F.W. Murnau was a director that was sort of unique during the silent era. He made huge films that almost always went over budget, but he did not make very many of them. In fact if you look at his filmography, it would probably read a lot like a modern director’s filmography instead of a silent film director’s. He along with a couple of other prominent and successful directors busted the notion that the director is just a paid ham like the writer. He had for the most part creative control over what he put out. This is obvious when you look at the pictures he made. Each picture presents a very definite and unique world where the acting is takes a seat behind the plot, the set and the moral points he wants to make. The action is usually melodramatic and the actors are usually exaggerated in their movements. You only have to look at Nosferatu to understand my point. This continued even when he immigrated to America and took on American folklore. To see an example of this folklore, you need to watch Sunrise, a picture based on the fears of the rural classes. Mostly heavy-handed in its message about the dangers of a big city, Sunrise is nevertheless the favorite choice for critics when recommending Murnau’s films. However I would object to this favoritism and put forth a better film that he did just three years after he did Sunrise and only a year before he died, City Girl.
Dealing with the same general themes as Sunrise, City Girl is about a farm boy who goes to Chicago to sell his family’s wheat crop. He stops at a diner and falls in love with a waitress. Naive and idealistic, he asks her to marry him before he leaves town. The girl surprisingly says yes because she longs to be in the country with a strong man by her side. They get married and return to the farm where the boy’s parents wait anxiously. The father, a mean old man who only cares about money, accuses the girl of being a gold digger. The girl and the father get into fights but the boy refuses to stand up for his new wife. The reapers come to find a new girl in the house and set off to harassing her. Again the farm boy allows this and she is left defenseless to the lies of his father and the come ons of these vulgar men. Their relationship falls apart, and she is accused of wanting to go off with one of the reapers. Instead of going off the reapers, she sets out to leave the farm on her own. The farm boy realizes his mistake and goes after her.
Both films deal with the farm vs city trope, the faithful wife or girlfriend and the doubting and/or unfaithful husband, and inflexible morals, but City Girl deals with these themes in a more nuanced way. There are more shades of grey to this film then in Sunrise because not every person is completely saint like (except for the mother of the farm boy and the sister, but they play very minor parts in the action) unlike the wife in Sunrise. Each person is selfish, naive, and angry, but each character has the potential to be sweet, giving, and lively so when the change ultimately comes it is earned rather than forced.
It is sad that this film was the second to last film Murnau would ever do. I feel like he was still maturing as a director and his true masterpiece was yet to come. However I am glad for what Murnau did give to us and am glad I saw this film…