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.