Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans Is My Second Favorite Movie

SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927) — F.W. Murnau

Note: This is the hundred-and-forty-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1927 film, SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS, directed by F.W. Murnau.

How beautiful is it that a silent film is subtitled “A SONG,” and how much more beautiful is it that such a silent film is indeed so musical and lyrical. From its first intertitle, SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS is clearly a cinematic composition with the rhythm and heart-piercing ubiquity of a great piece of music. “This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time,” it reads. A beautiful sentiment, and mostly true, except that SUNRISE is not something you hear (or see) anywhere.

SUNRISE comes in pretty close to my favorite movie; Charlie Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH (1925) narrowly beats it, and why that movie is so near and dear to me has been explained before. SUNRISE is a rare formal triumph, a nearly perfect distillation of filmic promise and potential into a singularly and emotionally resonant work of art. F.W. Murnau’s dichotomous picture, his first Hollywood one, subverts and embraces Hollywood’s already established form, acting as a major contribution to the elevated formula of the Golden (sound) Age of Hollywood.

Lured to America by William Fox, who had seen THE LAST LAUGH (1924), Murnau found in his debut Hollywood production his apotheosis. In a long line of incredible films, SUNRISE is his best. This really can be attributed to its subjectivity, its ethereal nature, as emphasized by the aforementioned introductory intertitle. SUNRISE exists in a world and time apart, two things never truly stated. Of course, there are certain indications (the presence of electricity and the clothing may set the film in the “present”), but the location especially is vague. It is also one of the key contrasts Murnau sets forth in the film: the characters reside in a small, rural village and, in a somehow fairy tale set up, a great, modern city stands across the lake.

SUNRISE does feel like a fairy tale; perhaps more accurately, a fable. Its world is insular; while watching the film, I felt totally transported into Murnau’s song. It is “unrealistic;” but its characters are archetypes rather than stereotypes, their story easily imported as a lesson into all of our lives. This is what I mean by its subjectivity. SUNRISE uses recognizable themes and symbols to nevertheless create a visually out-of-this-world reality.

As I’ve explained to people who have never seen the movie before, the melodramatic plot of SUNRISE may seem…jeez, I guess “problematic” on paper. The Man (character names are intentionally left out to maximize legendary status) is a farmer in the small village. The Woman from the City, a temptress in dark clothing, seduces him and bedevils him into killing his wife on the water of the lake and making it look like an accident. The Wife is aware of a growing rift between them, but is delighted when The Man offers to take a day trip to the city. When he attempts to drown her, he finds he cannot do it and, understandably, The Wife is freaked out. His pursuit of her into the city turns into, in dreamlike and at first incredulous fashion, a beautiful, love-invigorating trip into the city, as was first “intended.” When they return late in the evening, a giant storm appears to kill The Wife, sending The Man into a spiral of despair that sees him almost kill The Woman from the City. But The Wife survives, and their marriage is rekindled, presumably never to be challenged so in the future.

Modern eyes, or even past reasonable ones, may see such a story as a problem. Why would a woman go so quickly back to a man who, just minutes before, was going to kill her? How could she let him back into her home, which by the way contains their child? And even once redeemed, The Man almost ends up killing another woman with his bare hands. What’s up with that? Such questions are irrelevant to SUNRISE and Murnau, and if the movie’s magic ensorcels you as it did me and countless others who count SUNRISE among the greatest movies ever made, the specifics of the conflict somewhat melt away. SUNRISE reinforces monogamous hegemony in the most artful, and humanitarian, way possible.

SUNRISE is emotionally successful because of a principle that I have not been personally successful in articulating, although I have had reason to try a lot lately. I feel that so many people get hung up on “story” or “plot” or if a movie “makes sense,” but my attraction to movies often lies in the details. Or at least, it lies in the composite of individually attractive elements. In many cases, that manifests in an impression; the best movies aren’t necessarily about clear commentary or objective experiences. They are made up of singular moments, shots, scenes, and sequences. And any one scene from SUNRISE, from THE GOLD RUSH, from any of my favorite movies, is so effectively, visually told that any viewer can “get” the storyteller’s intent and emotional crux of the scene.

Much of that can be attributed to Murnau’s impeccable direction and the inventive cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. Struss, particularly, likely had a lot to do with some of the more technical considerations, such as the shot that follows star George O’Brien through the swamp, rotating to ultimately reveal Margaret Livingston’s Woman from the City from his first-person view. But Rosher’s classical, cleanly lit style also played a part in fomenting Murnau’s intended emotional responses.

A lot of the film is lit with “in-universe” light, such as illumination streaming through a window or lamps on a street. SUNRISE’s fixation on light (beyond, clearly, in its title) becomes most clear when The Man and The Wife (played by Janet Gaynor, by the way) stumble across a fair in the city, clearly modeled after Luna Park on Coney Island.

This is a good time to mention that, along with the technical considerations Struss most likely brought to the table, the art direction of Rochus Gliese has much to do with SUNRISE’s beauty. Miniatures, forced perspective, just the right dose of Expressionist continuity; the movie, as mentioned, helped establish the set design of future Hollywood classics. SUNRISE’s moonlit marsh, in particular, calls to mind the limitless fantasy of the American dream machine. It is there, amid the bulrushes and The Man and The Woman from the City’s illicit affair, that you can rest in a world apart.

The structure of SUNRISE’s story is another great example of the movie’s symmetry. Most of the film takes place during the course of one day, bookended by a nightmarish night at the beginning and a hopeful morning at the end. O’Brien, with an incredibly attractive Ryan Gosling quality (or I suppose vice versa), and Gaynor are also an interesting sight, with the former appearing to tower over her. When we exist in his tortured state, it’s a threatening image. Once things become bucolic, his necessitated stoop to embrace her is irrepressibly tender. The pair of them deliver the performances of their careers.

Full film for rent

On the Criterion Collection commentary track, cinematographer, director, and former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president John Bailey says that SUNRISE features “idealized environments.” I don’t know if a better pair of words exists to describe the sylvan qualities of the village and the rush of excitement the city fair brings, and the fairy tale time travel between them. Every element of filmmaking is rendered with such incredible proficiency for SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS. And to quote myself (from a piece on the 1st Oscars): “These things establish SUNRISE as a classic fable, a story with a mythical and humane emotional through line; and as a classic film, rendered in such stunning yet artificial detail so as to describe the world-creating potential of film and foretell that potential’s fulfillment as we know it in the classical Hollywood era of the 1930s.” The journey culminates with the final heavenly God Rays of a sunlight illustration to put a strong, graphic point on the awakening the film has precipitated.

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I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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