Film Classics – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

directed by F.W. Murnau
starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
USA 1927; screened 8 July 2008 at the Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles

Let me just quickly tell you about me and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It’s been on my see-soon list for years, as one of the most highly regarded silent films ever. Initially I added it to my Netflix queue, knowing it had been released on DVD as part of a Fox box set though not individually. Netflix apparently lost their copy or something and decided not to replace it, putting in the “unavailable” section of my queue instead. Plan B: Wait for it to come on during TCM’s Silent Sunday Nights or 31 Days of Oscar program. Several months later, it did, and I smiled and set my DVR. Which decided to flake and tape only the first five minutes. Foiled again. About a year later, I moved to LA and what should be showing at the local repertory cinema? Yep, Sunrise accompanied by a live band with an original score. And it was one of the best cinematic experiences of my life, so apparently the cinema powers-that-be just knew that I needed to wait and see it in a cinema rather than on DVD or TV. Thank you.

I’ve heard over and over that silent film had reached a heady apex of artistry by the 1920s that was shattered by the coming of sound and its attendant clunky equipment, but I’m not sure I ever fully believed in the poetic power of silent film as a fully realized art form until I saw Sunrise. I’d been impressed by individual elements of several silent films – the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, the pathos of Charlie Chaplin, the Expressionist oddness of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – but never had I seen a film that combines the traditional qualities of silent film with a such a timeless sense of humanity and beauty.

The story is simple. A husband ignores his sweet but inconsequential wife in favor of a femme fatale (or vamp, since we’re in the 1920s) from the big city. The vamp convinces the husband to kill the wife to get her out of the way, but as he’s about to do this, he can’t and instead takes the wife to the city and they reconstitute their love. The very simplicity of the story, however, is what allows director F.W. Murnau room to exercise his Expressionist-influenced visual flair and create a dark, moody landscape for the characters to inhabit.

Near the beginning, the vamp coyly leads the husband through the wet and disorienting marshes near his farm, a scene ripe for interpretation by Freudian critics, let me just say. Similarly, the near-murder scene is overacted by both the husband and the wife, but Murnau uses the overdetermined silent movie acting style to great psychological advantage – out of context, the scene could easily be laughable today, but no one in the cinema was laughing. Later, the city is a bustling, dangerous place, showcasing the physicality and motion that silent films perfected before sound came and changed the game.

Though I’m far from seeing all the silent films available (which is still only a small percentage of the ones that were made), I feel fairly confident in declaring that Sunrise represents the epitome of silent film art. It’s not for nothing that it won “Outstanding Artistic Achievement” at the first ever Academy Awards – an award that was never given again. If you can see it in a cinema, do. Otherwise, keep your eye on TCM, as they do play it occasionally.

  • Jandy,

    Love your passion for great film. Watching silent films reminds me to pay more attention to the frame. Sunrise broke many conventions of cinema including angles, pace and shocking transitions. I wonder if there would have been a Citizen Kane without ground breakers like Murnau? I'm particularly fond of his Faust. He led the way in freeing the camera from stiff shots. Murnau was a master of movement.

    Thank you for this wonderful post. Please keep sharing your cinematic discoveries with us.

  • Thanks for the kind comment!

    Murnau definitely moved cinematic artistry forward by leaps and bounds. I found myself gasping at the beauty of so many of the shots – you're right about paying more attention to the framing, composition, etc. when watching silent film. And then the city was so kinetic, so frantic; such a marked contrast to the languidness of the farm and marshes.

    I haven't seen his Faust. Trying to think what else of his I've seen – Nosferatu, I guess, is his. That's probably it. I'll have to work on that.

  • Jandy,

    Love your passion for great film. Watching silent films reminds me to pay more attention to the frame. Sunrise broke many conventions of cinema including angles, pace and shocking transitions. I wonder if there would have been a Citizen Kane without ground breakers like Murnau? I'm particularly fond of his Faust. He led the way in freeing the camera from stiff shots. Murnau was a master of movement.

    Thank you for this wonderful post. Please keep sharing your cinematic discoveries with us.

  • Thanks for the kind comment!

    Murnau definitely moved cinematic artistry forward by leaps and bounds. I found myself gasping at the beauty of so many of the shots – you're right about paying more attention to the framing, composition, etc. when watching silent film. And then the city was so kinetic, so frantic; such a marked contrast to the languidness of the farm and marshes.

    I haven't seen his Faust. Trying to think what else of his I've seen – Nosferatu, I guess, is his. That's probably it. I'll have to work on that.

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  • I watched this last February for a movie viewing challenge (the theme: Academy Award winners & nominees) and fell in love with it.  There is a dangerous edge to the mistress, a sympathetic sweetness to the wife and while I don’t quite empathize with the husband, his inner conflict was palpable.  The cast did a terrific job conveying emotional motivations without becoming the kinds of caricatures often associated with the silent era.  It’s an excellent production, and I envy you your first date with it.

    • I’m really looking forward to seeing it again (oddly enough, the same theatre is playing it again next week, with a different live score – curious to see how it matches up). I’ve heard some criticise the husband’s change of heart as not quite believable, but the power of Murnau’s images and flow is such that I get swept away with it anyway. The whole part where the vamp is temping him in the swamps…wow. Incredible.

      • Now, as a happily married guy, I confess I was watching this and really just wanted him to eventually come around and realize the good thing he had.  But I also know that what I have is pretty rare and most people are far more cynical about matters of the heart (much less matters of lust), so I can appreciate how others might be a harder sell on that plot point than I was.

        You know, one thought that I kept having was that if they were to try to remake Sunrise today, it would be almost impossible to create anything worth viewing.  It’s really the suggestion of emotional motivation that makes it so compelling.  Can you imagine how mundane this film would have become had the cast relied on standard expository dialog?  Sunrise is evocative, and that’s what makes it so compelling.  In fact, the only way I could imagine improving it would be if Louise Brooks had played the mistress…and that’s not a knock on Margaret Livingston at all.

        • Yeah, Brooks would’ve been great. Although, as good as Livingston is, if Brooks had played her part it would’ve been even HARDER to believe the husband’s change of heart. :) Though I agree with you, I didn’t really have much trouble with that plot point myself. And yes, it is totally the emotional moodiness that Murnau makes out of it that makes it worth watching. With dialogue it wouldn’t be half as good.