“Sunrise” proves that sometimes two heads really are better than one. The DP tag team of Charles Rosher and Karl Struss put in an effort that comes off perfectly quintessential of the apex of silent era cinematography. I call them a “tag team,” but I wasn’t able to find much information about their collaboration. Were both cinematographers on set at the same time? Did they bounce ideas off of each other on the fly? Or did they pick and choose who would shoot what, leaving the other to do his own work. Whatever it was, they pulled it off.
After this film, Struss would later go on to photograph numerous films with Charlie Chaplin. He remarked that Chaplin’s style was pulled directly from the theater with no eye for cinematic effects. No doubt, Struss’s predisposition for cinematic effects and utilization of uniquely filmic language are hard at work here. One of the notable aspects of the film is that it was one of the first films with sound, being released in 1927, the year of the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer.” It was actually presented in two ways, first with live musical accompaniment, and later with a Fox Movietone soundtrack. Of course the inclusion of the optical soundtrack meant that the image had to be cropped from a 1.33:1 ratio to a 1.2:1 ratio. The version I screened was the latter. The film was not originally intended to have recorded sound, which explains the inclusion of title cards and how this sync sound film could hardly be considered a “talkie.”
What this gives us is cinematography in true silent film fashion. This was before the cameras became bulky and blimped to accommodate sound, or blocking was arranged to keep actors in range of microphones. The cinematographers took advantage of all that they had available, especially in the way of effects. In the film we see split screens accomplished through double exposure rather than optical printing, dream-like backgrounds created using projection techniques, and ghost effects. The German director, F. W. Murnau had already attracted attention with his use of camera movement from his previous films such as “Faust” (1926) and brought that style of storytelling with him to his first American film. I recently came across an angry, venting, writer on the most scholarly of all publications (The IMDb message boards) who criticized “Sunrise” essentially for the crime of being second. It really does get a lot of acclaim merely for executing its effects, but the fact of the matter is that in many cases it was not first, so why all the adulation?
Of course there is room in the arts for praise for innovation, we would still be taking all of our photos with a 15-minute exposure time without it, but there’s so much more. When we get into the game of conflating technical innovation with “good” cinematography then we start down a slippery slope. The technical aspects are there for one reason only, and that is to serve the art. Without their vision for a surreal dream sequence, Rosher and Struss would have no need for rear projection. Similarly, that innovation would have no earthly value without the artists who implement them in storytelling. Essentially, the number of times the techniques had been used previously is immaterial to the artistry of the product. To prove the point, recent Oscar winner, Claudio Miranda used projection to create idyllic sky backgrounds for “Oblivion” (2013), and it was made no less spectacular by the fact that Rosher and Struss did something similar in 1927. Good cinematography may be hard to define, but it certainly is not as simple as being first.
The reason why the long tracking shots in “Sunrise” are so impressive is not because they were groundbreaking, but rather because they were so evocative of the character. The film feels like a horror movie at times, when neither the audience nor “The Man” seem to be able to predict what he’s going to do next. His actions are practically out of his control. When we creep through the smoke and woods with him to meet up with “The Woman from the City,” the suspense becomes palpable. We feel the uncertainty of what’s coming next and that’s precisely what the camerawork is intended to do. It colors our perception of the story; it makes us feel one way or the other. In contrast, the projection shot in the city warms our hearts from the enjoyment The Man and “The Wife” are sharing. The changing background image puts us in their heads, and it’s as if we can understand their affection. We see how their night on the city transforms reality into something even better. That same thing was achieved when The Man sat in his house and imagined a subtle kiss from The Woman from the City. Of course she wasn’t really there, but it’s the thought of her that pushed him to act and it was all conveyed visually through the effect. One of the stand out moments in the film was when The Woman from the City tried to come back to The Man after he though his wife had died. The stark lighting, with strong backlight and silhouetted face told us everything we needed to know. All the actor had to do was stand there, and it was evident that something was amiss. The brilliance of keeping the face in shadow was that it shielded us from knowing his intention. An angry expression would have told us exactly where the scene was going, but instead we got uncertainty and a piercing feeling of needing to know what would happen next. Rosher and Struss were smart to leave that moment for the end. If we had been experiencing such moody lighting all throughout the film, the end would have been stripped of any meaning. Some portions are decidedly bright with almost no contrast, others have an edge to them, but this moment felt different.
That’s what makes this film such masterful work. It’s being able to control the emotional resonance of the film photographically and discerning how to use that control that earned Rosher and Struss the first cinematography Oscar.