Last night my wife and I watched F. W. Murnau’s 1929 silent, Sunrise, starring Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien, on TCM. Ms. Gaynor won an Academy Award that year for Best Actress and the film itself became the one and only film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production. That was the only year that included that particular category.
There’s something about the late silents of which this is clearly one of the best. In some ways they’re among the best pictures ever made, period. The language of cinema had been full developed and there’s a diamond-clear quality to the photography which later pictures just don’t have. In addition in a picture like Sunrise the shots were composed with incredible beauty. Only in Hitchcock’s pictures and some of Hitchcock’s French imitators was such composition ever matched.
Yes, the acting is stylized. So is modern stage acting and the acting on television and today’s movies. They’re just stylized in different ways. I don’t find that it detracts from the movie but I guess YMMV.
Sunrise has a German expressionistic feel to it in its highly symbolic quality, its remarkable use of light and shadow, and its geometric distortions that occasionally give it a surreal quality.
Highly recommended if only for perspective on the late silents and the influence this picture had on later movies. Don’t miss the city scenes. That’s not location shooting—the city scenes were all shot on a mammoth (and expensive) set built especially for the film.