Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston
My rating: ★★★★ stars
A simple story combines with outstanding direction and cinematography to create one of the greatest films of all time.
F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is so monumentally great and its innovations so firmly lodged in the film lexicon as to render any dissent from the critical consensus a sign that the derider has no understanding of the medium. Unlike knocking Citizen Kane, there are no hipster cool points that come with admitting you don’t like Sunrise because the only people who know about Sunrise’s reputation know enough about film to appreciate it. If you have enough knowledge of cinema to know that Sunrise is considered a great movie, you have enough knowledge to realize just how great Sunrise is.
The story is minimal. An unnamed farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor) suffer marital difficulties when the farmer has an affair with a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston), who is vacationing in their rural hamlet. The presence of this woman is explained only by indicating that the season is the time for city folk to go on vacation. Thus, a woman from the city inexplicably comes to the middle of nowhere by herself apparently just to sleep with George O’Brien.
This urban temptress wants to bring the farmer to the city. She suggests he murder his wife and run away with her. She seduces his acquiescence. The next day, the man invites his wife on a boating trip. Once in the boat as he attacks her, he realizes that he loves her. She runs off, catching a streetcar to the city. There, the husband and wife spend the rest of the day repairing their relationship. Much of the film comprises vignettes of the couple’s adventures in the city.
The script by Carl Mayer does not give the characters names while the original story, “The Excursion to Tilsit,” by Herbert Sudermann, does. Similarly, the setting of the film is never indicated. Like the absence of names for the characters, the intention seems to be to give the film a universal quality. The opening title card states, “This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.”
However, the film has a vaguely foreign quality to it. The clothes and the sets, particularly the rural ones, don’t look quite American. Also, in a bit of practical evidence, the man and woman are served wine openly in a restaurant, something not possible in America in 1927.
Yet, the importance of setting in this film cannot be denied. The film is largely about the contrast between urban and rural life. Murnau constantly draws the distinction between the two, beginning with the opening shots of city folk heading to the country on vacation. Early on, he has the woman from the city describe urban life to the farmer. As they lie in a field, double exposure overlaps frenetic and discordant* scenes of the city above them.
* Although I’m writing about Sunrise for a Silent Film Blogathon, it is not truly silent. It contains sound effects, music, and even voices during a crowd scene.
During the trip to the city, the scenario (what we would call the script) continuously presents the farmer and wife as outsiders in the urban world, from a different culture with different customs. And, yet, for all the contrasts drawn between the rural and urban worlds, the opening title cards declare, “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 significant use of double exposure was one of the many innovations in Sunrise. Others include the use of tracking shots, putting the camera on tracks to move along with the actors, and forced perspective, using optical illusion to create a sense of depth. Tracking shots are commonplace now, but, at the time, they were a new technique, allowing the audience to experience the city as the couple does. Forced perspective, however, is not common now. It’s a technique that was popular in the German Expressionist movement that Murnau was a part of. In Sunrise, he had the back of the sets built smaller (and used little people as extras) to make the rear look father away.
Sunrise’s best quality, perhaps, is its luminosity. The film makes viewers appreciate that black and white film is “painting with light” (as cinematographer John Alton described his craft with the title of his 1949 book on the subject). With minimal sound and narrative, without color, the film is a dance of light and shadow. This film is best appreciated with a celluloid projection. Digital presentations of the film can’t fully capture its radiance. However, if viewers can find it only on DVD or streaming video, it is still a must-see.
Janet Gaynor, as the wife, won Best Actress at the first Oscars. The award was given for three movies that year, Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. Her roles in the latter two are more complex and substantial than her long-suffering wife here, but she is a treat, sweet and simple without ever being naïve. George O’Brien, who appeared mostly in westerns and action films, impresses with the meater role of the conflicted husband, first appearing beleaguered and corrupt and gradually blossoming into a heroic figure. Murnau uses the physical appearance of his performers to great effect. At five feet even and bearing a porcelain doll face, Gaynor appears delicate and helpless at the beginning while O’Brien appears much larger than his 5’10 ¾” height would suggest. Murnau presents O’Brien’s large, muscular frame (which earned him the nickname “The Chest”) as hulking and menacing in the beginning while later he shows it as strong and stalwart.
Sunrise was a financial disaster for Fox Studios, which would only recover when it merged with Twentieth Century Studios. However, it proved a success with the critics. It won three Oscars the first year the awards were presented. Charles Rosher and Karl Strauss won for Best Cinematography. The film also won an award for Artistic Quality of Production, an award that was given only the first year. At that time, the awards for best picture were divided into two categories, Best Production and Artistic Quality of Production. The latter award was dropped the next year, and, a few years later, Best Production was renamed Best Picture. For decades, Wings, which won Best Production that year, was considered the sole “Best Picture” winner. Recently, however, more sources are recognizing that two films actually won “Best Picture” that first year.