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 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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