Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (United States, 1927)

November 09, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans Poster

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, F.W. Murnau's first Hollywood feature, has been cited in some quarters as "the best silent film ever made." Although there may be a hint of hyperbole in that statement, there's no doubting that this film, made during the twilight of silent films, was among the most mature of its kind. Sunrise is often rightfully noted for its technical achievements but what is often overlooked is its emotional power. A fable about the transformative power of love as a path to redemption and a means to and conquer temptation, the story is occasionally misunderstood as simplistic. Such a view does a great disservice to a motion picture that has as much heart and soul as it has visual prowess.

In today's world, watching a silent film can be challenging. We are so used to sitting in front of a screen (large or small) and immediately being swept up in an alternative world of color and sound. Films made prior to 1928 (or thereabouts) demand a shift in perspective. Even the best of them often require several long minutes of adjustment before they begin to open up. It's different with Sunrise, which was filmed with such an exaggerated dreamlike quality that the reverie state settles upon the viewer almost immediately. As was the case with Metropolis and Murnau's earlier Nosferatu, Sunrise's departure from reality becomes an asset to those experiencing it nearly a century after its release. It is immersive in ways that more "realistic" silent films are not. We don't miss the voices or the dialogue, because Sunrise is not about those things. The most famous moment in all of silent cinema comes at the end of City Lights; the emotions evoked by parts of Sunrise are nearly as strong. Dialogue would have broken the spell; there's a reason why Murnau uses intertitles sparingly. The movie doesn't need them.

Actually, calling Sunrise a "silent film" is in some ways a misnomer. By 1927, Hollywood was toying with ways to enhance the cinematic experience beyond having a live organist providing a score to a truly soundless motion picture. Talkies, of course, were the ultimate result. The Jazz Singer premiered only two weeks after Sunrise and heralded a seismic shift in the industry. After that, only someone of Chaplin's stature could still profitably open a silent film (City Lights, Chaplin's last silent film and one of the final commercial ones, opened in 1931). Still, although it features no voices, Sunrise is not silent. It uses the "Movietone" process, whereby an audio track (recorded on a disc) could be played over speakers in a theater as the film unspooled. This gives Sunrise a vibrant audio element, complete with an orchestral score that helps establish the mood throughout and various sound effects (crowd noises, lightning, etc.). The existing DVD includes the Movietone soundtrack; many familiar primarily with earlier silent films may be surprised at how advanced it is.

Sunrise tells a simple story that amplifies the intended universality of its themes by not providing names to any of the characters. They are simply "The Man" (George O'Brien), "The Wife" (Janet Gaynor), and "The Woman from the City" (Margaret Livingston). A summer affair between The Man, who is a married farmer, and The Woman from the City results in her suggesting that he kill The Wife, sell his farm, and move to the city to live with her. They hatch a plot: he will travel with his wife to the city by boat and drown her en route. By capsizing the boat, he can pretend it is an accident. Although reluctant, The Man agrees, but when the time comes to do the deed, he is unable to accomplish it. The Wife, however, senses something is wrong and, when they reach the far shore, she flees from her husband. After he catches up with her, The Man apologizes and begs her forgiveness. As a result of this, they rediscover their love for one another and spend the rest of the trip luxuriating in each other's company. During the return journey, a squall overturns the boat. The Man reaches safety but believes The Wife has drowned. When the Woman from the City arrives at the farm shortly after the tragedy, The Man turns on her with a murderous rage, but her life is saved when word arrives that The Wife has been found - waterlogged but alive and well.

Murnau began his career in Germany, where he was one of the foremost directors in the German Expressionist movement. After the U.S. success of his 1924 film The Last Laugh, William Fox lured him to Hollywood with the promise of a large budget and complete creative freedom. Sunrise was his first American film, although it was developed in large part in Berlin before Murnau left for Los Angeles. Due to changing movie-going tastes caused by the arrival of the talkies, Sunrise was a commercial failure, although it was honored with three awards at the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony in 1929: Best Actress - Janet Gaynor (who won based on her body of work during the 1927-28 period: Sunrise, 7th Heaven, and Street Angel); Best Cinematography; and Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Production), resulting in its sharing the first Best Picture Oscar with Wings. Following Sunrise, Murnau made only three more films before his 1931 death in a car accident. None were successful and one, 4 Devils, is a prominent lost film.

With Sunrise, Murnau put the money provided by Fox to good use. Although nearly the entire movie transpires outside, almost everything was filmed in a studio, parts of which were transformed to represent The Man's farm, the nearby marshes, the city, and the amusement park. The special effects (such as a scene in which an image of The Woman from the City tempts The Man with her caresses) were all done "in camera" rather than using post-production techniques. Forced perspective was utilized to make the city seem larger, with children and little people in the background to create the illusion of extras being farther from the camera. Sunrise is perhaps best known for its tracking shots; it was the first film to make extensive and innovative use of these and their employment influenced future directors in much the same way that techniques in Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane advanced the nuts-and-bolts aspects of cinema production. The most audacious of Muranu's tracking shots occurs early in the movie as The Man wanders through the marshes to meet his lover. Without breaking, the camera follows him then switches to his perspective. The artistry of this scene is so extreme that even jaded movie-lovers of today will notice there's something special about it, even if they can't figure out exactly what it is.

Tone and mood are critical to Sunrise, and these are emphasized through a number of production details, including the "look" of the scenes, the score and audio cues, and the style of acting employed by George O'Brien. The opening act is saturated with gothic elements and recalls some of the more eerie sequences from Nosferatu. The city scenes, however, are infused with a kind of cheerful madness that is in stark contrast with the opening segments. There are even humorous touches, such as the interplay between a man and a woman watching the peasant dance performed by the two leads. Then, there's the drunk pig... Finally, the growing closeness between The Man and The Wife is portrayed with such tenderness that it touches the heart. These two may be types but they become as important as any two characters in any movie. The decision by Murnau and writer Carl Mayer to provide a happy ending (rather than the dour one detailed in the source story by Hermann Sudermann) is the right choice.

O'Brien's performance is a study in contrast. Early in the film, his acting is larger-than-life, in keeping with the style favored by Expressionism. (He even wore heavy weights on his feet to make his gait slower and more shambling.) Later, once he and his wife have been reunited, O'Brien's performance is more relaxed and naturalistic. O'Brien would have a long, healthy career both before and after the talkies. He appeared in more than 80 films and has a star on the Walk of Fame, but he was never nominated for an Academy Award. His 21-year old co-star, Janet Gaynor, was a major star during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. She retired the year after receiving a Best Actress nomination for 1937's A Star is Born. (Interesting connection: Gaynor's best-remembered role, as Vicki Lester in A Star is Born, came for director William Wellman, whose Wings shared the spotlight with Sunrise at the 1929 Academy Awards ceremony.)

In terms of preservation, Sunrise has fared better than Wings. In 1937, the original negative was destroyed in a nitrate fire, but a new one was created using an existing print. The film was never thought to be lost and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 1989. One minor source of frustration for fans of the movie is that it has never been widely released on Region 1 DVD. A Limited Edition was issued but not sold - it was obtained by sending in a number of proofs-of-purchase from other Fox Classics. (It can now be purchased in the secondary market for about $15 to $20.) It can also be obtained as part of the Fox Studio Classics box set, which is still in print. In the U.K., it has recently (September 2009) been released on Blu-Ray. Unlike Wings, whose DVD availability is spotty and restricted to copies of uneven quality, a pristine version of Sunrise can be had by anyone who wants a copy. Whether or not the movie is truly the "best silent film ever made" is worthy of debate (personally, I would accord that honor to City Lights), but few would argue about two things: Sunrise is a must-see for anyone with an abiding love of movies and it retains its own special kind of power these many years later.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (United States, 1927)

Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: Silent Film with English Intertitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1