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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
Sunrise, which earned ASC members Charles Rosher and Karl Struss the first Oscar for cinematography, has inspired filmmakers around the world.
In 1984, Nestor Almendros, ASC explained why.


by Nestor Almendros, ASC
Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox and the ASC archives.

Ed. Note: Almost 20 years ago, Almendros was invited to discuss a film of his choosing at the University of Ohio as part of the Academy Visiting Artists series. He chose Sunrise. This transcript of his talk was originally published by AC in April 1984. In this reprint, the student Q&A is slightly shorter.

The reason I chose this movie to discuss, aside from the obvious one that I like it very much, is that it received the first Academy Award given for cinematography. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards were created in 1927, and in that very first year Sunrise won a special award that has never again been given, for "artistic quality of production." Janet Gaynor won the first Oscar for best actress in Sunrise, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel; Rochus Gliese was nominated for interior decoration of Sunrise; and that first award for cinematography went to Charles Rosher, ASC and Karl Struss. [Ed. Note: Struss became an ASC member following the film's release.]

As strange as it may sound, awards for cinematography did not exist at that time and, stranger yet, they barely exist today. Cannes, Berlin, Venice and all the other major film festivals of the world have no awards for cinematography. They do have awards for supporting actors and supporting actresses, for writers and directors, and for a lot of other things, but the cinematographer's work is often disregarded. It is to the credit of the Academy to have been the first, to my knowledge, to give awards to us.

According to my research, Sunrise was made because William Fox, head of Fox Film Corporation, had seen a previous film F.W. Murnau directed in Germany called The Last Laugh, with Emil Jannings. Fox wanted prestige for his company, so he told Murnau that if he would come to Hollywood he would give him carte blanche and unlimited funds. It is said that he gave Murnau the final cut and that no one - not even Fox - had the right to watch the rushes except the director himself, the cinematographers and the editor. This may or may not be true. I have the impression, from reading some passages in a book Lotte Eisner wrote about Murnau, that the comedy scene with the pig may have been a concession made to Hollywood, but there is no proof of this. It is true that Carl Mayer, who wrote the script (and had been the screenwriter of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), did not include the pig sequence or any other comic scenes in his first draft, which Lotte Eisner read, so they probably were added later in Hollywood.

By the way, the script was written in German, and even the sets were already designed in Germany by Rochus Gliese. This is why Sunrise is such a hybrid movie. The city looks like nowhere on earth; one wonders in what country it could be located. The landscape and the people - what are they? American? German? Scandinavian? It doesn't matter, for Sunrise is a fantasy, not realism; there is stylization in every scene, and that hybrid quality contributed to the stylization.

I don't think it was a bad thing that Murnau went to Hollywood, as some have said. He got in Hollywood the technical know-how that did not exist in Europe. The film is crafted exceptionally. The camera movements and the special effects are unbelievably perfect for the time.

Also, Hollywood allowed Murnau to build the sets for an entire city. Of course, it was built in false perspective. The houses in the background were smaller than those in the foreground to create an impression of depth. In the amusement-park sequence, for example, he used this false perspective very strongly, with children and dwarfs in the background dressed in adult clothes, so that the set would look much deeper than, in fact, it was. This technique was later used a great deal in Hollywood. The interior sets also were designed with trick perspectives. The ceilings, walls and floors were slanted slightly, so that through the camera they appear to be larger and deeper. According to Charles Rosher, the lenses they had at the time were 55mm and 35mm. The very wide-angle lenses that came later did not exist then. So, in a way, the makers of Sunrise anticipated the coming of wide-angle lenses through set design. They were, of course, influenced by painters who, since the Renaissance, had used the wide-angle, forced-perspective effect often.

The main reason why Fox and the Americans were so amazed by Murnau's work in The Last Laugh, and why they brought him to Hollywood, was what they called the continuous technique of shooting. D.W. Griffith had invented editing, and in silent films there were many cuts in every scene. Murnau, in opposition, pushed to an extreme the idea of the camera moving like a person through a scene. Remember the scene at the beginning of Sunrise in which the hero (George O'Brien) listens to the city woman whistling far away? The camera is him as it goes through the trees and weeds of the swamp, until it gets to the river and meets the woman of the city. All of that scene is in one shot. There are many other scenes like this in Sunrise - long dollies - and that was unusual at the time. That's why Murnau was brought to Hollywood, for this special technique he had developed.

Nevertheless, the makers of Sunrise did not spurn any of the devices of cinematographic language originated by other directors or cinematographers. They made continuous shots, but there is also cross-cutting in the scene in the boat, for instance, and they used a lot of close-ups in many parts of the film. There are a lot of superimpositions - double, triple images. They masked the film partially. In the beginning, when the scenes resemble travel posters, we see simultaneously, in split screen, the boat and the people at the beach. This was done by rewinding the film and shooting the unexposed part again. The technique was like a collage; it was used in many posters at the time.

Murnau belonged to the school of German Expressionism. The camera angles, the lighting, the sets and the costumes were meant to convey the psychological complexities of the characters.

Murnau wanted originally not to use titles in the film - he had made The Last Laugh without titles - but here he gave another concession to Fox. Nevertheless, he used only a few, and at that time of the silent cinema, it was customary to use many more than there are in this movie. Murnau would have preferred to let the images speak without words, by associations of visual ideas or through contrasts, superimpositions and symbolism. The images had to tell the story, not the titles. Murnau said in an interview that he wanted "cinema to be cinema." The other arts - literature, for example - should not intrude, which is why he did not like titles. He wanted stories to be told in cinematic terms.

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