The history of the Academy Awards, particularly when it comes to the best picture award, is a study in predictable middle-of-the-road conformity. The Academy has long favored dramas and biopics that turned a respectable profit; were artistic, but not too artistic; and above all, fit safely within a preconceived notion about what a movie is supposed to be. How else to explain the choice of, say, 1944's pleasant but predictable Going My Way over the groundbreaking noir classic Double Indemnity?
When Oscar does go out on a limb and choose something edgy, it's most often a so-called message picture—a drama seeking to teach a political or social lesson—albeit one with a message that Hollywood is already quite comfortable with. That's why you wind up with a head-scratcher like Crash but never with something truly controversial like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (well, okay, let's not get nuts here).
What Oscar doesn't do is pick a movie that twenty years later is still regarded as the best picture of the year. It's hard enough to do when you're trying, impossible when you're not.
That the first time out of the box the Academy should have managed to hand the Oscar for best picture (well, Unique and Artistic Production, anyway) to what time has revealed to be not just the best picture of the year but one of the best of all time is nothing short of a miracle. Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans is beautiful, lyrical, a deceptively simple film that plumbs the depths of a marriage—and a soul—in crisis.
Directed by the great F.W. Murnau, who had previously helmed such classics as Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, Sunrise starts out as a silent era film noir with a beautiful temptress from the city persuading a handsome young farmer (George O'Brien) to murder his wife. The city woman (Margaret Livingston) is a classic 1920s era flapper, with bobbed hair, cigarettes and a slinky black dress.
By contrast, the country wife, played by Janet Gaynor in an Oscar-winning performance, looks like she just blew in out of "American Gothic"—with a gingham dress, blonde hair in a bun and a baby on her shoulder—and as the opening scenes unfolded, I expected the lesson of the tale to be either (1) country = good; city = bad; or (2) men, don't marry women who dress like your grandmothers.
A third of the way through the movie, however, the farmer (who has lured his wife into the city so he can murder her) has a change of heart and from then on, the movie becomes a surprisingly touching story of reconciliation and redemption.
That this abrupt shift in tone works so brilliantly is a testament to Murnau's skill as a director and also, I think, to the very human nature of the conflict within the farmer's heart.
Admittedly, the story is not realistic in the sense we've come to understand that word, a documentary-like fidelity to the world as it is. Instead, the story is what I would call operatic, painting with bold brushstrokes to evoke a series of strong emotional responses, and while the facts are not realistic, the emotions those facts evoke are.
Which is to say, from the outside, adultery may look sordid but it's pretty typical and not very interesting, whereas from the inside it plays like a grand operatic passion and the mad desire for a woman and the guilt, doubt and anxiety associated with leaving your wife feels a little like murder (or so they tell me). To tell this story in a way more true to the facts would be to lie about the feelings. And Murnau clues us in with the very title of the movie—it's a song of two humans, not a story of two humans—that it's emotional truth he's after.
This operatic search for emotional truth is what film critics are talking about when they speak of "Expressionism." It's a term I'd heard kicked around and I thought for a long time it had something to do with cinematography and weird, abstract sets, but it's primarily about evoking an emotional response in an audience and as an artistic movement it influenced not just movies but painting, literature and even architecture.
Which you no doubt knew already. Me, they didn't talk about this stuff in law school.
As an approach to storytelling, Expressionism is largely alien to a modern audience. Somewhere along the way, we bought into the idea that Realism, with a capital "R," is the only way to create a realistic portrait of the human experience. But Realism is just a technique and artists have explored any number of ways to convey truth, from Impressionism to Cubism to Reality Game Shows. Murnau was merely experimenting with another way to say something true about the human condition.
That Hollywood long ago abandoned this approach doesn't make it invalid, just unfamiliar.
Sunrise won three Oscars at the first ceremony, for Unique and Artistic Production, Actress (Janet Gaynor) and Cinematography (Charles Rosser and Karl Struss).
Sunrise's reputation as a movie has only grown since. The influential French film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma, called Sunrise "the single greatest masterwork in the history of the cinema." In a critics poll conducted in 2002 for Sight and Sound magazine, it was chosen as one of the ten best movies ever made. It also ranked #82 on the AFI's list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time and was selected in 1989 for the National Film Registry.
Although Sunrise was critically acclaimed at the time and later, however, it was not a success at the box office. The scenes set in the city were not filmed on location but on a vast and very expensive set and perhaps it was inevitable that given a blank check and a promise of no interference from the studio, Murnau made a movie that couldn't make back its expenses.
As I will discuss when I write about my choice for best director, after the box office failure of Sunrise, the studio reigned in Murnau who never again directed a film of this quality. It was a story repeated time and again as movies made the transition from silence to early sound.
[To read my essay about F.W. Murnau, click here.]