1920s, 4/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, FW Murnau, Review

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

It really is amazing to think of how far cinema receded with the introduction of sound. By 1928, filmmakers like Murnau, Hitchcock, Ford, von Stroheim, Lang, and Dreyer were doing really interesting things with their cameras in terms of moving them, swinging them around, really embracing montage as a storytelling device, and doing really complicated things in terms of composition in camera. Needing to keep cameras in boxes to protect the microphones from the sound of the new, automated film system to help ensure synching of picture and sound dragged filmmakers back about twenty years in what they could do. Watching movies from great filmmakers in the late twenties before sound really is a joy, and Sunrise by F.W. Murnau is absolutely no exception. Inventive, fun, touching, and all-around entertaining, it is one of those culminations of every lesson learned in the silent era, masterfully done.

A man (George O’Brien) lives in the country with is wife (Janet Gaynor), but they have begun to drift apart despite having a child together. The source is a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) who has seduced the man and starts the film forcing a plot on him to drown his wife in the lake so that they can run off to the city together. The man follows through as far as he can, including tacking some bulrushes bundled together that he’s to use to float away safely, blaming his wife’s death on an accident. He begins to go through with it, promising his wife a nice day on the water, but he both can’t go through with it and she can see through him to figure out his motives. She’s heartbroken, jumps on a trolley heading towards the city without any plan, and he pursues her contrite and begging for forgiveness.

That’s the setup for the reconnection of two souls who had been in love once, torn apart by the choices of one of them, and for the next hour or so that’s all they do. It’s wonderful stuff. He chases her through a giant city set (signage seems to indicate that it’s supposed to be London), and it’s an incredible physical creation, filled with activity, reminding me of such creations as Vienna in The Wedding March or Tativille in Playtime. They go in an out of shops like a barber shop where the man gets cleaned up and a photography studio where they get some pictures made, including a candid one of them kissing. It’s a steady progression of events meant to drive them closer once again in their lives.

The performances are what really carries it, and O’Brien and Gaynor (who won the first Best Actress Oscar for the role) are pitch perfect. O’Brien starts the film enamored of a woman he doesn’t understand but excites him, torn by his loyalty to his wife, and he throws himself into making amends with his wife in the city, the pair using the sights and sounds of the urban center to find the exterior excitements that drive their internal reconnection. Their lives in the country are disrupted in a way that gets them to see each other fresh, and it’s a touching as they rediscover each other and their love for one another.

The finale is all about using what was established early in the film in new, ironic ways, with the pair deciding to take their boat back to their house across the lake with a gale rising up, separating the two, leading to the thought that one is dead while the woman from the city watches on, thinking things are simply going according to plan. All of this is pure melodrama, and it works wonderfully well because of the deep investment in the characters. The resolution is all heartfelt niceness, and, again, it works because the film spent so much time with them, getting us to invest in their journeys and reconnection.

The film is also incredibly beautiful to look at, often reminding me of the painterly compositions that Kurosawa often brought to his films, using celestial bodies, bits of households in the foreground corners of the frame that help provide depth to the images.

This was an expensive film, Murnau’s first American film, and it was simply not that successful financially, setting him back professionally and preventing him from commanding such large productions and budgets. It did win the only Artistic or Unique Production Best Picture Oscar at the first Academy Awards ceremony, but it would have stood the test of time without the recognition. Sunrise is a marvelous film with everything going right at the end of the silent era, plus, you can watch a piglet get drunk off of wine, and that’s just classic.

Rating: 4/4


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