(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2011)
Watching Murnau's City Girl, I was struck by how many significant scenes were centred around words on paper, printed or written, and how these letters, cards, tickets, receipts and newspapers advanced the story, revealing significant items of information to different characters, and holding this information hostage to future scenes. This is a story shaped around a weighing machine ticket, a telegram and a newspaper headline, to name just three.
At the same time as these items of written and printed information advance the story, Murnau also composed the film around scenes of modulated visual repetition and resonance, and it is these complementary elements, one looking forward, one referring back, that help to make the film such a rewarding viewing experience. City Girl is also, on one level, a film in which a series of hands ask or demand things from others. Now, I realise this sounds both hopelessly vague and overly reductive, so it’s worth considering in a little more depth. And there’s no better place to start in fact than the very opening scene.
Farmer’s son Lem is on the train to Chicago, where he has been sent by his father to sell his winter wheat at the grain market. He sits, gazing out of the window, before, like the appendage of an implacable automaton, the guard’s arm thrusts in from the edge of the frame, requesting his ticket. Lem, increasingly flustered, hunts through his waistcoat and jacket pockets, emptying his wallet before he eventually finds it. The guard himself remains out of shot, even when clipping Lem’s ticket. The scene is presented as comic, but there is also a slight menace to the guard’s unwavering hand, demanding proof of payment. In fact, it’s an image that prefigures Lem’s situation in the film, trusted by his uncertain father to be sent off alone to sell his wheat at $1.15 a bushel and no less (something reinforced by the very first piece of written information that we see in the film, a letter from his father which exhorts, ‘you must get this amount or it will be serious’. The guard’s is not the only hand expecting payment.
Let’s skip forward now to some way through the film. In Chicago, Lem has met and married waitress Kate (and I’ll note in passing that the very first shot we see of Kate is actually of her hands only, collecting bread from the slicing machine to be handed out to diners in the restaurant), and has returned with her to his home, which, for all Kate’s calendar-fed dreams about sheep beneath the trees, is an isolated house, with no garden apparent, surrounded by thousands of hectares of wheat which grows up to the door. The house is placed in the middle of large-scale rural industry, surrounded by the claims of continual labour, and, as we will see, continual worry about the weather. Lem’s father’s face is deeply lined for a reason.
Nevertheless, in an exuberant scene, Lem and Kate have run happily through the wheat towards the house (though one can only hope, given the harsh words that Lem’s father Pa had for young Marie when he spied her playing with a few stray ears, that he hasn't seen their crop-crushing frolicking - not that it would have made any difference to his cheerless welcome). They rest a while by a shed and recover their breath before they complete their journey by taking the few steps along the path to the house – a distance that for Lem is longer than the entire train journey from Chicago which saw the newlyweds sleeping contentedly, hands held and heads resting against each other’s. As Lem turns to face his home, this distance is reinforced by the ominous black smoke that is rising out of the chimney. In a moment, his face falls, he loses his confidence as he nervously realises what awaits. All the while however, Kate is out of sight, but her fingers are curled over a piece of wood jutting out from the shed. It is all we see of her. Hers is a new claim on Lem that cannot be ignored. Again, we are shown a hand requiring payment, support or succour. They head to the house, brushing each other down. After the brief, happy interlude in which Kate is introduced to Ma and Marie, comes the inevitable introduction to Lem’s father. Lem tries to introduce her but he ignores her completely, refusing to recognise her existence. ‘How much did you get for the wheat?’ he demands. And Lem, again flustered and fidgety, rummages through his pockets and wallet, the comedy of the earlier moment on the train turned sour as he finds the grain contract which reads $1.12 a bushel, and hands it to his father, the figure floating free of the page.
Another repeated scene through the film begins with Lem flinging Kate over the gate when they first arrive at his homestead. After things have soured and the harvesters arrive, Lem’s rival, Mac hauls her down and manhandles her up into the cart she was climbing in to. Later still, when Lem has been goaded out of self-pitying inaction and goes to fetch Kate after fighting Mac, he motions to help her up into the cart. She gently palms him away, refusing his aid and making her own way up to sit beside him, this time on her own terms. And finally, after the proper greeting and welcome by Lem’s father, Lem himself can lift her into the cart which returns through the night and through the wheat that Mac and his fellow harvesters have returned to clear before the hailstorm hits.
In a letter to Lotte Eisner, quoted by Scott Eyman in his essay Sunrise in Bora Bora, Murnau talks of his conception of an ‘architectural film’. He says, ‘What I refer to is the fluid architecture of bodies with blood in their veins moving through mobile space; the interplay of lines rising, falling, disappearing; the encounter of surfaces, stimulation and its opposite, calm; construction and collapse; the formation and destruction of a hitherto unsuspected life; all of this adds up to a symphony made up of the harmony of bodies and the rhythm of space; the play of pure movements, vigorous and abundant.’
One of the most famous examples of this conception, of fluid human architecture moving through a film, comes in Murnau’s 1927 film Sunrise, when, after the man has tried to drown his wife on the lake, she runs from him when they reach the shore, catching a tram into town which he also manages to board at the very last moment. The next 10 minutes or so, in which the couple moves from fear, shame and galling realisation to tenderness, reconciliation and forgiveness, has much in common with the expressive attributes of dance. During the tram ride, the couple – she tiny, utterly submissive, he, a looming presence that does not know how to tender protection instead of fear through his size – are the still central point about which the tram winds its way along tracks and around corners. Later, after she has refused his beckoning hands and run into traffic, he shepherds her, nearly carries her into a café. She is cowed, bewildered, innocent. He buys cakes and with utmost gracefulness, guides the plate across the table to her. She, the band on her wedding ring prominent, reaches for one, but her body is wracked with sobs as she goes to eat. He – the band on his finger prominent as he slowly rubs his wrist, is sunk in shame, thought and awoken tenderness, as if this woman with him is suddenly the most pale and precious flower once more. When they exit to the street, he can barely touch her back as he motions to guide her. When they walk into a church as a wedding ceremony is taking place, he ends up sobbing in her lap, she cradling and stroking his head. As bells toll forgiveness, she smiles and kisses him. The actors’ movements and gestures are a sort of heightened naturalism, the actions of living sculptures whose every motion is charged with meaning.
Just as Murnau’s human dance plays out in an expansive setting in Sunrise, in City Girl, it is confined within the bare walls and wooden door frames of Lem's house, not least in the tussle of wills between Kate and Lem's father, when he confronts her, asking her what she expects to get out of his son, before hitting her hard on the face. The next couple of minutes can be watched almost entirely as a drama conceived around hands and eyes. Lem’s determination to avenge the wrong is punctured by his mother’s soft pleading and her hand pulling him back through the doorway through which he had gone to confront his father. His hand on hers, he looks back, deflated, to Kate standing in the other doorway. He is motioned out of the screen door by his mother, who strokes Kate’s back, her own hand mirroring Kate’s on the wall. City Girl is filled with such patterns of movement, showing Murnau’s pure cinematic vision to be a hybrid artform grown and twined from other sources and disciplines.