by John Budde
Of all the films from the silent era, two stand out in my mind as rising to the pinnacle of their period. Although they are both representative of the German Expressionist movement, on was made in the United States. These two films are FAUST (1926) and SUNRISE (1927).
As I understand it, Charles Rosher was born and educated in London but moved to the United States. He was sent by fFox to serve as an advisor in Hollywood filmmaking techniques to F.W. Murnau and cinematographer Carl Hoffman during the filming of FAUST in Germany for UFA Pictures. When Murnau moved to Hollywood the following year, Rosher collaborated again with Murnau and with Cinematographer Karl Struss on Murnau;s first American film, SUNRISE, for which they both share the first Best Cinematography Academy Award.
As one of the last silent films, SUNRISE opened in theaters just as the first “talkies” were having thier premiers…and is, perhaps, the most sophisticated of the silents. It does have a sound track, but without sync sound. It tells a timeless stroy of love, betrayal and redemption.
To fully appreciate the cinematography, one must first be aware that the optical printer had not yet been invented, and the effects were all hand crafted, with overhead cable rigs for camera movments, matte shots and multiple exposure techniques. The lighting and movements are purposeful and serve to eloquently complement the atmosphere and content of the story.
What I find so very striking about these films is that they truly embody the ideal of the motion picture…there is an abunadance of motion in most scenes…backgrounds, foregrounds and characters..all moving. This is particularly impressive in FAUST. We see storms of the soul, flights or the spirit, classic struggles of immense proportions. Sets are distorted, with little people in the backgrounds to create a sense of great visual depth. Miniaturizations are combined with real proportions. Layerd exposures and other-in-camera effects carry meaningful support of story content and, throughout, we witness a visual and metaphorical theme of darkness doing battle with light.
Both films have symphonic scores…and a newer audio interpretation of FAUST has a Goth score.
As the silent era ended and the talkie emerged, the portability of the camera was lost for some time to come, and it seems fitting that these two films exemplify the ultimate visual realization of their time.