There is a dreamlike quality one gets from silent movies. Even with a musical track and the occasional sound effect, the lack of voices or the aural ambiance that often grounds us in the scene of a sound film lends an ethereal quality to its silent counterpart that makes for a different kind of viewing experience. For the filmmakers as well, how they tell their story is determined by the parameters of the medium.
The most obvious example is probably the acting, which can be highly expressive, but there are other tools in the storyteller’s bag of tricks that come into play, also.
One of the movements that pushed things to the limit was German Expressionism, where nearly everything in the frame was designed to convey the subjective (psychological, emotional) state of the characters in the story; even to the point of distortion, if necessary.
In Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, director F.W. Murnau’s first Hollywood movie, the Man, a farmer in a small village, is torn between his love for his Wife and his desire for the Woman from the City. When the evil seductress tells him the only way they can be happy is for him to kill his Wife, the Man at first agrees. But when the time comes to do the deed he cannot bring himself to commit the act. The Wife figures out what is going on and runs away. The Man, wracked with guilt and realizing his mistake, must prove to his Wife that he truly loves her.
The story itself is melodramatic, but the way in which Murnau tells his tale is nothing short of compelling.
In one scene, while contemplating the murder of his wife, the Man enters their bedroom in the background. The door he comes through is larger than normal, making him look smaller than he really is. The raked floor places him higher in the frame and compresses the space. All of this helps to convey the heightened sense of his emotional state in that moment: desperate, unbalanced.
In the wedding scene at a church, we see a bride and groom in the background, illuminated as if by an aura, while our tortured heroes, the Man and his Wife, enter the darkened foreground of the frame in silhouette. And of course things get brighter as the couple’s happiness grows. Anyone wondering about the outcome of the movie need only consider the title.
Murnau uses the camera expressively both when it moves and when it doesn’t. There is a tracking shot of the Man. The camera follows him from behind as he trudges through a swamp to meet the Woman from the City. It is a beautiful metaphor of a man heading deeper into the mire of his own soul.
In an earlier scene, the Man is at home with his Wife. The camera remains static during the following: The Man ditches his Wife while she prepares dinner in the kitchen. The camera holds for a good length of time on the empty room. The Wife finally enters with a bowl of stew. When she realizes he is gone, Murnau’s camera continues its unwavering gaze as we witness her heartbreak.
Images juxtaposed or combined also add impact to the story. In one shot the Wife is cradling her baby; that is immediately followed by a shot of the Woman from the City, holding the Man in a similar position. He’s as helpless as a babe in arms.
In another scene, the Man is in bed, thinking about the lake where he plans to kill his wife. A shot of the choppy waters are superimposed over his sleeping body–here is a man drowning in his own guilt.
The images in Sunrise flow over us like a dream. As I stated earlier the story is very melodramatic, and I’m sure most contemporary women would find the Wife’s spineless acceptance of her husband’s infidelity reprehensible. But as an example of the expressive capability of cinema, it is unforgettable.