Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans

US (1927) Dir. F.W Murnau

In a lakeside town a married man (George O’Brien) has been having an affair with a holidaying woman from the city (Margaret Livingston), something which is common knowledge not only among the villagers but with his wife (Janet Gaynor), who is left crying herself to sleep with their young baby.

The city woman suggests that the man moves to the city with her but he can’t leave his wife so they conspire to kill her. He suggests a trip to the city and suspecting nothing, the wife eagerly agrees taking the couple on a trip neither will forget.

In 1926 German director Murnau migrated to Hollywood where he joined Fox studios. This was his first film for them and regarded as a classic by many, but was sadly not so well received by the general public. This caused Fox to try to mould Murnau more into a Hollywood style director and work with sound, which saw him become very disillusioned with the industry. After three more films (all now lost) Murnau quit Hollywood but was killed shortly after in a car accident aged 42.

Whilst featuring many of his trademarks, this is a slightly more subdued Murnau we find in Sunrise. The symbolism and other deeper aspects of German expressionism are not so palpable although still present. The lack of names for the characters and paucity of intertitles may have put off the spoonfed US audiences but for the more discerning viewer, they are not needed.

The story plays out simply enough and indeed is a simple tale of a simple man who is easily tempted by a more glamorous woman and is prepared to throw it all away until he comes to his senses as realises what he has. Murnau wonderfully captures the awe bucolic country folk experience when presented with the modernity of a metropolis by creating something of a fairy tale land to act as a playground for the impressed couple.

There is even room for some humour as they visit salon, a fairground and a restaurant – not to mention the exploits of a boozy pig! But as the right hand giveth the left hand taketh away and their playful day ends in near tragedy.

As one would expect the technical side of things is superb and along with his German works, served to influence a generation of US filmmakers and even for 1927 the roving camerawork is impressive. Even though it bombed at the box office, Sunrise scored big at the first ever Oscars in 1929 with Janet Gaynor scooping Best Actress and the film joining Wings as Best Picture.

Both the characters and the viewer are taken on a wonderful and emotional journey in this highly regard silent classic.