"Sunrise" - F. W. Murnau (1927)

In 1927 F. W. Murnau, one of the great German Expressionist filmmakers (e.g. Nosferatu, 1922; The Last Laugh, 1924; Faust, 1926), was invited by American producer William Fox to come to Hollywood and given carte blanche authority to make a masterpiece of his own choosing.  The film Murnau made, Sunrise (aka  Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 1927), has come to be regarded as the culmination of silent film expressiveness and one of the greatest films ever made.  In fact coming as it did just when sound films were first appearing (The Jazz Singer was released at about this time), it is sometimes thought to be the capstone of the silent film era.

The artistry of Sunrise was quickly recognized, and it won three Oscars, including one for Best Cinematography and a share of the prize for Best Picture [1].  And admiration for the film has only increased over time – the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound Critics' Poll ranked Sunrise as the 5th greatest film of all time [2], and its Directors’ Poll ranked it 22nd greatest of all time [3].

What makes people marvel about the film is not so much the story, which is relatively straightforward, but the presentation [4].  Murnau’s regular scriptwriter, Carl Mayer, adapted the short story "The Excursion to Tilsit" (1917) by Hermann Sudermann, and it concerns the effects of a farmer’s adulterous relationship with another woman.  Murnau’s expressionistic way of telling this story, though, is what people remember.  In this connection film critic Jonathon Rosenbaum remarked [5]:
Sunrise triumphs as a masterwork of thought and emotion rendered in terms of visual music, where light and darkness sing in relation to countless polarities: day and night, fire and water, sky and earth, city and country, man and woman, thought and deed, good and evil, nature and culture.”
Indeed, a number of reviewers have focussed their critical attention and praise on the film’s amazing and innovative technical effects, such as slow-moving tracking shots that shift their focalization during the course of their duration [6,7].  In addition, coming as it did at the dawn of the sound era, the film has elements of the new technology.  While Sunrise has no spoken aural dialogue, it does have a synchronous soundtrack featuring background music and a few diegetic sound effects.

But I am less concerned with those technical matters and am more interested in what the viewer sees. In fact the film has few intertitles, and its message is essentially conveyed by its visual imagery.  In this context the film is generally viewed as a fable [4,8], but not everyone sees it in the same light.  Some people praise the film for simply being an idyllic love story [9].  But I see it primarily as a disturbing nightmare that has within it a romantic fantasy.  In fact, to me, Sunrise is something of a horror film.

The story of Sunrise focuses on just three unnamed characters:  The Man (played by George O'Brien), The Wife (Janet Gaynor), and The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston).  Their anonymity presumably elevates them to iconic status in this tale.  But although they may represent human abstractions with which we can all identify to some extent, these characters embody turbulent emotions in true expressionistic fashion.  This is particularly the case with George O’Brien’s portrayal of The Man, a character often subject to an unseen emotional maelstrom whirling inside of him.

The film’s drama moves through three movements, or acts, each of which recounts its own highly contrasting nightmare [5].  In each one, the brooding, turbulent inner dimensions of the main character, The Man, lie just below the surface. 

1.  A Crime of Passion
A provincial lakeside farm village serves as a summer vacation site for many city dwellers, one of whom is The Woman From the City (or “The City Woman”). She has been lingering in the town because of her adulterous affair with a local farmer (The Man), who is married (to The Woman) and has an infant child.  In the evening The City Woman dresses up and goes outside The Man’s farmhouse, where she whistles for him to come out for a tryst.  He sneaks out to meet her in the woods, and the camera almost excitedly follows him (in that famous 90-second tracking shot), even rushing ahead to fix its gaze on the City Woman awaiting his arrival.  Although The City Woman appears to be a vain urban sophisticate and The Man a rustic villager, they are apparently passionately in love.

When The City Woman urges her lover to drown The Wife and make it look like a boating accident, so that they two can go live together in the big city, he erupts in rage, throttling and nearly strangling the woman.  This is the first of several instances in the film revealing The Man’s essentially violent nature, so I will label it “violence-1".  But The City Woman responds to this violence by covering him with kisses and swinging him over to her plan.  Then she prepares a bundle of reeds that he can use to save himself when he later overturns their rowboat on the lake.

Although wracked with guilt, The Man goes home and invites his loving wife to go on a trip across the lake to the big city.  When they are on the rowboat in the water, The Man menacingly approaches his wife to kill her (violence-2), but he is too overcome with guilt to go through with it.  But his wife could clearly see his murderous intentions and is horrified.  He sullenly rows them to the far shore, whereupon his terrified wife rushes off towards the city.  The Man, now remorseful, chases after her.

2.  Love’s Renewal
With The Man continually beseeching forgiveness from The Woman, the two of them arrive in the bewildering splendour of the big city.  In this act of the film, we see this rural couple sampling some of the sights of the urban environment.  When they sit in on a church wedding ceremony taking place and hear the exchange of wedding vows, The Man breaks down in tears, and The Woman finally forgives him. Janet Gaynor’s subtly emotive facial expressions in her portrayal of The Woman are very effective in these scenes, and it is not surprising that she won an Oscar for her performance.

In love again and imagining themselves now as newlyweds, they decide to go to a photo studio to get their pictures taken, and for this they decide first to go to a hair salon.  When another man importunately flirts with The Woman while she is watching her husband getting a shave, The Man erupts in rage and menacingly threatens the offending man with his pocket knife.  Nothing transpires on this occasion, but we have another instance here of The Man’s inner turbulence (violence-3).

Later they go to an amusement park, phantasmagorically presented by Murnau, where they sample some of the wacky offerings.  After The Man’s pastoral skills enable him to capture a runaway piglet from one of the park stalls, the onlooking crowd is delighted.  A dance hall conductor then tells his orchestra to play a “peasant dance”  and invites the two of them to dance to it.  The Man is reluctant, but when he gets an encouraging shove from an admiring onlooker, he takes violent offence (violence-4) and has to be calmed down by his soothing wife.  Then the two of them go ahead and charm the crowd by enthusiastically performing the desired peasant dance.

With their love restored, the happy couple now head home in the evening.

3.  Tragedy Looms
On their way back across the lake, the dreamy couple are immersed in their newfound love.  But just then a ferociously deadly thunderstorm arises.  The Man desperately tries to row them ashore, but he can’t stop their boat from being swamped.  Just before the boat capsizes, he pulls out the reed bundle that The City Woman had prepared for his murder attempt, and he ties it around The Woman.

Sometime later, The Man regains his senses after he has been washed ashore, but there is no sign of The Woman.  A desperate search for her on the part of the whole village ensues, but they are  unable to find her.  All the people, including The Man, assume she has lost her life in the storm.

The City Woman has been watching all these events from a distance, and she assumes that The Man had carried out their  murderous plan.  So she again dresses up and goes outside his farmhouse to whistle for him to come out.  When he comes to the door, The City Woman approaches him, but The Man is so upset that he starts brutally strangling her again (violence-5).  Just before he is about to kill The City Woman, though, he hears people calling out that his wife has been found alive.  He rushes off to be with The Woman, and they embrace. 

In the early morning at sunrise, The City Woman is seen departing the village and heading back to the big city.  And The Man, The Woman, and their child are in bed rejoicing.

Many people see Sunrise as an idyllic fable about the love between a man and a woman in a bucolic setting.  Temptation had reared its head but was overcome by a recognition of one’s commitment to love.  However, as I mentioned above, I see the film as more of a nightmare.  Even the presumptively uplifting Act 2, with its focus on forgiveness and refinding a neglected love, has its dark side.  Lurking below the surface of all of us, there may be dark, turbulent passions.  These passionate urges and fears are expressionistically manifested in The Man, and they persisted even in the supposedly redeeming Act 2 (e.g violence-3 and violence-4) as well as in the other acts.  Indeed, Act 2, much of which is situated in the bizarre, carnival-like atmosphere of the amusement park, has an eerie, hectic quality that has its own disturbing undertones.  Overall, The Man is rediscovering his earlier love, but his inner nature continues – remember this presumably remorseful man almost vengefully killed The City Woman near the close of this story.

So Murnau’s film, even with its expressionistically exaggerated portrayals, goes beyond naive presentations of love and evokes feelings, as Rosenbaum suggested, about the complexity of human existence.  And that is what makes it mysteriously fascinating.

  1. Sunrise won the Academy Award for “Unique and Artistic Picture” at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929, while Wings (1927) won the similarly prestigious award for “Outstanding Picture”.
  2. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).     
  3. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).    
  4. Dorothy B. Jones, Sunrise: A Murnau Masterpiece”The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Spring, 1955), pp. 238-262; reprinted in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, (Lewis Jacobs, ed.), The Noonday Press, (1960), pp. 107-129.
  5. Jonathon Rosenbaum, “The Stuff of Dreams [on SUNRISE]”, The Guardian, (31 January 2004).    
  6. Roger Ebert, “Sunrise”, RogerEbert.com, (11 April 2004).  
  7. James Berardinelli, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (United States, 1927)”, Reelviews,  (9 November 2009).     
  8. Jonathon Rosenbaum, “Notes on Friday’s Film [SUNRISE] (1963)”, The Bard Observer, (7 May 1963).    
  9. Pamela Hutchinson, “My favourite film – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”, The Guardian, (16 November 2011).  

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