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by Alan Bilton

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       In classical myth, the journey into the west is also the journey toward death, the westward horizon marking the setting of the sun and thus man’s own inevitable twilight. Whilst in American mythology the western frontier suggests the inexhaustible nature of the continent, an enchanted site of infinite promise, in the classical European tradition the west denotes the passing away of all things, the mysterious border between this world and the next. For Freud, dreams about journeys are ultimately dreams about death, especially any that involve the crossing of water. The far shore is always an unknown, spectral land, a valley of shadows, vacant and insubstantial; navigating there involves a passage between different states of being, a fording of mortal streams. This essay explores these themes in relation to F.W Murnau’s silent classic Sunrise (1927), focusing in particular on the concept of ‘the other side’ and the role it plays in terms of the binary opposition constructed in the film between American and Europe. The very first title card of the movie informs us that this is a tale of “no place and every place”, and these ideas of absence and presence, there and not there, are central to the film’s exploration of a specifically American utopia – a term which, of course, derives from the Greek for ‘no place’ itself.

The central, fairy-tale conceit of the film is that an archaic pre-modern Europe – never identified but akin to the Bavarian town of Murnau from which the director (real name F.W Plumpe) took his name – exits just across the water from a fantastical, futuristic America 1, an expanse narrow enough to permit day-trippers to cross by paddle-steamer, the short span allowing even a rowing boat passage to the other side. Although the basic narrative components of the drama are taken from one of Hermann Sudermann’s Lithuanian Stories, ‘The Excursion to Tilset’ 2, for Sunrise Murnau and scriptwriter Carl Mayer transformed the basic relationship between ‘village’ and ‘city’ into a much more fundamental syzygy. Here the distance between a European past and an American future is shrunk to that of a slender channel, the other shore able to be glimpsed from time to time amongst the ever-present mist, vaporous and ghostly. Whilst in Sudermann’s text, the city is a day’s journey by boat, Sunrise collapses time and space so that the modernist city seems to be both contiguous and yet occupy an entirely separate temporal and ontological plane altogether.

Although our first glimpse of the waterway is wholly benign, with cheerful and carefree holidaymakers (in contemporary dress) crowding onto the ferry, subsequent crossings in the film are marked by a morbid stress upon the deathly. On the journey out, ‘the man’ of the film (for no characters in the film are named) attempts to murder his wife; on their return home, after the husband has repented of his sin and the couple are once again reconciled, a sudden storm once again threatens their lives. Moreover, whilst in the first scene the waters glisten and the waves bob enticingly, in the two dramatic crossings, the channel shades from bone-gray to a bottomless black, its brief span overwhelmed by an awareness of its fathomless depth. Everything about the passage is ominous, from the shadowy cross that frames the couple’s bedroom before their departure to the sudden eclipse of the sun mid-way. “We’re going on a trip across the water”, the wife (played by Janet Gaynor) tells her maid. “I may not be back for some time.” The journey, Murnau implies, will be her last, a terminal crossing from this world to the next. As she leaves, her faithful dog tries to raise the alarm, escaping from its leash and swimming out to the boat in an attempt to save her. Bells toll on the synchronized Movietone soundtrack as the leeward shore slips out of sight, her husband’s bulk louring over her like the shadow of a cliff. Murnau famously issued actor George O’Brien with lead-lined boots for the role, and we are aware throughout the first part of the movie of his terrible heaviness and mass, his character weighed down by the unbearable burden of his sin. Amongst the mud of the swamp and shore he staggers like the living dead, his footprints great holes in the slime; indeed, with his sunken eyes and stumbling gait, O’Brien seems more like a sleepwalker or golem, some kind of animated clay brought to life by the seductive enchantment of the villainous ‘woman from the city’. Ultimately though, and despite the temptations of Margaret Livingston’s “catlike” vamp (Wood, 1998, 42), he cannot go through with his wife’s murder. Defeated he slumps down in the boat like Frankenstein’s Monster with the power turned off (we can see water filling up the bottom of the boat), his immense back threatening to block out the frame entirely³. The second half of the film then deals with his transformation from lumpen human dough to moral being, but though the film shifts disconcertingly from European melodrama to American comedy, something of the deathly nature of the film’s crossing still remains – we have indeed crossed over to the other side, albeit an American heaven rather than the abysmal depths the first half of the film seemed to auger.

Indeed, although separated by only a hop, skip and a jump, the two shores occupy wholly different, indeed diametrically opposed, states of being. As Lucy Fischer has argued, the film is structured dialectically in terms of a whole series of oppositions – America/Europe, City/Country, Stasis/Movement, Poetry/Narrative, Objective/Subjective – and to these one might add that of Weight and Lightness4. Indeed, in many ways it is this seemingly secondary polarity that lies at the thematic heart of the film: whilst the American metropolis occupies a dizzyingly space of shimmering light, constant movement and infinite extension, the Bavarian village squats balefully upon the earth, solid and palpable. Its mostly elderly inhabitants (for the archaic village is always metonymically associated with the past) seem crooked and bow-legged, stooped over with endless bundles and baggage, burdens that fix them to the ground. Giant close-ups of earthen bowls or great metal lanterns stress their heft and bulk; as lit by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, even the shadows seem to posses weight and mass, solid blocks of blackness, heavy as the lid of the sky. The editing, unlike the second half of the film, is slow and stately, Murnau’s frozen images almost as static as woodcarvings. Only the man’s dreams and fantasies seem animated, presented by way of a spectral superimposition; one might think of the ‘Woman from the City’ appearing ghost-like above his bed, or the murder plot opening up like a guilty thought bubble as he sleeps. Elsewhere, tacky mud from the swamp seems to stick to everything. All movement is ponderous and difficult. When the man and his lover meet for a clandestine tryst they do so by a swamp, every footstep rooted in the mire. Indeed, all of the film’s cinematography is marshaled to suggest the tangible or corporeal. Part of this of course is down to the astonishing set Murnau had built on the shores of Lake Arrowhead, a full size village, with real, solid buildings, actual trees and a genuine transplanted swamp – the latter so large that it caused real mist to form under the artificial. Everything in the European section suggests weight – from Hugo Risenfeld’s oppressive score to its inhabitant’s somnambulant movement, to Janet Gaynor’s enormously heavy wig, sitting on her head like some kind of hat or knitted cake.

All of which, of course, contrasts strikingly with the ethereal American future that awaits them just across the water. Whilst the village is connected with the palpable and real, Murnau frames his images of the city in terms of the artificial. We first glimpse the city as it emerges from behind a poster of a train pulling into a vast glass-domed station; and the first montage (with its distorted shot of an over-sized Amazonian bather) is composed to look like a tourist postcard, a modernist collage denoting sleekness, speed and scale. Later, when the woman from the city attempts to lure the husband to join her there, images of urban living appear above them like a movie screen or department store window: toy-like jalopies race across an illuminated thoroughfare, a jazz band plays to endlessly gyrating couples, and images of animated light burst and fade like fireworks.

Moreover the city itself seems strangely unreal and immaterial; unlike the lumpen reality of the village, the city is part film-set, part painted backdrop, part plasterboard model, less a place than an enormous special effect. Like our present-day shopping malls, notions of inside or outside become confused here; walls are made of glass or steel, the nighttime exteriors every bit as brightly lit as the restaurants, stores and amusements. Here, everything is illuminated: the gleaming tables in the nightclub, the bulbs ringing the entrance to the funfair, the spotless surfaces of the hairdressers and café. Lamps wink, mirrors gleam, streetlights dazzle. This luminescence is also strikingly mobile, from the spotlights above the theatres to the headlights of speeding automobiles to the shifting lights of Luna Park itself, entered via a great revolving circle, through which the mobile camera seems to float in, a tracking shot which seems to denote ingress within another world entirely, the very gates of paradise.

Whilst the editing in the European sequence seems to transform everything into a series of still tableaux, modeled on Vermeer and Brughel, Murnau shoots the American section with the aid of a constantly moving camera, suspended on railway lines or attached to elevated platforms. Nothing stays still: the effect is like a Joseph Stella’s Battle of Lights, Coney Island (1907) come to life – vertiginous, hallucinatory, dizzily uncertain. Particularly effective are the distorted Expressionist sets, constructed using forced perspective so that they seem to stretch on into infinity, an effect in part created by Murnau employing real extras in the foreground, children in the background, and puppets in the far distance. Space itself seems unfixed, uncertain – the film is full of double exposures, out-of-focus shots and startling spectral superimpositions, none more striking than the scene where the lovers taste wine for the first time – the camera spins, the image blurs, and mysterious figures (presumably angels) whirl in ecstasy. In short, everything here is light, phantasmal, immaterial. For all its size, the city at night is no more real than a trick of the light, a montage of images, projected via flickering lights: in short, cinematic.

Indeed, Mary Ann Doane has argued that this is a film all about film, a kind of summary of the history of film thus far (Doane, 1977, 74). In this sense, the moving advertisements for big city life projected above the darkness of the swamp suggest the first intimations of an American modernity framed by the new medium: after all, the city-space is self-consciously a peasant’s view of the big city, an urban environment that is part film-set, part department store, and part playground. Moreover, with a bit of imagination, one can also draw other parallels to patterns of early film-going. The funfair, for example, suggests the traveling fairs and amusements arcades that preceded the Nickelodeons, fairs where many in the crowd would have seen their first moving pictures and intimations of the America city both. Likewise one can compare the shot from the tram that takes the couple to the city with the vogue for ‘Phantom Rides’ at the turn of the century, the view from the moving vehicle a metaphor for a new, mobile, modernist vision5, the jolting of the tram “expressed by bright flashes reflected on the faces of its passengers” (Eisner, 1973, 171). Over and over again in the film, Murnau transforms movement into light – early one precursor might be Edwin S. Porter’s Pan-American Exposition By Night (1901), whose rotating camera, (combined with, for the time, revolutionary, time-lapse photography), turns day into night and the exposition into a spinning fairground ride. Nor is this the only way in which Sunrise seems to make reference to its own cinematic roots. One might also think of all those strange, sadistic instructional films made around 1900, films such as They Found the Leak or A Fatal Mistake, which portray hapless new arrivals to the city being run-over by trolley-cars, electrocuted by faulty light-switches or gassed in their beds (in Another Job for the Undertaker (1902) a bunch of rubes in nightshirts search for a gas leak by candlelight with spectacular results), dark fantasies supposedly screened in order to warn immigrants of the dangers of the new world, but also, as Noel Burch argues, a reflection of both xenophobia (a nativist revenge on immigrant newcomers) and deep-rooted anxieties about city-living (Burch, 1990, 112).  Indeed the more one looks at it, the more one finds in Sunrise echoes of moving picture’s recent past – the drunken pig sequence referencing early chase films, the peasant dance sequence similar to the type of novelty act filmed by Thomas Edison in his Black Maria studios, the silhouetted figures illuminated in the gypsy camp akin to shadow puppets or something from a Magic Lantern show. And what do the couple buy as a memento of their trip to the city? A photograph staged in a manmade studio, moreover a photograph which is itself a till from one of the movie’s most celebrated images – the lovers’ kiss in the middle of the intersection, when the frenetic, overheated city streets disappear to be replaced by an Arcadian back-projection of an idyllic flower-framed grove.

Hence, the America of Sunrise is cinematic to the core. In one telling sequence, the husband and wife stare in through the huge glass windows of a nightclub as if watching a movie-screen, transfixed by the glamorous couples, the sophisticated dancing, the luxurious clothes. When later they discover a couple from the night-club canoodling together in the funfair, the camera seems to do a double take. It is as if the figures from the film have magically come to life – or else, as if somehow they have joined them on the movie screen, crossing over that border from what is to the world of their dreams. Hence whilst the film might toy with the romantic assumption that the village stands for regenerative nature whilst the city is artificial and thus false6, such Manichean certainties swiftly fall apart as the film progresses. In America what starts as tragedy ends up as romantic comedy. Fording the monochrome waters between the two shores is also to somehow cross over into the screen.

And yet for all that, something eerie and phantasmal about the city remains. Indeed, for all its enchantment, Murnau’s metropolis remains strangely weightless, shadowy, somehow fleeting – as demonstrated by the storm which clears the city streets and leaves the city unmasked as the deserted back-lot it really is. When the lights are switched off, there is as if there is nothing there – a void, an absence. Which is more real then – the ponderous darkness of the village or the ethereal fairy lights of the city? In his 1998 essay Robin Wood connects Sunrise to Murnau’s seminal 1922 vampire film Nosferatu, drawing attention to the motif of a deathly passage across water (a caption in Nosferatu announces that “when he had crossed the bridge the phantoms came to meet him”), as well as Murnau’s visual stress on shadows and silhouettes, and the transformation of ‘The Woman from the City’ into a vampiric creature, associated with the night, the erotic, and an irresistible hypnotic power (Wood, 1998, 33). Like her undead predecessors, Murnau’s Twentieth Century ‘vamp’ is a creature of the night, only appearing in daylight after she has been expelled from the village at the movie’s end; elsewhere she is visually connected with the moon, darkness, fog, appearing as a kind of spectral uncertainty, her shape spontaneously manifesting itself amongst the mist and shadows or glimpsed crawling catlike amongst the twisted branches of a pitch-black tree. She is both there (her high heel sinking into the mud, her body dragging the man down into the swamp in a passionate physical embrace) and not there (a bewitching phantasm or mirage, her pallid skin ghostlike in the darkness) and thus linked to the cinematic ‘reality’ of the modern and all the ontological uncertainty this implies.

As we have already seen, the passage to the other side is also associated with the deathly, a vale of shadows. Again and again early commentators on film drew attention to the suspicion that the flickering figures were shades, apparitions from the great beyond; one might think of Maxim Gorky’s 1896 essay ‘In the Kingdom of Shadows’ (“It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre”(Adair, 1999, 12)) or early Parisian newspaper reports which stressed film’s uncanny to bring the dead back to life (“death would cease to be absolute” (Christie, 1993, 111)), the camera’s capacity to save or preserve animated life. But what kind of life was this? Mute, bodiless, the ghost of life rather than the real thing. Christian Metz has argued that film, like a phantom limb, always signifies the absence of something alongside its illusion of presence (Metz, 1982, 70), film the ghostly visual trace of that which isn’t. In this respect, of course, silent film, appears particularly insubstantial or phantasmal, the absence of sound suggesting other absences and negations, it’s hallucinatory hypnotic state interpreted by many commentators as a kind of waking dream (Eberwein, 1984, 82). In this context, the ‘other side’ appears as both deathly and desirable, a dream and the afterlife; the particular fascination of Murnau’s film is that he transposes these ideas to the relationship between Europe and America and the feelings of anxiety, desire and uncertainty which serve to characterize the immigrant experience.


      Throughout Sunrise, Murnau toys with the idea of America and Europe as mirror images of each other, darkness and light, mass and ethereality, one predicated upon the absence of the other, as if the two continents inhabit inimical states of being. Indeed, although separated by a mere strip of emptiness, it is as if each occupies a kind of negative space, the one made possible only by the vacancy of the other. For the inhabitants of the Bavarian Village, America can only exist as a kind of mysterious subjunctive, the country of what might be, a realm of American possibility rather than Central European fatalism and doom. In the village, the man lacks even any semblance of free will, possessed by the femme fatale to the extent that he can responds like an automaton to her every whistle and call. In the American section however, the narrative rids itself of such pitiless inevitability and instead gives itself up to a sense of play (the drunken pig, the fooling around with the debutante’s straps, the comic scenes in the photographer’s studio or the hairdressers), each self-contained ‘novelty’ modeled more on a sense of the early “cinema of attractions” than classical narrative structure7.

Such notions are of course in keeping with the idea of America as a synonym for freedom, the unbound continent seeming to occupy what Rob Kroes terms an empty, vacant and open space (Kroes, 2000, 14). As Kroes notes, the idea of American Exceptionalism is bound up with the concept of American space as the philosophical antithesis of European history (Kroes, 2000, 14). As in Sunrise, Europe is associated with the unchangeable solidity of the home – la Patrie, die Heimet – America with a kind of universal mobility, free from all national borders, unfixed from narrative destinies, whilst at the same time separated from Europe by the most fundamental border of all – that between different worlds and thus different states of being.

What lies across the water is thus (to the European mind) a kind of negative space, a continent suspended at the vanishing point, conceived of (whether positively or negatively) in terms of the negation of the Europe that is. Franz Kafka wrote an entire American adventure between 1911 and 1913, mixing up some of the geography (San Francisco ends up on the East Coast, and an enormous bridge connects Manhattan not to Brooklyn but to Boston) whilst basing his fantasies on the immigrant stories of other family members who had emigrated there, Karl May’s cowboy stories (alongside rather more reliable sources such as Arthur Holitscher’s America Today and Tomorrow) and his own feverish cinema-going. However, Kafka’s own title for the project (which, like all of his works was never finished) wasn’t Amerika, as it is usually referred to, but rather The Man Who Disappeared. As with Murnau’s film, Kafka’s America is connected with negation, the vanishing of the known and an overwhelming sense of nonexistence.

Guarded by a Statue of Liberty who disconcertingly wields a sword rather than a torch (Kafka, 1996, 3), (an ominous gatekeeper suggestive of the Biblical angel who blocks the way back to the Garden of Eden), the continent is immediately demarcated as wholly separate from what came before, accessible only through the narrowest of gates. As Anne Fuchs notes, ‘Amerika’ in the novel occupies “a space which is neither real nor wholly imaginary” (Fuchs, 2002, 59) what one might term a cinematic space. “From the very moment of his arrival in the new world, he [the protagonist, Karl] perceives unstable images which are simultaneously both vivid and blurred, hyper-real and anti-mimetic” (Fuchs, 2002, 26), she writes. As in Sunrise, the naïve European’s sense of disorientation is suggested by means of a dazzling display of images and light, an overwhelming sense of visual crisis8. As his young hero looks down upon the luminous metropolis from the perspective of the sixth floor of his uncle’s house, Kafka writes;

Seen from above, it appeared to be a swirling kaleidoscope of distorted human figures and the roofs of vehicles of all kinds … penetrated by a mighty light, that was forever being scattered, carried off and eagerly returned by the multitudes of objects, and that seemed so palpable to the confused eye that it was like a sheet of glass spread out over the street that was being continuously and violently smashedKafka, 1996, 28

“Seen from above, it appeared to be a swirling kaleidoscope of distorted human figures and the roofs of vehicles of all kinds … penetrated by a mighty light, that was forever being scattered, carried off and eagerly returned by the multitudes of objects, and that seemed so palpable to the confused eye that it was like a sheet of glass spread out over the street that was being continuously and violently smashed” (Kafka, 1996, 28).

One cannot help but think of the mutable, mobile light of Murnau’s film, all those blurred, superimposed or rotating images, bathed in ripples of light. In this new world, Kafka writes, “the sunlight had suddenly become stranger” (Kafka, 1996, 9). Here there is “movement without end” (Kafka, 1996, 41), a destabilized space, suggestive (in Kafka’s famous phrase) of seasickness on dry land. Interestingly, whilst the immediate effect is manifested as a kind of ocular excess, Kafka’s city, like Murnau’s, is also prone to sudden gaps and absences, dark caesura opening up within its visual texture. Again and again in the novel, Karl finds himself lost in a labyrinth of “empty darkness” (Kafka, 1996, 50), endless dark corridors opening up onto more and more nothingness. As Fuchs suggests, a dynamic of appearance and disappearance is central to the novel (Fuchs, 2002, 26), Karl’s “journey further and further into an unknowable underworld” (Spiers and Sandberg, 1997, 32), flickering somewhere between light and dark as if somehow akin to film itself. Like Murnau’s metropolis, Kafka’s New York appears like a hologram projected over a void; it would take only the merest flick of a switch to plunge all into darkness. Fuchs in particular draws attention to the fact that the literal translation of Kafka’s title Der Verschollene carries with it connotations of the English phrase, ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’ (Fuchs, 2002, 26). She writes, “As long as we read about him [Karl] he has not gone missing. However, on the other hand, this presence is always predicated upon a significant absence, a pervasive lack” (Fuchs, 2002, 33) which Fuchs connects to a collapse in the whole chain of Patriarchal signification. However it is also possible to suggest a more elemental interpretation, one continuously hinted at throughout the text: has Karl died, his journey across America (like Murnau’s) linked to what are essentially metaphysical ideas of ‘the other side’? “The first days of a European in America were like a new birth”, writes Kafka (Kafka, 1996, 29), but the imagery in the novel is repeatedly deathly. In particular, Karl’s induction within the mysterious ‘Great Theatre of Oklahoma’ (Kafka, 1996, 202) (mis-spelt Oklahama in the original manuscript) is immediately suggestive of some kind of burlesque paradise, the only time in the novel when Karl isn’t banished from an adopted family unit – albeit at the cost of his name and identity. Here ‘heaven’ is a distinctly second-rate stage set erected haphazardly on a racecourse (itself suggestive of chance rather than destiny), angels and devils in threadbare costumes standing precariously atop distinctly wobbly plinths. “We shut down at midnight, never to reopen! Accursed be anyone who believes us!” proclaims a poster, mimicking the Final Judgment; for Karl however, today is still a day of grace, for “All [are] welcome”, (Kafka, 1996, 202), the antithesis of the exclusion and abandonment he experiences elsewhere in the novel. Indeed, whilst on one level the theatre suggests all that Karl longs for – acceptance, admission, forgiveness for the (sexual) sin which saw him cast out of his familial paradise in the first place – at the same time the very artificiality of the stagecraft undercuts any sense of satisfying wish-fulfillment. Moreover, other ominous insinuations also question Max Brod’s blithe assertion that The Man Who Disappeared ends on a positive note of salvation (Spiers and Sandberg, 1997, 60). After all, the fact that Karl has been re-christened ‘Negro’ hardly bodes well for his future safety (as Michael Hofmann notes “one of Kafka’s sourcebooks had a photograph labeled ‘Idyll in Oklahoma’ of a lynched black man surrounded by happy white faces”(Kafka, 1996, ix)), whilst the ‘theatre’ itself appears modeled on the sanitarium where Kafka was been treated for the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, the final image of the novel, with its Jewish hero crammed onto an over-crowded train transporting him to an unknown future (“the chill breath” of the dark valleys “making their faces shudder” (Kafka, 1996, 218)) suggests a fate even its author could scarcely have conceived of.

With this fade-out (although in actual fact, The Man Who Disappeared, like all of Kafka’s full length works, was abandoned rather than completed), Kafka conflates the cinematic and the deathly in a manner strikingly akin to Murnau’s Central European vision, some thirteen years later. In a fascinating series of letters translated in Hans Zischler’s study, Kafka at the Movies, Kafka writes of his fascination with what he calls “invisible sights” (Zischler, 2003, 90) at the movies, the unseen spaces between shots or beyond the frame, a blindness he invests with terrible longing.  Later he connects this with Palestine, describing it as “an unreachable terrain, the ground he was never able to tread, never enough to touch and far away – an imaginary space, a film” (Zischler, 2003, 115) Palestine here functions like ‘Amerika’ in his earlier novel – a metaphysical vacuity that Kafka fills with his own longing. Like his luckless protagonist Karl, he writes, “I have left home and must constantly write home, even if all home should have long since drifted away to eternity” (Zischler, 2003, 113). The cinematic space of this promised homeland thus flickers between there and not there, life and death; it is an absence which the viewer must themselves come to occupy – a projection rooted in the very nature of silent film.

In a stimulating essay on Nosferatu, Gilberto Perez draws attention to Murnau’s own concern with the border between the visible and the invisible, drawing attention to his oeuvre’s eerie sense of a hollow or negative space, dark matter. “What is hidden from view in off-screen space and the depths, recesses and shadows of the image haunts Murnau’s compositions”, he writes “and colours them with foreboding” (Perez, 1998, 138).  For Perez, the dark spaces within the mise-en-scéne – the occluded views, dark gates and hollow windows – suggest the gaping emptiness of the grave, a sense of disappearance engrained within the shimmering but transient lights that flit across this void. He speaks of the “ghostly aura of Murnau’s films”, the sense of appearances becoming apparitions, phantoms of themselves. “The image in Murnau becomes charged with the emotional colouring of a shadow, with a poignant and disquieting sense that what we watch moving on the screen is the world’s ghost” (Perez, 1998, 148), he concludes. Before the digital age, audiences sat for half the time in complete darkness, only the phenomenological curiosity of the persistence of vision tricking their brains into believing that images still played across the screen; Murnau’s films, with their sense of an encroaching darkness residing both just off-screen and between frames, thus “hover on the brink of nothing, spectrally suffused with what Heidegger calls ‘the indefinite certainty of death’” (Perez, 1998, 142) This dualism between night and day is central to both Nosferatu and Sunrise; beyond the play of light suggested by the film’s title, there is nothing – a void both films seek to simultaneously represent and suppress.


In his famous essay on ‘The Problem of Nothingness’ in Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre sketches out a short philosophical history of the concept, in particular focusing upon the idea of “non-existence”, which he describes as “the negation of being” (Sartre, 1992, 36). Existence, he argues, is defined at least partly by what it is not; ‘being’ denotes what is, and outside of this, like a great dark sea, lies the infinite nothingness of everything that isn’t (Sartre, 1992, 38). But what exactly is this nothingness and is it possible even to conceive of it – especially if nothingness can only be defined in terms of the negation of all that is? Nothingness is not an abstract emptiness Sartre concludes, but rather the implied absence of something – a void that exists (Sartre uses the word “haunts”) within our very understanding of being. For Heidegger, the world as we know it is suspended in an endless dark ocean of nothingness, the world around us (what is) a mere part of the totality of existence. Beyond the shores of our world, we are surrounded by infinite other possibilities, the vast realm of what might be; indeed, Heidegger concludes, it is only through this sense of alterity that that which is receives any sense of contour or notion of form. In Heidegger’s universe this ‘otherness’ is always located on the farther shore, outside the frame as it were. Sartre however, argues that this sense of negation is already amongst us, penetrating everything.  “Man is always separated from what he is by the breath of what he is not”, he argues (Sartre, 1992, 51), not in the Hegalian sense of being and non-being as making up two complimentary components of the real (as with, say, darkness and light) but rather in the sense that “non-being is a perpetual presence in us and outside of us” (Sartre, 1992, 43). Just as film constantly replaces one still image with another, so each moment of being is annihilated and replaced by another. “Consciousness constantly experiences itself as the nihilation of its past being” writes Sartre (Sartre, 1992, 64), but we are no more aware of this than we are of the illusion of cinematic illusion. Only in the ‘flicker’ when the projection falters do we sense the outer darkness in the auditorium; so too are we rarely aware of the cleavage between what is and what isn’t in our own lives, that moment when “nothingness slips in between this state and another state” (Sartre, 1992, 63), a nothingness that abides within the very heart of something.

The narrative structure of Sunrise thus seems founded upon Heidegger’s concept of otherness, Europe and America standing for opposing shores and philosophical states. From the one coastline, one can make out the horizon of the other and it is this sense of externality that provides each side with a sense of self-definition. The mise-en-scéne of Murnau’s work however also embodies Sartre’s concept of negation; the luminescence of Murnau’s images are always fleeting, always glimpsed at the vanishing point, motes of light dancing within a greater darkness. This motif occurs again and again in Sunrise: in the shimmering beam of light that illuminates the altar in the church scene, the reflection of the peasants’ torches as they search the black waves for the woman’s body, or the moonlight which illuminates the couple’s homeward journey. Sunrise is a film composed of light moving across darkness, whether in the modernistic setting of the moving tram or the shadowy lanterns which trace the peasant’s hovels at night; as such we are faced again and again with the transience of things, objects appearing and disappearing within the darkness, the flicker of being and non-being.

Indeed, of all films, it is perhaps Sunrise that most penetratingly captures this strange sense of absence and presence, film’s propensity to be both palpably real and yet simultaneously spectral, there and not there at the same time. After all, in many ways it enacts the entire history of silent film, but also acts unconsciously as a valentine to its passing, a kind of cinematic memento mori, denoting a cinematic passing away of all things. Not that any of those involved in its production could have known this at the time, of course. When Murnau was first invited to come to America by William Fox in 1926, and given carte-blanche to make any film of his choosing, it must have seemed like the most auspicious of beginnings, sunrise indeed. Alas however, Sunrise opened in the US just days before The Jazz Singer effectively consigned silent films to history.  Never again would Murnau be in control of production – indeed, in four years he would be dead, killed in a car accident. Given this, it’s hard today to see Sunrise as anything other than the end of something, and in this the final images of the film seem particularly paradoxical. As the sun rises over the reunited couple, the wife miraculously brought back to life from the waters of Lethe, for the first time the solid image of the village starts to dematerialize, vanishing into mist and fog before the newly risen art-deco sun (an illustration rather than the real thing) fades out entirely. Sunrise thus simultaneously becomes sunset – an almost perfect summary of the film’s poetry, and of its strangeness.



  • Adair, Gilbert, ed., Cinema, London: Penguin, 1999.
  • Christie, Ian, The Last Machine, London: BBC/BFI, 1993.
  • Doanne, Mary Ann, ‘Desire in Sunrise’, Film Reader 2, (1977).
  • Eberwein, Robert T., Film and the Dream Screen, Princeton: Princeton university Press, 1984.
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  • Fischer, Lucy, Sunrise, London: BFI, 1998.
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1 It should be stated that the film never formally identifies the city as American, and that the city does at times resemble Berlin of the twenties as much as New York – a fact at least partly attributable to the fact that sketches of the futuristic metropolis were produced by art director Rochus Gliese long before he ever stepped foot on American soil for real. Nevertheless, the film’s thematics are clearly based upon the idea of a European past and an American future, and also mirror Murnau’s own move to Hollywood.

2 For more on the source text see Lotte Eisner, Murnau, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973, p.168.

3 Lotte Eisner notes how Murnau made O’Brien “act with his back”. See Eisner, 183.

4 See Lucy Fischer, Sunrise, London: BFI, 1998, p.8. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, another Central European work that deals (albeit tangentially) with the relation between Central Europe and the West, Milan Kundera concludes his discussion of Parmendian opposites by concluding that “the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all” – see Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, London: Faber, 1985, p.6.

5 For a discussion of phantom rides see Ian Christie, The Last Machine, London: BFI/BBC, 1993, pp.15-20.

6 See, for example, Graham Petrie, Hollywood Destinies: European directors in America 1922-1931, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, pp.40-44).

7 The term was first coined by André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning, and refers to early cinema’s stress upon visual display rather than on what we would recognize as coherent narrative. See Tom Gunning, ‘Now you see it, Now you don’t: The Temporality of the cinema of Attractions’ (1993) in Lee Grieverson and Peter Kramer (eds.), The Silent Film Reader, London: Routledge, 2004.

8 This is also true of many other Central European narratives about traveling to America, from Robert Walser’s Jakob Von Gunter (1909) to Joseph Roth’s Job (1930).

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