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Differences between urban and rural life

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Topic: drawing from either Sunrise or It Happened One Night, please discuss the film’s presentation of the differences between urban and rural life.

The vast majority of the most original, most remembered silent American movies were made by Europeans, who came to Hollywood being already famous in their own countries. Quite often they were often thought to be the elite, the leaders of European film industry. Among them was Friedrich W. Murnau, German film director, who was one of the promotors of expressionism. He has always thought that the details of atmosphere are more important that the mere plot, and this attitude can be seen in Sunrise made in 1927, which is often considered to be the director’s magnum opus. Murnau has adapted H. Sudermann’s story “A Trip to Tilsit”. A young couple move from the country to the city in search of happiness. In the book the husband dies just as the couple is happy. But Murnau felt that an unnecessarily sad ending (popular among Naturalist writers) was not suitable for the film and not only did he change the location (in the original the action took place in East Prussia), but he also gave it a classical happy end. Additionally, Murnau generalised the movie by putting the famous words at the beginning of the film. “This Song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place, you might hear it anywhere at any time” – this statement enlarges the perspective in which the movie can be perceived; it is not only an American movie deeply rooted in American conventions anymore, it is more general comment on the culture of the civilised world.

The film is an expressionistic masterpiece, which many silent film aficionados consider the greatest silent film ever made. Murnau allowed his camera men almost complete freedom to film as they wanted, only giving the barest instructions to film reflected light and shadows. The shimmering effect of the light in Sunrise is similar to the light in the Impressionist painter Claude Monet's later work. Although quite simple in its textual level, the film touches one of the most important aspects of both past and contemporary life; it creates the archetypes of pure, unspoilt, virgin-like rural life and demoniac, corrupted and evil city. It is obviously a great simplification of the problem, but it seems to me that such treatment of the city and of the country is still alive and therefore it is worth noticing. However, what is of the greatest importance is the symbolism of the film, which is clearly visible in Murnau’s production. Additionally, what can be observed beyond the surface structure of the movie is the fact, that wherever we are, the place we are staying at, be that the country or the city, is to a large extent defined by our actions.

In the film we are confronted with three simple characters – The Man, The Wife and The Woman from the City, who are all quite stereotypical. The action is simple as well, but the ideas presented in this movie are by no means uncomplicated. A handsome peasant, ensnared by The Woman from the City, wants to drown his wife. However, soon after he realises his mistake, he asks his wife for forgiveness. When The Wife gives him what he wants from her, they go to the City and, happy and surprised, they wander around the city. Later they come back home and after some disturbances they live happily ever after. In this uncomplicated plot the viewer at first pays more attention to the surface presentation of the topic – the clear, untouched by the civilisation country and the spoilt, unnatural city. This view of the city / country is also visible in the work of the camera. For example, in the country, light is reflected off the water, whilst in the city it is glass that reflects the light. We see the vamp woman tempting the Man with all the city’s has to offer – entertainment, music, crowds, technology... Not surprisingly the Man easily surrenders to the magic of the Woman from the City and agrees to kill his Wife. Yet it is not the Man who is bad; he is simply made bad for just a while. The Woman from the City is villainous and corrupted and therefore the City, presented through her perspective is sinful and depraved as well. However, after the “conversion” of the Man, when he is back to town with his beloved Wife, the convention in which the movie is shown radically changes. It is especially visible in the scene, which has been repeated twice, where the couple enters a street full of cars. At the first showing of this scene, when the Wife runs away from her Husband in anger, she is almost hit by one of the cars. Later the scene is repeated, however now the couple goes through the street unharmed, as if they were immune to the threats of the city. When the Man is excused and the couple is together again, the city gains a new dimension. The Man and the Wife “take” a symbolic wedding, they go to the barber when the Man is symbolically and literally transformed, they have fun at the photographer’s... The City is now shown as a playground for the couple. They are innocent as children, and as such they are not liable to the harms of the City. They are good and so is the City that surrounds them.

The country has been presented very much in the same manner. At the beginning of the film we are confronted with a rather unpleasant image of the country – some forgotten marshes, foggy night; these are all unattractive pictures. It may seem surprising, after all, the country has been for ages the quintessence of all that is pure and innocent. Yet when we take a closer look, we must notice that this particular gloomy image is closely connected with the appearance of the Woman from the City. Therefore we again come to the conclusion that it is not the place that is good or bad, but these are the people who occupy it, that define the quality of the place. It is clearly visible in the next scene where the Wife, all happy, runs to her husband. Surprisingly enough, in this little episode there are no marshes, it is a warm, sunny day and the people around seem to be as joyful as never.

The overwhelming effect that the film seems to produce over the viewer is of a positive nature. The evilness fails and good wins – this old truth finds confirmation in the movie. Simple as it may be, the value of the message of the film cannot be undermined. Additionally, Murnau’s Sunrise shows us the dependence of our actions upon the world and confirms that we are to a large extend defined by the people we are with. At first sight the difference between urban and rural life may look a bit shallow i.e. the City is spoilt and the Country is innocent, but when we take a closer look at the presentation of those two, we must not take no account of the more deeper meaning. At some place of the movie both places become the mirror of the characters moods and behaviour. They reflect the heroes state of mind and this is what I find most interesting in Murnau’s presentation of the opposition of rural and urban life.


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