This is a dramatic love story about a marriage couple, referred here as the 'man' (George O'Brien) and the 'woman' (Janet Gaynor). They live in the country and are struggling with their marriage. They have a young son and their happier former love seems to have subsided. The man is seduced by a vacationing temptress (Margaret Livingston) from the city, and she makes late night visits to his house, whistling to him from the gate. They have started a passionate affair behind his wife's back, who is distraught when she suspects that he is being unfaithful. The man and his lover imagine a life together in the city - revealed through a beautiful use of multi-layered imagery - and she suggests that he sell the farm and move there with her. But he is torn between this woman and his wife. The city woman suggests that he kill his wife by drowning her, pushing her from their row boat.
The night before he is planning the kill he is tormented by the prospect and even a ghostly specter of his lover appears, embracing him and torturing his mind. But when he becomes wracked with guilt and is unable to go through with it - revealing his sadistic intentions along the way - she makes a run for it and jumps on a tram headed to the city. He pursues and catches up with her and over the course of the day he tries to express his remorse, hoping she will forgive him and accept his change of heart. The pair rekindle the early stages of their marriage, when they were hopelessly in love. They recapture it as if they are reliving their honeymoon, and the shock of earlier in the day disappears.
The first thing that strikes one about this film is the beauty of the photography. Utilising dual cinematographers (Charles Rosser, Karl Struss) Murnau has brought his vision to the screen with innovative, and undeniably influential, techniques of style. The multi-layering of images is one notable example, but many of the city sequences involve complicated crane movements situating the couple within the hustle and bustle of the city.
Also, Sunrise broke new ground in the use of sound in film. There are some examples of sound effects outside of the accompanying score. While The Jazz Singer has always been credited as the first sound feature, Sunrise may have been the first example of the use of incorporated score and sound effects. There is a very sparse use of title cards. It is quite remarkable how much of the storytelling is exclusively visual.
Though the story is relatively simple, one recognises that these are complex characters. We can understand that the man - perhaps frustrated by the fact that his farm is struggling - has fallen out of love with his country life and his wife. We also recognise that his wife has not stopped loving him.
Their city adventures are diverse. They witness a wedding, at the same time psychologically re-marrying, they have their photo taken (resulting in one of the film's most gleefully amusing moments), they visit a fairground and share a drink, while wandering around the city holding one another and staring into each others eyes - and on one occasion imagining they are completely at peace with one another and failing to recognise that they have wondered onto the street and stopped traffic.
Dealing with weighty themes of adultery, guilt, remorse, forgiveness and fate and dealing with ideas that pit city life vs. country life and rekindling love when faced with disloyalty and betrayal, this is an emotionally resonant drama and a now-timeless classic. So glad I made the effort to watch it.
My Rating: ★★★★★