By general consensus, the greatest film of the silent-movie era is 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans' (1927), made in Hollywood by German director F.W. Murnau. I personally prefer Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis', but there's no doubt that 'Sunrise' is one of the most lyrical and visually beautiful films ever made. So I was astonished to learn that another German director, Veit Harlan, remade the same story only 12 years later under its original title, as 'The Excursion to Tilsit'. One would assume that 'Sunrise', being a silent film and therefore universal to all languages, didn't need to be remade so soon. However, there's a basic air of unreality to silent films, and Murnau's drama emphasises that aspect: Harlan's remake is far more earthy, darker and more realistic. Also, it's notable that this remake was produced during the Third Reich, and that Veit Harlan was fanatically loyal to Nazism. He may have felt that Murnau's version of this German story was 'tainted' by having been made in Hollywood with American actors.
The story here is almost identical to 'Sunrise'. Endrik Settegast (Fritz van Dongen) is a poor fisherman in a village across the bay from the city of Tilsit. Elske (Kristina Söderbaum) is his simple wife, plain-looking but not unattractive. Endrik runs afoul of Madlyn, a rather obviously 'bad' woman who sets out to seduce him. It's never clear, in either film version of this story, why the temptress puts so much effort into seducing the pauper husband, as he has nothing to offer her apart from his good looks and brawny physique. Madlyn persuades Endrik that the two of them should run away to the big city together ... but first Endrik must kill his wife. Endrik lures the unsuspecting Elske into his tiny sailboat, on the pretext of taking her to Tilsit. Halfway across the bay, he makes known his intentions to kill her. And then ... if you've seen 'Sunrise', you already know the rest. If not, I don't want to spoil that pleasure for you by revealing it here.
I mentioned an air of unreality in 'Sunrise'. Murnau's film features a bizarre scene in which the husband and wife board a tram that stops in the middle of the woods. After a brief ride, they arrive in a city of hugely exaggerated skyscrapers, resembling 'Metropolis' or 'Just Imagine' more than any realistic place. On some level, this exaggeration makes sense: we're seeing this city through the wondering eyes of a couple of hicks. In Veit Harlan's remake, everything is more realistic. Elske and her husband board a Strassenbahn (streetcar) that looks very prosaic and plausible, and it conveys them to a realistic city. (The exterior sequences in this film have a documentary feel.) Harlan's version of this story is in every way more realistic than Murnau's silent masterpiece ... but for precisely that reason, this remake lacks most of the lyrical beauty of that splendid film. In 'Sunrise', the main characters are identified as 'the Man' and 'the Woman', and they visit a generic Big City. This heightens the universality of the story, and also its unreality. In Harlan's remake, a realistic peasant couple visit a clearly identified real place. It's possible that German audiences in 1939 preferred a story that was explicitly about Germans in a German setting. (We see no Jews or other 'foreign' characters in this movie.)
The photography in 'The Excursion to Tilsit' is beautiful throughout. The scene in the Tilsit cafe, when Endrik desperately pleads with Elske to forgive him (after he's just attempted to murder her) is compelling and deeply believable: this was for me the least plausible scene in 'Sunrise', and it's the one scene in which Harlan's film surpasses the original. Kristina Söderbaum gives a fine performance as the peasant wife: we completely understand that she lives in a world in which women with no money have few options, and that she's arguably better off with a husband who might just possibly kill her than with no husband at all. Fritz van Dongen is believable as her husband. The child actor who plays their small son Jons actually gives a good performance that avoids becoming maudlin. The scenes in the fishing village are fascinating, and utterly realistic. I'm aware that this movie was made by a bunch of Nazis, but it's a good movie anyway... very nearly a great film. I'll rate 'The Excursion to Tilsit' 7 out of 10, but the silent version 'Sunrise' is a 10 out of 10.
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