Monday, April 12, 2010

Murnau's "Sunrise" and Political Correctness

(Janet Gaynor, the good wife; George O'Brien, the farmer husband)

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927) is a great film. If he had been ruled by politically correct views about the portrayal of women, he never could have made Sunrise, in which "The Man from the Country," is torn between his virtuous wife, "The Woman from the Country," and the evil "Woman from the City." (The characters do not have names.)

The city woman is sexually voracious and completely immoral. She urges the Man to drown his wife and come to the city with her. At one point he almost murders her. A Dr. Jeykyll and Mr. Hyde character, he, like the women, is bound by a stereotype. Then why don't these characters pall? Perhaps because the film is so visually entrancing.

Margaret Livingston, in silk stockings, bobbed hair, close-fitting cloche hat, plays the seducer with vampire-like passion. In one scene, she appears like a ghoul under a full moon. (Murnau was also the director of Nosferatu.)

Janet Gaynor is perfect as the wife in simple peasant dress, bun, endlessly affectionate to her infant child. Girlish, sunny, she wilts little by little because of her husband's betrayal, and then is terrified of him. As they sail out on the lake, she suspects he will try to drown her.

He comes close to killing her but stops at the last moment. Eventually they find their way to the city and are reconciled in a series of delightful scenes: restaurant, dance hall, photographer's studio.

Murnau has been called 'an Expressionist film-maker, so I've included the ghoulish "Portrait of Dancer Anita Berber," 1925 by the Expressionist Otto Dix, one of a group of "degenerate" artists banned by Hitler.

So what are we to do now? Make the best art we can! If we worry too much about political correctness, won't we freeze up and not take chances? Please tell me: What do you think?


  1. I agree with you, Mim. Political correctness is dangerous. Creativity thrives on the conjunction of opposing forces, goods and bads, darks and lights, hard and soft.

    All sweet, acceptable and treacle does not allow for new ideas, for growth and development. It's the yin and yang if it. Political correctness taken to the extreme leads to stagnation.

  2. If ones art is a personal reflection of the world, then political correctness doesn't come into it. The art is saying this is this is the world through my eyes. We can avoid issues because they are not politically correct, but that doesn't mean it is not there in our head. And we can't identify now what will look dated or silly in 50+ years.
    On the other side of the argument, any kind of structure, including what is considered politically correct today, provides an interesting box to build something in.

  3. visually entrancing, isn't that true of some of those glorious old black and white films!
    are you getting Netflicks? how are you managing to find these prizes.

  4. On Netflix, Melissa. You can have the DVD's mailed or download them. The downloads are not as clear as the DVD's.

    Mimi K.: I agree: we are all part of the Zeitgeist, whether we're aware of it or not.

    Elisabeth, lights and darks, as in black and white films.

  5. i love the slinky red dress of otto dix's dancer, the slight pout of the soft tummy (politically incorrect, these days) ...
    the truth as the artist sees it.

  6. let's hope that box is a sand box and we can return to the spirit of childhood, and that there aren't too many cats around

  7. I love Otto Dix's dancer, too... her proud mouth and fluid body!

    re; political correctness, I think it's more-or-less required of us to peer over the rims of things, to teeter along edges and stray beyond the lines of confines... this can be exhausting, dangerous and thrilling at the same time, but how else do we come to know our own edges, those of others and of the world(s) we inhabit...? So yes, I think it's probably important that we don't place too much focus on political correctness. It's too inhibiting. On the other hand, humanitarian correctness - oh yes, yes, yes. (And sometimes - more often than not, I suspect - doing the 'right' thing calls us to be politically very incorrect?).

    (Sorry, I'm not sure where all that came from... It just came out. I hope it's okay to speak out loud like like this?)

    "Beloved" arrived in my mailbox yesterday, Mim. Yay. (Except that I'm going to have to wait a week before I can open it and begin reading.) L, C x

  8. Yes, Claire, and empathetic correctness. You have that!

  9. It's a good question with no easy answers. I think that as a society we need to be more mature to differentiate between gratuitous offence and good art.

    Greetings from Kuala Lumpur.