SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

  • Director: F.W. Murnau
  • Writers: Carl Mayer, based on the short story “The Excursion to Tilsit” by Hermann Sudermann
  • Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, and Bodil Rosing
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#82), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#5), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#8), 3 Oscars (Best “Unique and Artistic” Picture, Best Actress – Janet Gaynor, Best Cinematography), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming (with ads) on Amazon Video, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Director cum film historian Peter Bogdanovich has argued that 1927 was the greatest year in the history of American movies. This argument is based primarily on the fact that this was the year when sound films first came into vogue, starting with The Jazz Singer, while at the same time, silent movies were at their creative and technological zenith. The latter contention is perhaps best represented by today’s movie, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It would probably place first in a poll asking for the ultimate artistic achievement of silent movies. It excels very specifically as a silent movie, and I don’t think would have worked at all with dialogue. It is often said that silent movies were closer to dreams than sound movies. Sunrise feels like a dream.

This is a movie that works more as a parable than if taken literally. It takes place on very stylized sets, including in a city that feels more like the impression of what a city feels like than an actual city. One contemporary reviewer noted that with Sunrise, “the movie camera learned to fly.” Its shots swoop through forests and over rooftops, or follow a rowboat over the water. It feels impossible using 1920s technology, until you realize that, in fact, even the forests and lakes in this movie are indoor sets, and thus rather than using the not-invented-for-decades steadicam, the camera was on a platform hung from the ceiling, even while seemingly “outside.” This level of freedom of movement would not be possible again for at least about a decade, because early sound cameras had to be locked down in sound-proof boxes. Without having to worry about how much noise its camera was making, Sunrise feels beyond what we’re used to seeing from a silent movie.

“The Man” (George O’Brien) is initially lured away from his wife (Janet Gaynor) by the “Woman from the City” (Margaret Livingston). Between passionate embraces, she urges him to sell his farm and leave for the city with her. When the Man says he can’t leave his wife. She replies “But what if she drowned?” The word “drowned” melts away in an animated title card. This is done a few times in this movie and it works really well. He does take his wife out on a rowboat, but after she begs him for her life he realizes he can’t do it. Scared of him, she runs away to the city. Interestingly, this is only about the first third of the movie.

They go on an adventure together in the city, where he gets a haircut (to her great amusement) and the two of them dance together at an amusement park. They soon seem to fall back in love. On the boat trip back across the water, though, a sudden storm comes up and the boat capsizes. The Man thinks his wife has drowned, and tries to choke the Woman from the City until he’s told that his wife has, in fact, survived. Everyone lives happily ever after, except for the Woman from the City, because she is a ho.

Again, the plot does not really work if you take it at face value. This is melodrama slathered on so broadly, and photographed so beautifully, that it has gained a sort of elemental quality. The idea that Janet Gaynor’s character cheerfully goes back to her husband mere hours after he literally attempts to murder her will definitely strike many modern viewers as problematic, especially since he moves straight on to physically attacking his mistress. Clearly, he is prone to sudden violence against women! You in danger girl! But on the movie’s own terms, this is the happy ending. He only attacks her because the other woman suggests it. Both he and the movie think this is entirely the fault of the Woman from the City.

Director F.W. Murnau impressed early Hollywood with a couple of great movies he made in Germany, including Nosferatu and Der Letzte Mann, and Sunrise is the result of his essentially being given a blank check to come to America and make whatever movie he wanted. In addition to the floating camera work, he uses some really interesting multiple exposure techniques that go beyond what had been seen in movies up to this time. While the Man is agonizing over the Woman in the City, we see multiple ghostly images of her, embracing him. Later, when she is describing the city to him, we see what he’s imagining, all flashing lights and marching bands in a visual cacophony.  It’s a really effective way to communicate what characters are thinking and feeling when they can’t actually say it.

There is no dialogue in this movie, but Murnau did use a version of the brand new sound technology to give his movie a synced soundtrack, with an orchestral score and occasional sound effects. This is thought to have been the first widely-released feature film with a synced soundtrack like this. For example, in the scene where our lead couple reconciles and kisses in the middle of street, we hear the cacophony of horns coming from the newfangled automobiles they’re blocking. The score uses many pre-existing pieces of classical music (astute listeners will likely notice the same cue that was later used as the theme for Alfred Hitchcock Presents at one point), but does include original bits, as well. During a late scene when the Man is calling out for his wife after losing her on the lake, we hear a mournful trumpeting noise in place of his shouts.

Sunrise was not a major box office success, but was recognized by critics and in the industry at the time as a masterpiece. At the first Academy Awards, the decision was made to award two movies with major prizes, one as “Most Outstanding Picture” and the other as “Most Unique and Artistic Picture.” The former award went to Wings, a blockbuster about fighter pilots, while the latter was awarded to Sunrise. Later, the Academy would retroactively determine that the former was the official predecessor to the “Best Picture” award, making Wings the answer to the trivia question of the original Best Picture winner. But Sunrise has endured on the basis of its own merits, and remains a fascinating watch today.

I have gotten to this point in this article without mentioning that this movie also includes a drunk pig. This is actually part of this big amusement park set-piece in the middle of the movie where one carnival barker shouts “get the ball in the hole, watch the little piggies roll.” At first I thought this was a saying, but no, there were literal pigs which would go down a slide if you got the ball in the hole. I think this is probably a better prize than what fairs usually give out. Anyway, one of these pigs then escapes and ends up getting drunk on what look like a bunch of wine bottles. Only the Man can capture the escaped pig, because he is from a farm unlike all these city folk. The Unspooled episode on this movie interviewed a professional Hollywood pig trainer, who noted, “at that time, they probably actually did get the pig loaded.”

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