Sundays are for silent cinema and we have encountered some classics as of late such as Lillian Gish’s The Mothering Heart and Buster Keaton’s The General, this time out we go to F.W. Murnau’s 1927 classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
A cheating husband (George O’Brien) is persuaded to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) by a visiting city vamp (Margaret Livingston), who tries to persuade him to murder his sweet wife and mother of his child and move back with her. On the plotted murder boat ride the husband has to decide whether it is all really worth it.
This, of course, has been a bit of a cheat, while technically there is no dialogue in Sunrise, there is a sound effects track and was, in fact, one of the first to use the Fox Movietone technology. Later that year the first talkie was released in The Jazz Singer changing cinema forever. However, Sunrise should not be merely remembered for its audio. Visually it is astounding and you would expect nothing less from master director F.W. Murnau.
The film starts with a split-screen of trains, people at the beach and a cruise liner leaving a city. Such a bold move from Murnau as this would have been one of the first instances of such techniques being utilised. What made Murnau stand out so much was that he didn’t rely on these throughout the film, it almost feels as if he was showing off, testing these out in snippets to help world build, show the audience a multitude of optics and trust that they would be able to keep with him. This is also the first instance the Movietone technology was used as we hear the cruise liners foghorns blare out.
The long tracking shots were also implemented and although my knowledge of silent film is still at a novice level, I do not remember seeing such a roving tracking one shot as we do in the first act of the film. While there is an obvious cut that audiences would notice, the illusion that we see the husband (we never know any of the character’s name in the film) walk from his farm, roaming slowly and over a fence. The camera goes around the opposite side of a tree and hedge to show the vamp prepping for her rendezvous. The shot is seamless.
Murnau also allows for dreamlike sequences that again were not overly common in films at the time. The husband visualising the murder of his wife, the life in the city that he could potentially have together (using the split-screen fade again). Excellent work from Murnau and cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. I am sure it had happened previously, but again in the first act, we see a zoom close up (only of some reeds but still) so much of the film feels unique.
What can only be described as a standard silent era melodrama plot. A bored/comfortable husband finding the lure of the city vamp instead of what he deems his boring housewife, before inevitably ably returning to her and begging forgiveness, is a pretty common plot and in fact, the one of our recently reviewed a The Mothering Heart. Murnau, however, is able to keep his aesthetics with the interior designs very much looking like a Murnau film with the perspectives being slightly off and the bland room interiors and use of the light from the moon to highlight the characters face. This doubled with all of the camera and editing techniques throughout the film make it truly stand alone.
With all of that said, the camera, sound and editing can only work if the actors portraying the characters excel. We can have the visuals of the vamp appearing in the husbands head as he makes his decision to go ahead with the plan to murder his wife. But this scene only works thanks to O’Brien’s facial acting. His turn from indecision to certainty and eventually to a walking zombie as the realisation of what his actions will mean are all down to the performer. Murnau’s techniques can only take the film so far.
O’Brien’s conflict with himself is essential to the film’s success, coupled this with Gaynor’s performance and Sunrise is an instant classic without the additions. The entire boat ride is filled with tension as the wife tries to work out what is going on and despite attempts to make her husband notice her and smile, he remains steadfast in his rowing. The slow realisation that something is wrong and that she is doomed is utterly heartbreaking.
From hear we mostly venture to pure melodrama and it doesn’t negatively affect the entire scope of the film. A lovely scene that would work look cheesy today is the couple walking through the city, through fields and back into the city with a rear projection showing everything. Utterly charming and while even in modern times it shouldn’t work, it still somehow does.
For all the visuals the story is about these two souls who had become distant despite living in the same house and being married. They had seemingly lost a little of their love for each other. Obviously more on one side than the other, but a disconnect all the same. Sunrise, in essence, is merely the rejuvenation of a relationship that was almost lost to the lake. The whole middle act is pure and seeing the couple act like teenagers are so charming (again this is a film with charm). The subtitle of the film, A Song of Two Humans surmises the film perfectly. The vamp doesn’t really matter in the whole scope of the film, the love and heartache spread throughout is fundamentally the soul.
Sunrise is a simple story, but it is exceptional on every level possible. It is a warm-hearted film that would still connect with audiences today. The reconciliation of the couple is the highlight and an utter joy to watch and the emotional rollercoaster it takes the audience through is an underappreciated aspect that pushes the film to its award-winning status.