Arnheim & Sunrise

There are two lines from Arnheim that particularly stick with me, both from The Making of a Film. The first claims, “a positive artistic effect results from the paraphrase,” when describing a scene of a pistol shot in Sternberg’s The Docks of New York displayed not with a shot of the gun going off, but a shot of startled birds taking flight, and this simple thought seems a fitting summation of many of Arnheim’s ideals of silent cinema.

These types of “paraphrases” appear throughout Sunrise in the film’s use of sound – for one example, by giving us mere parts of a city’s soundscape (a car horn, a train), the film allows us to fill in the gaps with our own imagination. As the early titles tell us, this “Song of Two Humans” could happen between any two humans in any city, and by leaving the interpreation of the sound of this Everycity to the viewer, this notion is further cemented. (For me, the city sounded like a combination of all the cities I’ve lived in – somehow everywhere I’ve ever known all at once. Undoubtedly, this unique studio-built place “sounds” different to each of us. Perhaps we as viewers are building close personal attachments and interpretations of these silent films via the sounds that aren’t there by filling them in with our own notions of how these places and events sound based on personal experiences).

Secondly, Arnheim’s suggestion that these types of silent film tricks “results in a deep, compelling symbolism such as is found in good folk songs,” is a fascinating notion. Personally, I define pure folk music as acoustic-driven narrative music that is strictly genuine in its instinct and presentation – the best of which is marked by a perfect balance between melody and lyrical content. In folk, it’s just as important to tell a tale as it is to sing a song, and despite the embellishments and sacrifices in truth (sometimes made in aid of a rhyme scheme, at other times due to the natural changes that come with something passed down through the oral tradition), the lesson remains eternally universal. As a film, Sunrise plays out similarly to a folk song in its subject matter and several instances of imagery (there’s a prevalence of murder ballads in folk music, for one). Sunrise even tips its hat towards the folk tradition in its peasant dance sequence and the accordion band the man and his wife pass by on their boat shortly before the climactic storm.

Whereas a folk tune can gain extra impact through embellishment and an embrace of un-realistic qualities, the same can be said for Sunrise. A powerful image is formed in a line of verse describing an absent lover’s ghost hanging off one’s neck, and equally as powerful to see it carried out by Murnau on screen. These flourishes (in themselves also a creative way of paraphrasing what’s really going on) create great psychological, stylistic, and narrative effect.


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