Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) Director: Freidrich Wilhem Murnau
Coming from cinema’s most ambitious auteur and released at the decline of the silent era, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is a poetic masterpiece. It stands atop the heap of great silent cinema, alongside his other great works like Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924). In keeping with one of the more vexing themes of classic literature, namely that of marriage, Sunrise exposes certain underlying tensions in a troubled house of matrimony. It is a film of contrasts as we fluctuate between commitment and infidelity, safety on land contra recklessness at sea, anonymity in the city versus quietude in the country, and the hard work of marriage versus the easy allure of a cosmopolitan “Vamp” (many of these themes also appear in his later film 1930’s City Girl).
Sunrise represents F.W. Murnau’s official transition from German filmmaking into the burgeoning business of big budget Hollywood movies. Would his Expressionistic films find a new audience in America? After landing at the Fox Film Corporation, Mr. Murnau brought with him the Austrian writer Carl Mayer (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) repute) who adapted Sunrise’s screenplay from the novella entitled A Trip to Tilsit or “Die Reise Nach Tilist.” Released ironically at the sunset of the silent era —The Jazz Singer (1927) was released only a few weeks later– Sunrise is a powerful defense of all that silent cinema can accomplish. The mise en scène is often blurred, dreamy, contrasting between double-exposed scenes of the bustling city and the rural country. The characters have no names and there are few inter-titles used –the camera-work, acting, and editing are all that is needed to weave together this tableau.
The film opens with an unnamed Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor) whose marriage has grown stale with age.
“This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place. You might hear it anywhere at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.”
The setting is an early 20th century European village, a farming town seated far away from the city (the set was actually Lake Arrowhead, California). Vacationers from the city visit this little country town to escape the city during the summer. One vacationer, in particular, identified only as the “Vamp,” maliciously pursues an affair with the Man. They sneak away under the moonlight to kiss beside the lake. She begs him to move away to the city where flappers are rampant and jazz music dominates the clubs. He is tempted, but he is reminded of his wife and child. The Vamp then devises a plot to murder his wife by drowning her in the lake, making it appear as an accident. The Man is then driven mad by his task ahead (Murnau had George O’Brien wear weights in his shoes to create a certain ‘Frankenstein’ caricature, echoing his earlier horror film Nosferatu).
The next day, the Man takes his wife out on a rowboat and attempts to attack her –lunging at her– but he cannot muster the strength to do the deed. Frightened, he rows to the other side of the lake where she runs away until she catches a tram which transports them both to the city. She refuses to forgive him for attacking her. As outsiders, they visit a café where the Man again makes an effort to reconcile, but she is still afraid. They exit the café together and come upon a wedding at a church. Together they sit inside the church and bear witness to the pastor stating “keep and protect her from all harm.” This causes the Man to break down and beg forgiveness.
Following the ceremony, they embrace and leave the church, weaving through traffic as if in a dream-like state. They wander into a barbershop where the Man gets a trim and a shave, he then defends his Wife from another man’s advances. The couple proceeds to a photographer where they take a photo kissing. As the photographer is preparing the photo in the dark room, he accidentally knocks down a Greek statue with no head or arms (the contrast between ancient Greek ingenuity and modern technology, like photograph, is apparent in this whimsical scene). Thinking that he broke the statue, the two take their photograph and flee, while the photographer is left smiling at their misconception. They come upon a carnival where they play games and dance throughout the night. Happy and in love, they return to their idyllic boat and sail home away from the city. Suddenly, a tempest erupts and the Man ties the reeds to his wife so she can float home, in an attempt to save her. However, he later washes up on the shore and can’t find her. After the storm clears, he gathers people near the water to send out a search party in the water for her. When they do not find his Wife, the Man returns home to find the Vamp waiting for him. She thinks the plan has been accomplished, but instead he tries to strangle this hedonistic woman from the city for tempting him and destroying his marriage. At the last minute, his Wife is found and she awakens from near death as the sun rises. Thus concludes this tender, beautiful homage to silent movies. At the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Sunrise was nominated for four Oscars, winning three, including the one-time prestigious award for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” which was discontinued thereafter. There is something fitting about Sunrise receiving its own special award as it stands alone in the history of filmmaking.