Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Release Date: November 4th, 1927 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: F.W. Murnau Actors: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, Ralph Sipperly, Jane Winton
othing seems to be quite as poignant or effective as simplicity in film. Simple comedy evokes laugh-out-loud moments and simple romance is particularly charming and moving. While “Sunrise” came at a time when silent films had done just about all they could, preparing for the inevitable onslaught of talkies, F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece of human emotions is an undeniable highlight, miraculously mustering innovative concepts for a last hurrah. With convincing characters, plenty of humor, and grand melodrama, the film garnered a special Academy Award for artistic creativity – the only one of its kind ever awarded – which is oftentimes considered a dual win for Best Picture with “Wings” from the same year.
A vacationing woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) stays in the country to steal away a man (George O’Brien) from his wife (Janet Gaynor). The unnamed couple used to be happy, carefree, and always laughing, but the presence of the city woman makes the man long for something new. But what can he do about his boring wife? “Couldn’t she get drowned?” asks Livingston, drumming up a plot for the man to purposely capsize his boat to solve the little predicament.
“Sunrise” offers up an unintentionally humorous portrayal of infidelity, contrasting sharply with the horribleness of the deed – as the man embraces the city woman on a moonlit grassy field, the wife is at home, distraught and caring for her baby. With so few words (or almost nonexistent title cards), the imagery is routinely spectacular, with nearly every scene framing a darkly magnificent picture. A silent ride on a trolley to reconcile a nearly irreparable fear of her husband after an attempted attack; an offering of food and flowers not quite doing the trick; the witnessing of a quaint wedding; and showy dancing at an energetic party are each stunning sequences. The expressions and actions speak more loudly than words as the couple is welcomed by further temptations – of the comically romantic sort.
Slapstick and plenty of wit permeate the scenarios (including a pig getting tipsy on wine!), but not all of the sight gags are winners. Rediscovering true love with a day in the metropolis isn’t nearly as touching as the return journey home in which tragedy strikes and Gaynor is swept overboard. The similarities to “A Place in the Sun” (made 24 years later, based on a novel by Theodore Dreiser instead of a theme by Hermann Sudermann) are unmistakable, though “Sunrise” focuses more on reform and second chances as opposed to the murder setup and consequences. With an abundance of creative cinematographic ideas, superimposed shots, and special effects (as well as flashbacks, decades before they became stale in cinema), and outstanding music that elegantly narrates the character’s thoughts and emotions, this partly expressionistic masterwork is often considered one of the greatest of all silent films. And its use of sound-on-film methods, though never recognized to be quite as revolutionary as “The Jazz Singer’s” talkie techniques, were perhaps even further ahead of its time.
– Mike Massie