As I sit here trying to write a proper opening to a review talking about F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, but attempting to think of a phrase that would capture how I feel about such an extraordinary piece of work is already hard enough – for not only is it one of the most romantic of all films but it is also something that stands out of its own kind. A defining moment in the silent era of film, Sunrise is not only extraordinary in how genuine the emotions of its characters are, but also in a sense that it is something so ahead of its time and does not feel dated in the slightest – the way that all of the best examples of silent cinema can be. F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise is not only his finest achievement as a filmmaker, but an experience that words alone cannot do justice.
The course of the film’s story is fairly simple, but within no time it becomes more than what we may perceive it to be, and considering the time in which it came out, it’s bolder than one would expect. We see a man who works at a farm, and despite his boredom with how life is in the country, he lives a happy marriage together with his wife. Soon, a temptation comes to him by a woman living in the city, who shares exciting stories with him about what life is like in the city. The temptation gets so strongly to the man, but upon discovery that he cannot run away with her because he is married, she suggests that he “accidentally” drowns his own wife. With the simplicity of the story out of the way, a path is set for one of the most sophisticated depictions of troubled love to be put on the screen.
At the very first Academy Awards ceremony, Sunrise was awarded the award for “Unique and Artistic Production,” which at the time had equated what also was known as “Outstanding Picture” (now known as Best Picture), and to this date it remains the only film to win the award. This distinction also helps in setting up what Sunrise still feels like even by today’s standards. Even though Wings may have been given the highest honor at the time, it is rather obvious that Sunrise is the superior film for a number of reasons: it is not only a rich detailing of how complicated romance is but it also gives off an incredible sense of humanity and is some of the most to have ever been realized on American cinema.
On a technical standpoint, F. W. Murnau still remains as innovative today as he was back in his day, for his mastery behind lighting adds more to the power that Sunrise is displaying. Murnau utilizes the lighting as a manner to reflect the emotions of his characters, especially within the progression of the man. In the first scenes, we can get a sense of how he feels bored because he is shrouded within the darkness, but when in the city, the lighting is much brighter as a means of representing his false happiness as he is tempted by the curse of the woman from the city. At the same time, the imagery is always gorgeous, whether it be from our looking at the backgrounds or the set pieces, for while they may give off a vibe representing its time period, it still stands out within this day and age for it is at its most admirable, inventive with whatever’s possible.
The simplicity of the story is also something that would not be found for its time, because its manner of depicting the human emotion during the course of lust is something that many films even today cannot depict in such a mature manner. F. W. Murnau brings his audiences close to the man and his progression, for as he succumbs to the temptations of the woman from the city, an interesting commentary on affairs is coming into play. The question which he raises that comes to mind asks whether true love comes from the background, or what the significant other is, and has been, as a person.
Through the contrasting between the lifestyles of the city and the countryside, F. W. Murnau’s commentary on affairs is made much stronger. He details what would seemingly be found so mundane with one lifestyle and portrays only the exciting aspects on another, but soon it comes to mind, is the city life really as exciting as it may appear to be or is it just as mundane as that of the countryside? Murnau makes for an interesting case withSunrise, for he understands what is sure to get to the human soul when they see another lifestyle wishing to break out of what seems so mundane, only to find out that living in another lifestyle might be no different at all from how the other appears.
While the performances from the married couple were absolutely amazing to watch, the one that stood out to me was that of Margaret Livingston, who played the woman from the city. This is the one role which she is best known for, and as a femme fatale she draws upon desire. The image which she creates is so tempting, it can already fool any person without seeing what is so dangerous about it, the way in which it did George O’Brien as the man, bored with his countryside life. The emotions in which they place are so rich with their details, and it is all so genuine in looking at their actions, we don’t need words anymore in order to know these people are not merely acting, for they detail so perfectly the progression of lust and breaking free of the damages to which it performs on the human soul.
This is truly a film out of the ordinary. It was among the first silent films that I had laid my own eyes upon but after revisiting it in all of its glory, it hit me that it was truly one of the greatest love stories to ever grace the screen. Sunrise is a film so utterly beautiful in how it realizes the emotions of its characters, but at the same time, it is still an innovative product for the time in which it had come out. Even by today’s standards, few romances ever feel as genuine with their picture of temptation the manner that Sunrise does. From the way in which it is composed, all the way down to its picture of the progression of finding out what may indeed be the key to happiness, Sunrise is, without a doubt, an utterly perfect film.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox.
Directed by F. W. Murnau
Screenplay by Carl Mayer, from The Excursion to Tilsit by Herman Sudermann
Produced by William Fox
Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Release Year: 1927
Running Time: 95 minutes