THERE WAS a time, says filmmaker Jim de Seve, when he, like others in the gay community, had no use for or interest in same-sex marriage. "I was that way once," says the director of the documentary "Tying the Knot" (see capsule review on Page 35). "Marriage is a straight institution. Why should we get involved in this?"

That was before he and his boyfriend, "Knot" producer Kian Tjong, a refugee from Indonesia, encountered difficulties staying together, because of Tjong's non-U.S.-resident status. "It wasn't until I bumped my head up against my own legal issues," says de Seve, that he saw the question of gays' right to marry as vital, and all too misunderstood. With the film, he hopes to make what is for many a theoretical issue a bit more personal, by telling the stories of Sam, a gay man, and Mickie, a lesbian, both of whom have been fighting for spousal rights in the wake of their longtime life partners' deaths.

Of course, de Seve harbors no illusions that this will be a cakewalk, knowing full well that few of those opposed to gay marriage will even come to see his film in the first place. "Here we are," he jokes, facetiously stepping into the persona of someone who wandered into his movie by mistake. "We thought this was a romantic comedy!" Humor aside, de Seve hopes his film will appeal, without polemics, to what he calls the "movable middle" -- not just to gays and lesbians who may be indifferent to the issue, but to open-minded straights as well. The conversion of the intransigent opposition, he knows, is a ways down the road.

"Sometimes the choir needs preaching to first," he says of the target audience for his film, which is at heart a love story. "What I want to do is inspire the choir to sing a beautiful song that we can get across the country. We need the support of the gay community and others who may be sympathetic to show that the film can stand on its own two feet. Once that happens, more and more people will start talking about it."

THE BEST OF MURNAU

You'll be a lucky mortal indeed if you give yourself the time to see F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" this weekend. A dyed-in-the-wool masterpiece, it has been beautifully restored in a new 35mm print and will be presented Saturday at 1 and Sunday at 5:30 at the National Gallery of Art's East Building auditorium. It's the opening film in a 12-film Murnau series presented by the National Gallery and the Goethe-Institut this month.

What's remarkable about Murnau (those initials stand for Friedrich Wilhelm) is how he's fading away, literally. This retrospective brings together the entire collection of the 12 remaining 35mm prints of his films, most of them new, some recently restored. (He made 21 films altogether, nine of which have been lost to time's deterioration.) This is a great opportunity to appreciate him and much of his work.

Murnau, born in 1888, saw two centuries and two different national cinemas. He started as a film director in Germany during its golden period of the Weimar Republic, along with such fellow filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Carl Mayer and G.W. Pabst. In the mid-1920s, Murnau immigrated to Hollywood, where he made the 1927 "Sunrise," one of three pictures for Fox.

It's about a provincial husband (George O'Brien) whose powerful attraction to a scheming woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) causes him to consider and attempt murder on his wife (Janet Gaynor). When he comes to his senses, he tries to return to his former life. Although this was a Hollywood production, its heart and soul were German. Murnau used very expressionistic lighting in the German style and the participation of Austrian writer Mayer, and Germans Edgar Ulmer as an art director and cameraman Karl Struss. The result is an operatic, dreamily lit film whose moving camera (unusual for its time) anticipated the work of filmmakers from Abel Gance to Robert Altman and whose murderous tone heralds film noir.

The movie was a commercial flop, but it won three out of its four nominations at the first Academy Awards, including prizes for Gaynor for acting and Struss (and Englishman Charles Rosher) for cinematography.

Another Murnau masterpiece (and his final film), the 1931 "Tabu," screens Saturday at 3:30. Set in the South Pacific and independently produced with American cinematographer Robert J. Flaherty, it's a parable about love and paradise.

Check out the full program and descriptions at www.nga.gov/programs/flmmurnau.shtm for the National Gallery, and www.goethe.de/uk/was/3-2004/fwmurnau.htm for the Goethe. The Gallery series continues with "City Girl (Our Daily Bread)" (1930); "Tartuffe" (1925); "Faust" (1926); "The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann)" (1924); "Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens" (1922); "Phantom" (1922); "Journey Into the Night (Der Gang in die Nacht)" (1920); and "The Haunted Castle (Schloss Vogeloed)" (1921), which concludes the series Oct. 30.

The Goethe-Institut will show "The Grand Duke's Finances" (1924) Oct. 15 at 6 and "Burning Soil (Der brennende Acker)" (1922) Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Silent Orchestra's Carlos Garza and Rich O'Meara will perform live accompaniment for the films "Faust," "The Last Laugh" and "Nosferatu." Ray Brubacher will accompany the remaining films at the Gallery. And at the Goethe, Burnett Thompson will do the same for both films. Admission is free at the Gallery. Films at the Goethe are $5 each; tickets can be bought at the theater during office hours or online with additional fee.

FOR THE FIREFIGHTERS

John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix breezed through Washington Monday to promote "Ladder 49" (see review on Page 34), a film about firefighters in Baltimore. (They were en route to a premiere screening of the film in Baltimore that night.)

Phoenix, whose character, Jack Morrison, is seen over 10 years as rookie and veteran, remembered reverently his 31/2 weeks of training at a Baltimore fire academy, where he also got the chance to talk with beginning firefighters. He also spent time at Truck 10 in West Baltimore, which included interviewing a "step man," the job of his character in the movie. But of all his pleasures, he recalls most fondly showing the film to firefighters, many of whom expressed their appreciation.

"I've never been thanked for a movie before," Phoenix said.

Travolta, in a supporting but pivotal role as the captain of Jack's firehouse, said he did the movie "because I wanted to pay homage to these firefighters. I found a kinship to them right after September 11. . . . And who knows? Maybe if we do [the movie] right and cause enough attention, they might get a pay raise or something. That would be really nice for them. They need to be making more."

But not like an actor's salary, right? Oh, we kid, we kid.

Travolta also waxed enthusiastically about the idea of firefighters as heroes. In talking with real firefighters, he found "they would be embarrassed if you referred to them as a hero. It's why they're so magical to me. They're not going to brag about the lives they've saved. They do this job because they just can't help it -- they feel like they don't have a choice but to go in while others are coming out."

-- Desson Thomson

and Michael O'Sullivan

Director Jim de Seve says he wasn't interested in same-sex marriage until "I bumped my head up against my own legal issues."