SILENT MOVIES: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Deeply moving and in places surprisingly funny, Sunrise was released in 1927 at the end of the silent era, and is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.

A farmer (George O’Brien) is having an extramarital affair with a woman from the nearby city (Margaret Livingston). Stylish and sophisticated, she seduces him into agreeing to kill his wife (Janet Gaynor) in order to run away with her.  He finds, however, that when the moment arrives, he cannot bring himself to murder. Terrified, his wife flees from him but the now remorseful man, desperate to make amends, follows her to the city. Once there, the wounded couple heal one another and rediscover the love they thought they had lost.

The characters have no names but are known simply as The Man, The Wife, and The Woman From the City. This, explained director F.W. Murnau in the opening titles, was because the story and those who populate it are universal. Not that they are static or uninteresting, though; on the contrary, these characters are imbued with a complexity, warmth and humor that make them stand out despite their status as archetypes.

Friedrich Wilhelm (“F. W.”) Murnau already was a world-renowned director when he shot Sunrise. He had come out of the German Expressionist movement that flourished during the years just prior to World War I, and was famous for having directed The Last Laugh and Faust, both starring German character actor Emil Jannings. But today he’s remembered primarily for Nosferatu (1922)one of the first vampire movies and arguably the most influential. Lured to Hollywood in 1926, he shot Sunrise for Fox Studios a year later.

Murnau brought with him to America a visual language from the Expressionist movement that was new to Hollywood at that time but which we now take for granted: double-exposures, matte shots, jarring camera angles, dissolves, and the use of light and darkness not only to create mood but also for allegorical effect.

For instance, The Woman From the City, seductress and emotional vampire, dresses entirely in black and lurks within shadows as she stalks the other characters, most notably in the early scenes where she interacts with The Man. In contrast, when the story shifts to good times between The Man and The Wife, the scenes unfold in cheerful, bright sunshine and ebullient interiors. Darkness returns in the final act as the couple endure a violent storm that temporarily separates them and The Man, believing his wife to be truly dead, is overwhelmed by grief. Light reemerges with the dawn as The Wife opens her eyes to find her husband at her bedside. Defeated, The Woman From the City leaves the village on the back of a wagon, taking darkness with her.

Sunrise won three of the very first Academy Awards in 1929: Best Actress for Janet Gaynor; Best Cinematography for Charles Rosher and Karl Struss; and Best Picture in the “Best Unique and Artistic Production” category, now defunct. (Wings won for Outstanding Picture.) In those days the Academy’s acting awards were bestowed for actors’ entire bodies of work for that year, so in addition to Sunrise, Gaynor got her Oscar based on performances in Street Angel and Seventh Heaven

Although F.W. Murnau went on to make a few more movies for Fox, all were commercial and artistic flops. He died in a car accident upon the Pacific Coast Highway in 1931 at the age of forty-two.

Sunrise was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989, and currently is no. 82 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movies of All Time.

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