The Sunday Intertitle: Two Moons

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Drippy lettering from SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS.

It’s been pointed out before that the whole murder plot aspect of the film makes no sense — George O’Brien is invited to murder his wife and run away to the city. Neither he no his co-conspirator, the vampish City Girl, consider a modified alternative — how about he DOESN’T murder his wife and runs away to the city anyway? I’m not sure if anyone’s elaborated on this and pointed out that O’Brien has a child with his wife, and he’s planning on leaving that child motherless. Is the vamp looking to take over as step-mom? I wouldn’t think so. Of course, the film is more fable than song and character motivation isn’t high on its list of priorities. (Dumbest question in theatre studies: Why does Lear divide his kingdom?)

Been looking at Murnau again for an upcoming project. You’ll be excited! You’ll be jealous.

O’Brien’s walk through the swampy-looking countryside is one I often show students. An elaborate long take performed with, I believe, a ceiling track (allowing the camera to pass over fences and traverse bumpy ground without tracks being visible in its path). The shot becomes stranger and cleverer the more you break it down.

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A famous start frame: note the full moon in front of O’Brien. We’re floating after him through the mist and long grass.

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Soon, George turns 90° right, away from the moon, and now we’re traveling alongside him.

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A 90° turn to the left results in us once more dogging George’s steps. These little moves complicated the journey and make it progressively harder for us to get our bearings. Seems to me that if you performed these moves in the real world, the two adjustments would result in you heading moonwards again, but because the studio isn’t built to the same strange proportions as the world and outer space, O’Brien has now lost sight of his moon.

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The camera’s movement still APPEARS to be justified by George’s, but now we start to move a little faster, catching up with him to once along move in parallel. This again complicates the journey, since repositioning the camera makes it appear that George’s direction of travel has changed, even when it hasn’t.

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Climbing a fence slows George down, whereas the camera simply floats over it, overtaking him so we can look back at him and see his face. So, George seems to have turned twice, but the camera has moved in various ways so it can see him from the back, from the right side, from the left side, and now the front. George has seemed to be moving away from us, to the left, to the right, and now towards us.

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Unleash the madness! George is allowed to catch up with us a bit — as we move closer, we enter his subjective space, where the shot becomes about his lost, trance-like expression. Entering his state of mind, we abruptly pan 180° away from him, continuing the same camera movement so that a track back now becomes a track forward —

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Any audience seeing this is likely to read it as a subjective shot — we have entered George’s brain and are looking out through his eyes, without a cut. Murnau’s camera truly IS intangible. Like an audience of John Cusack’s inhabiting our own private Malkovich, we trudge forward into an impenetrable mass of foliage —

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— but Murnau has pulled yet another fast one. The foliage parts as if by Open Sesame magic, and we are faced with the City Girl (Margaret Livingston), awaiting her prey, whom she seems to expect will appear from screen left. He does — but not for a full thirty seconds (enough time for her to refresh her lipstick). He’s apparently taken the long route round. Well, it would hardly do to turn up for a date having thrashed your way through a set of bushes.

But the fact that the camera has assumed a kind of false George O’Brien disguise for part of its journey, and the POV shot turns out to be no such thing, is not as strange as the fact that Ms. Livingston now has the moon visible behind her. However, this is a different moon to the one visible at the start of the shot. Murnau needed it to be over a lake, which we haven’t seen before. He couldn’t use the moon established at the start of the shot. This new moon, for instance, has a strip of cloud cutting across it, in best UN CHIEN ANDALOU fashion.

I believe all this complicated movement and trompe l’oeil astrophysics was performed to get us as lost and confused as George O’Brien — to the point where a perfectly unmotivated uxoricide can seem sort of reasonable.

 

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3 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Two Moons”

  1. erichkuersten Says:

    Uxoricide! Better believe I was googling that one. I thought I knew every word for moider in da bizniss –
    thanks for your in debth Murnau breakdown. Lots of weird borderline hysteria in this film and I think yr right – it’s supposed to a nightmare dream like Eddie G’s in WOMAN IN THE WINDOW… as in the weird trolley /train odyssey the wife and he take when she talks him out of the murder and they wind up caught in a traffic intersection almost run over by cars and trucks all rear-projected out of control to make the lovers seem progressively smaller, Jack Arnold-style

  2. And the city is obviously New York but the village is obviously mitteleuropean. It’s all fantasy.

    Interestingly, when they go to the city they never meet anyone remotely like the City Girl.

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