SASY Chat – 1927: The Year That Sound Broke

SASY Chat 1927

Men of the Year. In this yammer, we discuss the relative merits of the three films on the Sight & Sound list from 1927 — a key year in cinema. From the left, George O’Brien in Sunrise (#5), Rudolph Klein-Rogge in Metropolis (#36), and Albert Dieudonné in Napoleon (#144).

In October 1927 Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer, the first sound movie to reach a wide audience, and a new era of moviedom was born. The sound revolution didn’t immediately kill the silent film, but the writing was on the wall (or as The Jazz Singer put it, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”). In some ways, 1927 then represents the crest of the silent movie wave, at least when one looks at the silent films selected for Sight & Sound Top 250 list. There are three films on the list from 1927 — Sunrise, Metropolis, and Napoleon — three incredibly ambitious but starkly dissimilar productions. When sound first came to the movies, films in many ways took a step backward to accommodate the new technology. Bound to the microphone, actors had to perform their parts much like they were on a theater stage, so cameras were fixed in place, sets were simplified, and outdoor shooting was a nightmare (heck, if an actor wanted to read a map or a newspaper it had to be wet so the rustling wouldn’t torment the microphone). These problems would take a number of years to be overcome, but before sound, directors like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Abel Gance were able to let their imaginations (and their cameras) run wild. And 1927 appears to be the last year that these filmmakers were given carte blanche to do as they please. But above all, the two of us lowly bloggers have opinions that diverge very sharply from the critics when it comes to these three 1927 films, so we figured it was worth considering them all together in a second yammer.

J. – Alright! Another brilliant new feature to the yammer lineup — the SASY Chat, our chance to speak on a narrower topic than our SASY Wraps provide! In this case it’s the films of 1927, and I think we have Sunrise to thank for this, S., because we still can’t get over how highly ranked it is (#5!?!). Sunrise seems to get a boatload of credit for being massively innovative, but we both don’t think it holds a candle to Napoleon and Metropolis. So let’s try to break this thing down…

I suppose I’ll start by saying that whatever we think of these three films, it certainly has to be acknowledged that 1927 feels like a meteoric leap above the films that preceded it on the list. Even the stronger entries from earlier in the list (like The General or Battleship Potemkin) feel almost quaint compared to the technique on display in the three 1927 movies. It’s remarkable to think how far the medium had come in the 11 years since Intolerance. Surely this is partly due to the development of new technologies (like the motorized camera) but there was also a massive leap in sophistication with regard to storytelling and composing visual spectacles.

S. – For these three films in particular the invisible barrier between a passive audience and the active performers has been broken down. All of these directors embraced drawing the audience into the action and to great effect. I guess this is in large part the technology catching up with long-held intentions but all of three films were able to incorporate this dynamism into the story without it feeling just like showing off. This may be the only praise I have for Sunrise but in many ways I feel it adapted the moving camera in the most innovative way for some of the sequences. Not just giving you a sense of the movement and drama unfolding around the protagonist but acknowledging the viewer as a mobile third person, letting the observer traverse the physical space between characters.

Sunrise 5

However much we felt that Sunrise was lacking in terms of story and character development, it is very hard to fault it for its visuals, particularly during nighttime scenes. Here, The Man (George O’Brien) leads a search party through coastal waters after a storm.

J. – That undoubtedly was the most impressive and most effective element of Sunrise (that, and perhaps the nighttime cinematography). Since you’ve mentioned how thin our praise is for Sunrise, I think it’s worth diving into what we felt was the principal failing of the film: the story. Sunrise has a strong visual sense and some wonderful sets, but the story is exceedingly simple and, ultimately, unengaging. I think it is here that we see a divergence between Sunrise and the other two films.

Napoleon is a massively complex and historically accurate(-ish) story told on a truly grand scale, so it has very little in common with Sunrise in most regards. Metropolis, however, is another film with a simple story that is meant to serve more as an allegory. Indeed, the story is also the main flaw in Metropolis, and one that likely would have crippled a lesser film. But what separates Metropolis from Sunrise is the scale and dynamism of the telling. In our yammer on Sunrise, I said that I have no problem with a simple story, but if you’re going to go that route then you need to compensate for it through visual inventiveness (given that a silent film can’t rely on dialogue). Sunrise certainly has a few of those kinds of moments, most making use of a moving camera. In Metropolis the camera barely moves at all, but the sets, effects, lighting, dynamic crowd scenes, expressive acting, and the general operatic sweep of the story keep it engrossing. Sunrise‘s attempt to tell a simple down to earth story come across as bland by comparison (particularly when the film tries to be funny).

S. – I think this is the key to why I found this set of movies such an interesting trio. All of them were visually pleasing yet I disliked Sunrise and enjoyed Napoleon and Metropolis very much. At the time I put my apathy toward Sunrise down to the lackluster story, finding the one-dimensional characters thoroughly non-engaging. However, Metropolis was also a rather tiresome parable, yet at no point during the film did I feel disinterested or bored. The pacing of these two films was quite different, even though the characters were also very simply drawn in Metropolis there was a huge amount of energy to the film. As you note, J., the camera doesn’t move around much at all but the visual landscape changes frequently and Lang doesn’t waste time on pathos, while on screen the characters have a lot to do. Napoleon has a different feel again, our hero is a complex man and telling his life story involves tempo changes that vary in extremes. There were some slow scenes in Napoleon where I was distracted but they added detail to the central character and these lulls were compensated for by the many sequences where the story really hummed along. Chatting about these films as a group has really got me thinking about the importance of pace, a factor I hadn’t acknowledged when discussing films in isolation.

J. – The issue of pacing becomes particularly relevant when one considers that Sunrise is by far the shortest of the three films, clocking in at an hour and half compared to Metropolis’ two and a half hours and Napoleon‘s five hours. Yet Sunrise feels markedly slow compared to the two other films. To be fair, that is fitting given the subject matter, but because the characters lack depth and the visual elements aren’t as engaging or exciting, the film drags (particularly in the middle). The best slow movies are ones that encourage contemplation or create a sort of hypnotic effect (2001 is a great example of film that does both), but Sunrise appears content to be a movie of surfaces. It may present itself as a universal story, but I think it lacks the depth to be a truly engaging and insightful one.

So I suppose one can fall back on the technical innovations of Sunrise to account for the praise it receives, but after seeing Napoleon, I have a hard time feeling that Sunrise was uniquely innovative for the time. Napoleon is filled with daring visual bravado, and it includes the use of moving cameras, for which Sunrise is so famous. Indeed, I think Napoleon‘s use of moving cameras, including some remarkable handheld work, is far more interesting and far more modern that what we saw in Sunrise. In addition, Napoleon‘s use of montage and the layering of visuals is striking on a level that Sunrise never comes close to. And unlike Metropolis, Napoleon doesn’t always rely on the use of epic special effects or grand sets. Gance finds innovative ways to turn even a pillow fight among schoolboys into a visual extravaganza. But all of this begs the question, why the hell is Sunrise ranked so much higher than Metropolis and Napoleon?

Napoleon SASY

Abel Gance creates some absolutely mad visuals throughout Napoleon that J. thinks outstrip any of the innovations found in Sunrise. Here a split screen is used to give nine simultaneous views of a pillow fight, highlighting the chaos as the feathers fly.

S. – The huge disparity in the ranking of Napoleon at #144 compared to Sunrise (#5) and Metropolis (#36) makes me wonder about the Sight & Sound ranking process itself. Some films have a reputation that proceeds them while others are quite obscure. From this point of view the rankings make more sense, Murnau and Lang are well known directors whereas Gance has not attained the same degree of notoriety. Also the innovations of Napoleon extend beyond the highlights we have mentioned, it is dispiritingly long (going in I certainly had reservations about the time commitment demanded) and to watch it as intended requires a triple screen set-up. So I think it is a safe assumption that Napoleon has not been as widely viewed as the higher ranked films. Another aspect that may harm the ranking of Napoleon in the eyes of professional movie critics, at least more so than perhaps a less-informed movie fan (i.e. me), is that the tale is rather wild and rambling, many of the scenes go on far too long (even I can see that) and screen time is devoted to scenes that are not clearly related to the main story. I really enjoyed some of the random buffonery that was included but it may be seen as self-indulgent on the part of the director and as detracting from a cohesive final product.

J. – I think you’ve made a good point about Napoleon being seldom seen. I don’t know about Gance not receiving sufficient notoriety, however; I imagine that the critics polled to make the list are going to be knowledgeable enough to be aware of Gance and Napoleon, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into them having witnessed the movie. Heck, even though we did watch it, it could be claimed that we missed a major part of it because we ultimately saw just the center third of the mega-widescreen image of the final reel. I imagine another aspect of why Metropolis and Napoleon rank below Sunrise is that both films are incomplete. Metropolis was missing significant blocks of footage for many decades (and the newest restoration is still short by about five minutes) and large swathes of Napoleon might be missing (it’s actually rather difficult to say how long the film is supposed to be).

Those matters might partially explain why Napoleon and Metropolis aren’t ranked higher, but they still don’t account for Sunrise‘s Top 10 position. I think there are a few things at play to generate that ranking. First, politics. At the first Academy Awards, Sunrise received the Oscar for “Unique and Artistic Picture” and Wings (1927) for “Outstanding Picture”. This would be the first and last time these awards would be handed out, and the Academy decided retroactively that Wings (essentially an aerial combat action drama) was effectively the “Best Picture” winner for that year. Ever since then I think there have been those that have been cheering in Sunrise‘s corner, championing “Artistic” over “Outstanding” — the human over the spectacle — like it was a political cause. Second, critic’s darlings. Because Sunrise attempts to present real life through a stylized lens, focusing on the small-scale and the human, I think there are critics who flock to it. In critical circles I believe there is often a reluctance to embrace grand epic films; and rightly so, many of them are empty razzle dazzle or at any rate lose the characters in the bigness and opulence of the film. Sunrise is different than most of the films that came before it in that it does focus on a small story told in a grandly ambitious way (we just think it largely failed at it).

Metropolis 3

Say what you will about Metropolis, you cannot call it a small movie. The film is full of massive, remarkable sets like this one that are fleshed out with impressive special effects. The scale and visual inventiveness of the film allow it to soar above the problems with its story — something Sunrise only manages to achieve in fits and starts.

S. – Sunrise is different from the other two films in that it focuses on a small story, I just don’t feel that it tells that story particularly well. It was quite a weird sensation to watch many visually stunning scenes, particularly those in the countryside and lake settings, yet feel so disconnected from the hollow characters on screen. In terms of being artistic I believe both Napoleon and Metropolis are on equal terms with Sunrise, but for me both of these films tell their story in a far more appealing and successful way. For Napoleon the use of humour is very effective in drawing you into empathy for the character. Metropolis tells a fantastical story with equally astounding visuals to back it up. Sunrise addresses the complexity of human relationships, surely a theme that viewers are familiar with, yet fails to convey any heart or authentic emotion while doing so. This is particularly perplexing given Murnau’s work on The Last Laugh, again telling a small tale but able to inspire the genuine emotional investment required to make it meaningful.

J. – I think Napoleon was far more artistically sophisticated than Sunrise, and I’m actually inclined to say the same of Metropolis, if only for the amazing set designs. But I agree with you that Sunrise‘s primary failing (when compared to the other films) is the storytelling. I can only assume that the film’s attempt to engage on a small scale, intimate level but in a visually massive way and that it was done by Murnau so early, is what drives the ranking of this film. (Sure, The Last Laugh is even earlier, but it has that cop-out ending.) I have a feeling that if Sunrise had been made even a year or two later it would have tumbled down the list.

I also feel like this is a film that is constructed as a fable, which means that it leaves open the possibility for people to place their own feelings and values onto the characters. The characters are hollow, just as you said, S. Apparently the critics felt far more inclined to fill up those empty vessels than we did. I imagine that the reputation of the film is part of the reason; certainly I felt a measure of confusion at not understanding why I wasn’t particularly impressed. I can see the temptation in that situation to force yourself (wittingly or not) to find profundity where none exists. Or, and this is a distinct possibility, you and I are missing something important with regard to Sunrise, perhaps something that we’ll never understand. But you know what, that thought isn’t exactly keeping me up at night. I’ll take Metropolis and Napoleon any day!

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