Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, directed by F. W. Murnau and written by Carl Mayer, tells a very straightforward story. A farmer (George O’Brien), living a rural life with his wife (Janet Gaynor), is tempted into a liaison with a city sophisticate (Margaret Livingston). She convinces him to murder his wife and run away to the city, and so, one night, he rows his wife out onto the lake near their home, readying himself to drown her. Suddenly he has a change of heart, and, overcome with guilt, pursues his wife to the city, where he tries to woo her back…

Released in 1927, at the moment when movies were preparing to thrust forward into the world of sound, Sunrise is a silent film and a supreme example of the medium’s visual power. Murnau, freshly arrived in the US after an acclaimed career in Germany, was given the resources of Fox to make the film in the manner he saw fit. Sunrise therefore presents – to put it in its simplest terms – a very happy meeting of German Expressionism and American production values.

The first half is set in and around the village. From the outset we can see that the husband is tempted to stray; the movie needs no more setup than that. None of the characters have names; they are presented as archetypes, all the better to convey the story’s mythic simplicity. Murnau directs carefully, taking the pace slowly, showing the wife’s distress at her husband’s coldness, and at the same time using a wonderful roving camera to follow the husband as he wanders out at night to meet the other woman. (The cinematographers were Charles Rosher and Karl Struss). The camera movements are ominous in the subjects they choose to convey, and yet the movie’s watchfulness is compassionate because it elevates the husband’s dilemma to the plane of generalised human fallibility. There are no villains in Sunrise, just the imperfect business of day-to-day living in the shadow of the heart’s capacity for perfection.

Once the story shifts to the city, we marvel at the extraordinary sets, with their forced perspective conveying the vastness of the city. This is one of those films which instils confidence in the viewer that the world of the narrative has been rendered with absolute effect; truly no expense has been spared. And yet such spectacle never threatens to take over or to become extravagant for extravagance’s sake the way it does in, say, D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). Rather, Murnau delights in the opportunity to stage extended sequences of rapture and comedy within the structure of the story. The husband and wife drink in a cafe, have their photos taken, attend a nightclub. These sequences actually violate what we are told about screenwriting, that there should be conflict at every turn; the third quarter of Sunrise delivers an extended depiction of a couple reunited in love. The drama, though, returns, at a higher pitch, in the final section of the movie.

There were people sniggering in the cinema when I saw this film – reacting, I suppose, to the emphatic silent-movie acting and the painstakingly delivered romantic imagery and sight gags. And yet, so much of what the movies have learnt or developed has stemmed from the great works of the medium – and this is one of those great works. More than that, O’Brien, Gaynor and Livingston, far from looking like outdated actors, come across as players in a great expressive drama, a ‘song’ intent on dramatising all that is good in the world.

Sunrise was playing at the Other Cinema in London; of course, it should be on at the Odeon Leicester Square or some other cinema of palace size. The BFI’s supposedly remastered version, it must be said, doesn’t actually look much cleaner than the print I saw about ten years ago; Eureka have just released a 2-disc DVD, however, which is by all accounts pristine. In any form, though, Sunrise is a joy. Poor Murnau, to have died just four years later, at 42, in a car accident. And poor us.

In the UK, FW Murnau is probably best known for the original vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922). But the Berlinale 2003 mounted a major retrospective of Murnau’s work, including a new restoration of the classic drama, Sunrise – The Story of Two Human Beings. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production in 1929 (the first ever Academy awards ceremony). This newly restored version is based on a surviving 1936 print held by the British Film Institute’s National Film & Television Archive. (Full details of the restoration project can be found on

Superficially it’s a fairly standard love story. Married man from the country with a loving, dutiful wife, falls for the knowing charms of a big city woman on vacation, realises his mistake, regains the love of his wife and just about avoids a tragic ending. But in Murnau’s hands these clichés still manage to create a moving story, thanks to his innovative and potent direction. In contrast to some contemporary films, here style is the means to a narrative end, not the end itself.

It can often take a while to adjust to the style of an old black-and-white silent movie and perhaps this partly explains why the start of the film seems weaker than the rest. But I think it’s also because Murnau’s depiction of the burning passion of The Man (played by George O’Brien) for his vamp-like mistress from the city (Margaret Livingston) is a little too crudely drawn for modern tastes. Swept up by his sexual desire for the woman, he is shown creeping off to her in the (evocatively shot) dark and misty woods; and it’s not long before he has to consider her suggestion that he ‘accidentally’ drown his wife (played by Oscar-winning Janet Gaynor). Murnau uses flashback to recall the pastoral idyll that had existed for the man before he met this woman. But now his wife sits alone at home. She is quintessentially sweet and caring, the ‘perfect wife’. But just when you think the man might come to his senses, Murnau superimposes footage of the mistress, so it seems that she is caressing the man and he once more becomes obsessed.

The story is set in a tiny coastal village and the man decides to take his wife out on his boat. A dog barks and bells toll ominously. Murnau deftly build up the tension, releases it slightly and then builds it up again. The man makes as if to kill his wife but at the last minute relents and rows back to shore. She’s terrified of him, runs off and leaps onto a tram heading for the city. He jumps on and as they reach the city he desperately tries to reassure her of his love. These scenes are superbly orchestrated by Murnau who sets them amidst briskly criss-crossing pedestrians and traffic. They wander into a church, only to find a wedding taking place. The man is reminded of his own wedding vows and breaks down, full of remorse. His wife forgives him and they are shown walking out of the church as if they were the happy couple. Murnau sets them before images of country meadows so that it seems that they’re returning to their idyllic life, when in fact they’re still in the city.

The film then passes into its most effective section as the couple enjoys the pleasures of the city in a kind of whirlwind ‘honeymoon’ experience. They decide to have their photo taken but first have to go to a male beauty salon so that the man can be spruced up. He’s attended to by a very camp barber and a flirty female manicurist, leading to plenty of comic jealousy from his wife, which is then reflected back by the man when a lecherous older man sits next to her. Murnau’s execution of various comic scenarios in this scene and then afterwards at the photographer’s is delicate and endearing. The couple then heads off to an amusement park, which again is immaculately staged by Murnau. Audiences in the 20s must have found these scenes extremely exhilarating, with their elaborate sets and heady crowd action. Murnau cuts repeatedly from the main storyline to various other secondary characters, using running gags along the way, to establish a light and truly carefree atmosphere. It’s a delightful sequence and as a viewer you become totally caught up in the joyous atmosphere surrounding this happy couple.

It seems like that the film is heading for a happy ending but by building up the lightness, Murnau hints at the potential tragedy to come. A vicious storm on the journey home shatters the blissful reconciliation but the final resolution is not far away.

By contemporary standards it could all seem very contrived and simplistic. But Murnau tells his story so engagingly that even the final melodrama seems totally plausible. You want the couple to be happy together forever but of course also want the excitement of not quite knowing if it’s going to turn out that way exactly. Murnau clearly wants this to be the story of Everyman, and a comment on how the temptations of the flesh can rob you of your moral bearings. The shots are always interesting and different. Like any great film-maker Murnau wants to get as many emotional juices going as possible. His camera perhaps lingers a little too often on George O’Brien’s face, the latent homoeroticism betraying the director’s own desire for his leading actor. When the photographer says, “What a beautiful bride”, Murnau cuts straight to O’Brien’s smiling features, which adds an extra layer of interest. For all the melodrama (perhaps heightened by the soundtrack) the acting is both subtle and expressive. Though the film seems old-fashioned it’s never boring and this perhaps is the greatest testimony to Murnau’s ‘timeless’ talent. As evidence of the skill of one of the first genius film directors, it’s a wonderful example.