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.