Monday, January 28, 2013

2013 Blind Spot Series: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W Murnau, 1927)

I was first introduced to German auteur F.W Murnau, and some of the great works of silent cinema, when I first watched Nosferatu, a horror masterpiece in every sense of the word, during university film studies. I was in awe, and along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis I briefly fell in love with German Expressionist filmmaking. Since then I have not made the effort to seek out any more of Murnau's feature films, even when my interest in Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans was piqued when it appeared in the Top 10 of two fellow bloggers' Top 100 Favourite Films lists (I thank James at Cinema Sights and Stevee at Cinematic Paradox for this interest). It immediately registered as an essential. When I was creating my 2013 Blind Spot list it was one of the first I considered.

Having now watched this miracle of silent cinema - and if you're seeking it out, it is available on Youtube, and doesn't lose any of its stunning imagery - I can attest to the claim that it is one of the finest silent films ever made. It is certainly an unforgettable experience and a film you'd swear was not made in 1927. On the recent Sight and Sound poll, Sunrise was voted as the 5th best feature film ever made.

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: ★★★★


  1. I went to watch Sunrise with a totally different approach than you - I hadn't seen any Murnau films yet and didn't like silent films - but my opinion on it is just the same as yours. A beautiful, exceptional movie.
    Exceptional is an important description here though, as to me the movie is more of an exception concerning both silent film and German expressionism, two kinds of film that still count to my least favourite.

  2. A stunning film, and if I were ever fool enough to attempt a top 100 of my own favourite films, it'd be in my top 10 as well. That said, it did take me a couple of viewings to really get it; the first time I thought the conspicuous lightness of the second half of the film (all the business in the fairground) was too big a tonal shift from the heaviness of the first half. Then on the second viewing it hit me harder just how necessary that tonal shift actually is to make the concluding part of the film (i.e. the storm) that much more intense. On a third viewing I found myself wondering how I could've been so silly as to think what I did the first time round, it now seemed so self-evident that I was wrong.

    Regarding the use of sound: though Sunrise did premiere with a recorded soundtrack before The Jazz Singer (about two weeks earlier), both of them were beaten by a number of other films. Don Juan was the first feature to have a Vitaphone soundtrack in August 1926 (and there had been a handful of experiments going back long before that as well). If anything, Sunrise appears to have been the first film to open with a soundtrack using the Movietone system (sound on film) rather than the Vitaphone system (sound on disc) that Warners used.

  3. I saw this film for the first time a few months back and like was was astounded by its beauty. It instantly became one of my favourite films. I'm glad that you noted the sparsity of the intertitles. That's something I noticed too and as you say, shows how well the story is told.

  4. Andy, I'm right with you on this amazing movie. I watched it while digging through the Sight & Sound 2002 Top 10 back last February. I hadn't heard that much about it, which made it even more surprising. This is one of the most creative silent films that I've ever seen, and it holds up really well.

  5. I've been lucky enough to see Sunrise twice in cinemas, with a full audience. It's incredible, and even though I had seen and enjoyed a few silent films before, Sunrise is the one that really made me understand why people at the time feared that the coming of sound would destroy the artistry of film.