had before. On the way home, a storm kicks up and the woman falls into the water, ironically fulfilling the exact accident that her husband had planned to fake; a desperate search is enacted to find her, while the man is driven to insane rage against the woman from the city.

Psychological realism it ain't.

But who needs reality, when as an explicitly abstract and untethered fairy tale, it's hard to imagine what could possibly make Sunrise work more perfectly than it does. And fairy tale it is: the wilds look generally like the California mountains, for good reason, and the city (built from scratch) evokes the sort of general sensation of New York without any specific details. Meanwhile, the notion of mountains, lakes, swamps, towns, farms, and cities all mixed up in a space that can be traversed in a few minutes or weeks has the definite tang of a European neverwhere - the Hermann Sudermann short story upon which Carl Mayer's scenario was based had the title "A Trip to Tilsit", Tilsit being a city in Prussia.

The purpose of course was to create a story that took place in somewhere that does not exist in any literal sense, any more than the man and the woman are meant to refer to exact, specific people. This is not a film and story about details about about generalities and feelings, and it explores those things through intense, focused images the directly communicate those feelings either individually or in increasingly complex layered combinations (and music!As one of the early sound-on-film releases using Fox's Movietone system, Sunrise does in fact boast a dedicated musical soundtrack and a handful of sound effects - mostly trains, storms, and crowd noises).

The film is not difficult to parse in the way it presents these things: as great visual geniuses go, Murnau is not like a Terrence Malick, whose work is so wrapped up in philosophy and intangibility that you need a road map to make it through scenes, nor a Michelangelo Antonioni, whose physical spaces are combined with each other in deliberately alien permutations. To stick merely to his contemporaries, he has not Fritz Lang's complicated love of architecture, or the Russians' experimental system of graphic representation. His films, and Sunrise above all of them, are unmistakable in their intent: when he, along with the greatly essential cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, pan slowly along a line of muddy footprints in a gloomy swamp, no viewer could miss how the plotting, heavy steps are exaggerated by the deep pits left in the mud and the effort of walking mirrored in the camera's emphatically slow movement. The explosive use of back projection to put the newly reconciled couple in a quick series of locations from city to nature is clearly meant to mark out the awesome sense of expansiveness and placelessness that their reborn love, stronger than ever, makes them feel. The mix of high-contrast close-ups of the man's sweaty, anguished face in church with medium shots of him crumbling into the woman's lap perfectly and obviously depict the inability to process negative feelings alone, requiring an outlet of either another person or a higher spiritual power to help make it through the dark moments of the soul.

These images, and a whole film's worth behind them, are not puzzles: anyone raised in a European-descended visual tradition could instantly understand every emotional beat that happens in Sunrise. This is what German Expressionism was all about: finding a short cut from the image to the emotional response that didn't need story or intellect to get in the way. It's odd to think that, in Germany, this style was almost exclusively used in what we'd now consider horror; prior to Sunrise, I can think of not a single Expressionist melodrama, though what Sunrise proves above everything else is that the style and the format are uniquely well-suited for each other. Melodrama, after all, is the narrative equivalent of emotions being privileged over sense.

But there we have it: a German working in American generic idioms to create a nationless masterpiece. It is a beautiful film, both visually and thematically: surely cinema's finest expression of the joy and strength that comes from having another human being to rely on absolutely, whether expressing that idea positively (as in the idyll in the city or the triumphant final scenes) or negatively (the moody horror of the opening, and the man's lumbering menace; or the cosmic despair of the hunt for the woman at night, with boats sliding through absolute blackness in some of the most hauntingly potent images that American filmmaking has ever produced). If its impulses are ultimately traditional and safe, they are not less sincere and impassioned because of that; and the mode of expression is so bold, adventurous, and unrestrained that the last word for the film would ever be "conservative". It is an overwhelming and grand achievement, and as long as the art form of cinema exists to be appreciated and experienced, it will always be one of the most essential accomplishments of the medium.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1927
-Taking a page from Murnau's playbook, Frank Borzage makes the exquisite 7th Heaven at Fox
-Hal Roach pairs chubby American comedian Oliver Hardy and scrawny Brit Stan Laurel, making comedy history
-Josef von Sternberg directs the foundational gangster masterpiece Underworld

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1927
-Abel Gance releases the monumental, multi-screen biopic NapolΓ©on in France
-Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt is released, the best-known of all "city symphonies"
-In the U.S.S.R., Vsevolod Pudovkin's contribution to the 10th anniversary of the revolution is The End of St. Petersburg