Sound in Sunrise – a song of two humans

The most exciting moment is the moment when I add the sound… At this moment, I tremble.” (Akira Kurosawa) Sound is arguably the most important concept in cinema studies, being there ever since the beginnings. It can radically change the way a motion picture is looked at and it can render what the director may sometimes find hard to depict using only his camera. Looking upon silent cinema one discovers an era which wasn’t at all silent, but rich in sound of different forms, from the simple narration of the images shown on screen, accompanied by a piano, to the complex score later composed specifically for that film. An example of that complex score is shown in Sunrise, a film by F.W. Murnau, which lies at the border between silent cinema and sound cinema. Considered to be one of the first films with an actual score, Sunrise is a great example of the multitude of dimensions and effects sound can have.

tumblr_m6iclhK9U91qcs276o1_500Certain aspects of sound are essential in creating the right atmosphere for a film. According to Bordwell and Thomson there are fundamental perceptual properties of film sound such as loudness, pitch and timbre. When referring to loudness, the volume of a certain atmosphere can be manipulated to achieve a certain effect. Using Murnau’s Sunrise as an example, one can understand these concepts better. For instance in the scene where the husband realizes that his plan is in danger of being revealed because he’s left the bunch of bulrushes in plain sight, the music played gets suddenly louder and changes rhythm, revealing to the viewer some of the inner tormentof the character who’s burdened by guilt as he’s decided to murder his wife. Loudness comes to play a very important role as it allows the filmmaker to explore and analyze the story and characters in depth.

One can understand how using or choosing to ignore external atmospheric sounds from the environment can have a great effect on the viewer by looking at two scenes in Sunrise, which are both set on the back of the city traffic. The scene where the wife runs from her husband and finds herself in the city, crossing the roads and almost getting run over is dominated not by the sound of the traffic, but by the sound of her visible pain and suffering knowing her husband had plans of killing her. Later in the picture there is a similar scene where the characters are involved in a traffic jam, but this time the music played is a happier, more romantic one and is toned down by the sound of the actual traffic and the voices of angry drivers shouting at the happy couple, telling them to move out of the way. This second time the sound of the traffic and the people shouting is important to the story, bringing the characters back to reality from the dreamy atmosphere following their reconciliation. In this traffic scene, one can notice the loudness and also the high pitch sound of the angry drivers, car horns and startled horses, all very effectively illustrating the chaos created by the two characters.

Pitch is another very important aspect of the sound analysis. Like Bordwell and Thomson point out “pitch plays a useful role in helping us pick out distinct sounds in a film”. In Sunrise, other than the traffic scenes we’ve just mentioned, there are a few examples of high-pitch sounds, like the one when the husband returns home at dawn with the bunch of bulrushes and goes into the barn. The horse startles and scares the husband. The sound heard resembles a metallic object being hit, perhaps a bucket and it stands out to illustrate the high level of tension and guilt experienced by the character.This guilt is represented furthermore in the story by the high-pitch sound of the church bell, which tolls at key scenes in the film, particularly when the husband is about to kill his wife. In the church scene, the bell rings again, perhaps to put an end to the man’s torment and sense of guilt, since his wife has forgiven him.

0000214513Towards the end, when the boat has capsized and the man is calling out his wife, we can hear a sound like a foghorn, crying out in desperation.

Though one can identify three types of sound in cinema (speech, music and noise), in a silent film like Sunrise, there can be no speech analysis. Therefore music and noise remain the main types which the sound analysis can be based on. Music is used throughout the film to help create the right atmosphere around the characters, defining them. Since the characters have no voice of their own, the music provides the element that better defines them, thus creating a musical theme for each character. In Sunrise, when the husband returns home at dawn, while sitting on the bed, the music that plays is the same that is heard whenever the woman from the city is seen onscreen, but in a different dynamic, slower tempo, signifying his lover’s presence, but not as strong (rememorized by the man). Moments later, that same theme song is played and the shadow of the woman appears embracing the man,sunrise3

as if casting a spell on him. This theme resembles very much the Longing theme from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Another theme song is the one accompanying the image of the man tortured by guilt. The double bass and the bassoon are distinct in this theme song, producing a low pitch sound and adding dramatic tension to the scene. This particular theme is associated with the image of the man walking through the marches towards the place where he meets his lover. It is a gloomy image, dominated by fog and mud and the music played doubles the effect of the image shown.

Rhythm is, according to Bordwell and Thomson “one of the most powerful aspects of sound, for it works on our bodies at deep level. That means that the “pulse” of a particular scene, its nature, if it’s a dramatic scene, an action scene, a comical scene, is dictatedthrough rhythm. Pace or tempo is also important to deliver the desired effect for the audience. In Sunrise for example, when the man and his wife go on the boat and the dog escapes and starts swimming towards them, we can hear an alert rhythm that distinguishes itself from the slow music from before. Another moment worthy of being mentioned is the one when the wife runs from the boat through the woods, trying to escape her husband. Her pain and fear are both well-expressed in the fast-paced dramatic music dominated by violins. Also in the scene at the photograph, the rhythm is a playful one, becoming fast-paced at intervals, to create a relaxed atmosphere. In other scenes the rhythm changes suddenly from slow-paced to fast-paced to achieve almost a comical effect, such as in the pig chase scene. In silent films, dialogue represented by title cards, is replaced by music or sound in general, which would render more or less the same effect. “Sound effects are usually central to action sequences, while music can dominate dance scenes, transitional sequences, or emotion-laden moments without dialogue” (Bordwell & Thomson, 2008:269). It is well-known that Murnau hated title cards and in Sunrise one can notice that they are used very rarely and towards the end disappear almost completely. To make up for the lack of dialogue, sound is manipulated, so that sudden changes or alternations in the musical rhythm or musical theme arise. For example when the husband tells his wife to go on a trip across the water the musical theme that dominates the scene is that of the man’s guilt, which alternates briefly with a playful song when the wife says goodbye to the baby. What’s also interesting in this scene is that the guilt theme is played throughout, even when the wife runs happily to get ready for the trip.0010aecb_medium_jpeg

This causes a disparity between the sound and the image, which is most effective suggesting therefore that the feeling which dominates the scene is not that of a happy couple going for a trip across the water, but that of guilt of the man planning to kill his wife.

Sound has many achievements under its name, be it in silent films or otherwise and without the development of sound, the development of cinema would not have been possible. Sunrise encapsulates many of the technologies still used nowadays, when looking at the noise and music in a film. One can say it has opened the path for developing the use of high pitch sounds that have an enormous effect when placed in contrast with a silent scene, but filled with tension. The score was well comprised and edited accordingly. The theme songs are well-chosen and filled with subtlety, defining each character, their emotions and inner struggles. It is important to take into account the time when this piece of cinema was released and judge according to those criteria and also to note that the main aspects of sound (loudness, pitch, timbre) were well-represented and effectively played with. 

Beauty manufactured?

It is impossible to watch a silent movie and not be in awe of those silent screen actresses with perfect make-up, perfect hair and perfect attitude towards the camera. They did have faces back then, but they had something much more than that. They had everything else hidden from their audience. They were merely an apparition on the screen and one could not know what was there behind the performance of the actor.


Take Theda Bara for instance. Unfortunately most of her films have been lost, but this only adds to the mystery surrounding her persona. She was two different people: Theda Bara, born in the Sahara under strange circumstances, possessing supernatural powers, and Theodosia Burr Goodman, born in Ohio, from a Cincinnati tailor. Known as “the vamp”  for her roles as a  beautiful temptress, she was probably the first femme fatale in the history of cinema. Many say there has never been anyone like her on the silver screen and they wouldn’t be wrong; given the few films of hers remaining, it is very hard to argue with this statement.

This was a time where film viewers found it hard to distinguish between the actor and the character on screen, so Theda Bara, and many other actors at the time, was identified with the characters she was portraying. As a consequence, she was viewed as a villain and disliked, and actresses like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were seen as “America’s sweethearts”.

These were the very first movie stars and even if they may have not been much different from the ordinary people, they were hailed as gods and goddesses because their faces could bring many emotions to the audience, they could transport them outside their own world and into their make-believe one.

Old and boring? Was Hugo boring?

Edwin S. Porter - The Great Train Robbery (1903)Many of my colleagues at university were very little impressed with the early silent cinema when we started doing this degree, failing to understand that a lot that belongs to the medium of cinema is very strongly related with history. If you don’t like history, you won’t like film history and by default movie viewing and movie making is compromised.

Among the directors to whom we were introduced at the beginning of our three year learning degree we were acquainted to D.W. Griffith, E. S. Porter, Georges Méliès are just a few and among the most important pioneers of early cinema.


I am not sure if many did in fact see, or how obvious it is how much these directors brought to the evolution of cinema as all we were shown were simple minimalist stories with uncomplicated plots and very few characters. The list of course is much longer than that. Right after Porter, Griffith and Melies established the grammar of cinema, the doors were opened to many opportunities and many creative minds soon developed the medium, bringing it closer to what it is now. The German expressionists followed with F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene and others.

And let’s not forget the Russian formalists with Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov as the most famous representatives,

though Vertov can be considered part of the avant-garde current along with Fernand Léger, Cavalcanti, Abel Gance, Jean Epstein and Luis Bunuel

meliesThe evolution of early cinema is of course much more complex than that and its beauty and mystique still manage to attract new admirers. Fortunately there still are filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who make films like Hugo, which can be seen merely as a great tribute to early silent cinema and its heroes.

The relationship between American cinema and European cinema at this early stage is also very important to observe. As one can talk about an epic film, action, adventure and melodrama in American cinema, European cinema is credited with experimenting. Griffith made Birth of a Nation (1916), Intolerance (1917), Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor and others alike were starting up their own legacy as great Hollywood directors, all the while keeping an eye on the European film which was being shaped up.

Experimenting with montage, mise en scène, light, decor and anything that can be considered to make a difference for the spectator is what the European filmmakers were doing in the early 1920’s. Even though it was still seen as a pure form of entertainment, the concept of cinema as art was little by little beginning to take shape.