Rich, strange and gorgeous, F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927) shows what an artist of the late silent era could accomplish cinematically, backed by an open checkbook and fueled by the highest aspirations even in the simplest of morality tales.
The project came about when producer William Fox offered the German director Murnau (born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe) the chance to make a movie in America. After "Tartuffe" and "Faust" for Ufa studios in Berlin, Murnau crossed the Atlantic. The director's Fox years were sadly few, and — tragically — no copies remain of one Murnau title from this period, the circus melodrama "4 Devils."
Nonetheless we have "Sunrise," among other Murnau works, and its influence on everyone from John Ford to fellow Fox protege Frank Borzage was enormous. For his tragedy with a happy ending, Murnau and his team built, from scratch, a village at Lake Arrowhead, Calif., and on the Fox Hills backlot, a dazzling city set, both real and tantalizingly artificial, like Jacques Tati's vision of Paris in "Play Time." The story is elementally simple. Lumpenprole George O'Brien strays from his marriage to angelic Janet Gaynor thanks to his weakness for a vacationing seductress (Margaret Livingston). A murder is planned. Then, improbably, "Sunrise" moves toward the redemptive light, as husband and wife relax and reconnect in the city sequences, full of kinetic visual marvels and startling shifts in tone.
The one-time-only 7:30 p.m. Friday screening of "Sunrise" at Northwestern University's Block Cinema will feature a live musical score written and played by Stockholm-based composer Matti Bye. A random sampling of Bye's work via youtube.com suggests a highly promising matchup of musical sensibility and Murnau's visual magic.
Tickets are a measly $6, and "Sunrise" will be screened at Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston.