36. Sunrise


September 23, 1927
Directed by F. W. Murnau

Sunrise is a misleading name. This movie is about the moon. The glowing silver orb appears again and again. On both sides of the sky, so that we can’t tell which way is which. Glowing bulbs light up the paths of streets through the city. Car headlights appear out of nowhere, swerving in cacophonies of alarm.

The moon creates no light of its own but through its reflection we make out shadowy forms in the darkness. Moonlight is the allegory of the cinema. We leave our houses to sit in darkened rooms and watch an artificial light show us the truth about ourselves.

Murnau knew he was the foremost auteur of this new art. When William Fox saw Der Letzte Mann, he jumped at the chance to hire him and give him a Hollywood budget, which Murnau did not waste a penny of. He and his Fox colleague Frank Borzage worked closely together, sharing sets, ideas, and the brilliant new star Janet Gaynor.

Their twin achievements are the two ultimate poles of silent cinema. The feminine Seventh Heaven reaches into the deep level of sorrow and despair that an unloved woman can experience, this love is depicted with a soft and friendly warmth. The sun never fails to shine, and our couple are always reunited at 11:00 am. Fox decided to release that one first, so that audiences would fall in love with Gaynor (and it’s impossible not to), before seeing what Murnau would do to her.

Because Sunrise is both a story of darkness and a story of masculinity. Gaynor is a perfect wife from the first frame, and we don’t need any closeups of her to know that. The tension of this movie lies entirely in the soul of George O’Brien’s husband, the man who sets out to murder his wife.

He doesn’t look like he even wants to kill her. He feels he must. It’s a dark unconscious compulsion that he must he venture into the moonlight to confront. For the couple to express their true love, to know themselves as lovers, as husband and wife, they must confront the dark side. She must know that he could kill her whenever he wants, and he must know that his power to kill her is the same power that will protect her from all harm. When she forgives him, he undergoes a second redemption, taking the oath of marriage along with the couple that they both watch, as if spectators watching a performance on the screen.

The superior man loves everyone, but this love must find its root in the love of his chosen woman. They wander the night in the artificial light of the Luna carnival and delight in each other. But the struggle is not yet over. There is an even greater challenge that O’Brien must confront – the darkness of that vast unknowable feminine of nature.

Most men can comfort themselves in the feeling that killing your wife is something only movie villains do, but the truth is that every time a man turns his heart away from his woman, in every moment he closes himself off because he cannot handle the power of her anger or despair, in each of those moments he is killing her. In every moment he must choose, whether to persevere in conquer the feminine and allow it to open into light.

After confronting his murderous desire and deciding once and for all that he must protect, honor, and serve his chosen woman, his masculine strength is put to a final test. He must reckon with Nature herself, the pure primordial feminine force, who has the power to take any of us at any time. A man must dedicate his life to his woman, knowing full well that she will one day die. And there he is – alone in his house, facing the empty bed, with the result he once desired. The moonlight boxes him in as he slumps before the broken rectangles of moonlight on the covers.

The happy ending does arrive shortly, as the bulrushes the man had planned to use to escape his wife end up saving her, but the brutal truth of the empty bed remains for me the true “end” shot. This movie is a celebration of life through the confronting of death. We all must die. You and everyone else. Yet in each moment of our life we have the opportunity to conquer nature, open the world, and allow light to shine.



35. 7th Heaven

7 heaven

May 6, 1927
Directed by Frank Borzage

Bob Smith, my first film history professor, told me that if you’ve never been in love, watch 7th Heaven, and you will know what it feels like.

I was seventeen and hadn’t been in love yet. It was a month before my best friend confessed her love for me, and three months before we started dating. Seventeen years later, we have now been married for twelve, and she remains the only woman I’ve loved.

The last three years have been the most difficult of our marriage. She graduated from college, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, tried several jobs but quit all of them in despair. Every job she takes makes her life so miserable that she would rather be dead than work. She is depressed and scared all the time, and our financial situation has deteriorated so that we are in six figures of debt and facing bankruptcy. If I only knew how to make enough money to take care of both of us, I would do it without question.

For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights – from the sewer to the stars – the ladder of Courage.

There’s no need for a modernist or psychoanalytic critique of a movie like this, which is simply and profoundly a love story. Love is the ultimate feminine goal, and this is a feminine film. A movie about love made for women, or for men who wish to understand the feminine.

Every man has trouble with his chosen woman, but where most women are able reduce their man to a quivering mess with their anger, it’s my wife’s sadness that collapses me. But each time I am overpowered, I am again challenged to be a more courageous man. To have the courage to face the world, make money, take care of my family, and have an open heart.

I recognize that same sadness in Janet Gaynor’s face.

Gaynor, who had mostly appeared in extra roles before this, delivers an extraordinary natural performance as Diane. Her face reveals the heart of the feminine, in the depths of despair, the heights of hope, and the fullness of love.

Chico saves Diane from her cruel older sister, but is unable to face her despair. As Chico rambles on about his dissatisfaction with life as a sewer rat, Diane lies in a heap of misery on the street. It is only when she attempts to kill herself with his knife that he sees her, grabs it from her, and tries to talk her out of being sad.

Yeah, that doesn’t work. But pity moves him to take her home to his seventh-floor apartment, complete with a huge window open to the Parisian night. Heaven.

Chico fearlessly crosses a plank stretched high above the streets to get some linens and a nightgown for Diane. Never look down. Always look up.

While he is out, we see Diane afraid once again, not of her sister or the police, but of the open bed she she sees in front of her. Hidden from the view of the window, Diane undresses in front of the camera, revealing her bare legs to the audience.

7th heaven

This is an obvious chance to talk about the male gaze – our budding starlet is undressing for the camera in a tight, furtive frame. But I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s an obvious truth that movies are made under the implicit assumption of a male viewer, a male audience, male characters, and that all representation of women is reduced to that of a passive object.

Her legs are lovely, but this movie was not made for male lust. Janet Gaynor is not a passive object that arrests the movement of the story. This is a movie about love and the feminine and Gaynor is the story. By contrast, the scenes with Chico and his male friends are always ridiculous, even those of the war.

The real narrative lies in the progression of close-ups of Gaynor, from despair to hope and now to a fear of being forced to give her body too soon to the first person she could trust. It’s this body she reveals to us, before hurrying into the bed and drawing the covers up to her chin.

When Chico returns, we watch him undress and Diane, from under her covers, watches along with us with fascination. Chico approaches the bed only to grab a pillow for himself and head into the other room. Diane (now clothed) sneaks over to see that he has made his own bed at a respectful distance, and she can barely contain her ebullience.

As the scene fades to black, we know their love is secure. In the second half of the movie, it only remains to face death, that all-consuming impersonal force that conspires to drive everyone apart. But Diane has already learned always to look up.

Things are darker than they’ve ever been, and I have no choice but to keep looking up. To find the courage not only to face the world in all its danger but to face the no less intimidating psyche of my woman, whose suffering I can only imagine, and make a place for us. A place that’s heaven. 

30. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed

Abenteuer.pngJuly 1926
Directed by Lotte Reiniger

According to Andre Bazin in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, photography is a medium whose magic is conjured by the camera’s ability to turn an object of our affection into an image by a mechanical process, as if the very hand of God has saved our beloved from annihilation by capturing her in permanent and holy form. What the Egyptians did with mummies in tombs, the photographer does with photosensitive film.

The cinema director takes these holy images and sets them into motion.

But now we have arrived at a movie that does not conform to this holy Bazinian sense. While this movie is a set of moving photographs, these are photographs of drawings – objects fashioned by a human hand that represent imagined things.

If we don’t think about the fundamental shift here, it’s because animation has now come to define the essential features of cinema today.  In its most immediate form, the cinema exists today as Netflix, a continuous stream of moving images which are for the most part not depictions of real events from the past, but pictures painted on to the screen. Computer-generated imagery has replaced Bazinian photography.

By 1926, animation had been used not just for making primitive cartoons, but also for making avant-garde films, shown in the context of modern art exhibitions. In the days when it wasn’t obvious that cinema would be used to make narratives out of moving photographs, these were both significant genres. Avant-garde cinema, one could say, was the expression of the various paths abandoned when cinema chose the Birth of a Nation as its model.

To my eyes, the most fascinating avant-garde filmmaker of the 1920’s is Walter Ruttmann, who composed a series of Lichtspiel films, where tinted shapes and pattern wash over the screen in dynamic movements of color and energy. The pleasure of these movies is in seeing the actual film – the actual colored light, as if watching an abstract painting where the colors can’t stop swirling and jutting about. As the Lichtspiel series progresses, the shading becomes more sophisticated – the colors gradually change, and the colors begin to flash in visual rhythms. The shapes that form now develop a symbolic power in addition to their rhythmic geometry. There is no human narrative for the brain to interpret, the movie is strictly for the eye to experience the pleasure of looking. To watch the Lichtspiel is to relearn how to look.

Ruttman was Lotte Reiniger’s principal collaborator on Achmed, and while he’s responsible for some of the most alluring visual effects – the hypnotic backgrounds – this is Reiniger’s film. I’ve written before on how women’s role in film history has not just been forgotten but deliberately erased. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed has found a strange space in the intersection of children’s culture, folk culture, and avant-garde culture where a woman can direct a masterpiece, a film that depicts events that are not really happening, yet are still real images that we can see. The film made at this crossroads was so undeniably great that it could no longer be forgotten or written off, although it has been watched and discussed less than most of the neighboring movies of this story. Achmed does not fit easily into any category we could attempt to assign to it. Many of her innovations were lately credited to the cultural glutton Walt Disney, whose movies as of 1926 are not even worth talking about here. The glowing print that we have today seems to have been saved, not by happy accident, but by a magical charm of protection. It would be quite appropriate if after a calamitous 21st century sends us into a dark age, this were the only silent film to survive.

7. True Heart Susie

June 1, 1919
Paramount Artcraft
Directed by D.W. Griffith

If Broken Blossoms
is Griffith’s unsuccessful study of masculinity, True Heart Susie is a much more successful study of femininity. The previously passive Lilian Gish is now an active force, and the entire drama of the film is contained in the movements of her face. Griffith has by now retreated entirely from the world of politics and trains his eye only on the face of the folk. The “true heart” of the title refers to inner beauty (which the rural folk have), which is opposed to the “net of paint, powder and suggestive clothes”, (what the new women in cities have). There is a tension in this celebration of natural rural beauty by the bourgeois silver medium. We know the entire time that the beauty of the image is the result of artiface. We’re told this literally by the intertitles, but we continue to gaze at Gish’s face, and we believe that our heroine’s inner beauty and outer beauty are linked. They move together, more or less in unison.

She is a clever girl who is attracted to a dull boy. They flirt with each other. They walk together down the leafy road, tiny figures in the distance, dwarfed by the natural world around them. The dull boy can’t afford the college education he is totally unworthy of. Susie decides to sell her beloved cow Daisy to pay for his education (I presume the cow is the equivalent of the entire tuition). She speaks about her idea with her female guardian, who admits that because the money is Susie’s inheritance, she can do nothing to stop the obviously foolish decision.

The transaction is anonymous. The boy has no idea. He’s so stupid, he needs everything spelled out for him explicitly. Because as it turns out, all of the true ones, the rural ones, are easily outwitted. The urban people, with their superficial and untrue beauty, easily manipulate the boy. He falls in love with a woman, Bettina, who makes evil and false facial expressions only. But can we trust what we see? Can we trust the truth that lies in the beauty of Susie’s expressed face, or in the supposed “beauty” of Bettina’s?

It was 1919. The war had ended, but the anti-German Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were still law, put in place against the threat of Labor, which was more dangerous than any Kaiser. The state turned its massive anti-German espionage arm toward anti-Bolshevik espionage. Because the message was everywhere. Russia did it. Russia made it work. They pulled off the revolution. A victory was possible—it was right around the corner. Marxists, Leninists, Anarchists haunted every city.

In February, workers in Seattle held a General Strike. It lasted five days.

In April, mail bombs were delivered to John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, postmaster general Albert S. Burleson, and many others.

May Day celebrations were spectacular.

In the summer, there were riots in Charleston, DC, Chicago.

In September, the Boston Police went on strike, and there was a second bombing attack, this one on Wall Street and deadlier than the last.

In October, there was the Black Sox Scandal (not to my knowledge a communist or anarchist plot, but who knows? The winning team was, after all, the Cincinnati “Reds”).

The state countered with the Palmer Raids of November 7, second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. All of these events are worth researching further. The war was over, but it was a scary year. To many people, it did appear that there were two separate Americas. Wartime xenophobia easily demobilized into simple anti-immigrant sentiment, and the chaos and terror in American cities were blamed squarely on the immigrant population.

Bettina, the evil wife and representative of urban chaos, stays out all night partying, and is locked out and caught in a storm. She gets pneumonia and dies (we must remember that the daring lifestyles of the new women, the flappers and others, were all performed in a time before antibiotics). Does she deserve to die? Probably. Susie has no hand in the punishment, even doing her best to help the poor libertine and cover for her. Susie doesn’t need to do anything, really, but this is no mere shrinking passivity. This is a determined allowing of reality. She surrenders to fate, and her actions are always deeply open and beautifully right. Her outer beauty, which likewise only performs the subtlest of facial actions, does indeed mirror her inner beauty, which is a profound stillness. The seeming futility of selling the cow can only be seen as a religious act. Not a perfect woman, or a perfect human, but a perfect soul.

In fact, of our first seven films, the 1910’s film canon, True Heart Susie is the second feminine movie (after Les Vampires), and I believe it is the best. It is, I suggest with trepidation, the best film yet made. But still limited. Cinema so far cannot combine the small-world family drama with the large-world political drama without going insane. The cinema of the 1910’s is our prehistory, which now comes to an end. The next entry will find us in a new decade and a new country. The modern world of steel and glass, relentlessly bright, fast, and crowded, will be increasingly hard to ignore.


The Griffith Project, Volume 10: Films Produced in 1919-1946. British Film Institute, 2006.