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Movie Review: Recalling A Formative Movie-Watching Experience

Today is the birthday of the actor George O’Brien. There’s no real reason you’d know him, although he was pretty big in the 1920s and ‘30s. But I bring him up because he starred in the movie that completely changed my understanding of what silent films could be: 1927’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, from the great German director F.W. Murnau.


Now, Sunrise is generally considered one of the best two or three silent films ever made, and one of the very best films of any kind. So the fact that I consider it remarkable is not… remarkable.


But huge numbers of people have no use for this kind of filmmaking today, and so I feel like I need to tell you about my experience. I first saw Sunrise in my late teens, and even then I’d already seen a fair number of silent films and had an appreciation. But I also thought I had an idea of their limitations. And then along comes Sunrise, the story of a country farmer and his wife, whose relationship is extremely on the rocks, and who find their love for each other again during a fortuitous trip to the big city. Murnau used plenty of those slanted doorways and sharp shadows we know from his expressionist style, although maybe a little more subtly. And those details and the gorgeous nighttime scenes and the swooning, sad, romantic plotline made for a lovely Hollywood experience.


And then the camera started moving. Moving in ways I hadn’t ever seen from a silent film. Coasting along in tracking shots, floating high into the air and through what seemed to be solid spaces. And the sets and superimposed images created something like a dream. My jaw actually dropped. My reaction shouldn’t be surprising, these were techniques that were startling even at the time, but still, I just didn’t realize that was being done. The art form exploded for me as an art form.


I’ve never forgotten that first time I saw Sunrise, and I say that in all sincerity. I think of it often. And I remember what it’s like to be genuinely awestruck by something I just didn’t know was possible.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.