by Allan Fish
(USA 1927 97m) DVD1/2
A Song of Two Humans
p William Fox d Friedrich W.Murnau w Carl Mayer novel “A Trip to Tilsit” by Hermann Sudermann ph Charles Rosher, Karl Struss ed H.H.Caldwell, Katherine Hilliker, Harold Schuster m Hugo Riesenfeld art Rochus Gliese
George O’Brien (the man), Janet Gaynor (the wife), Margaret Livingston (other woman), J.Farrell MacDonald (the photographer), Bodil Rosing (the maid), Ralph Sipperly, Jane Winton, Arthur Housman, Eddie Boland,
So goes the subtitle to Murnau’s masterpiece, and no film before or since has come close to matching its tune. If one silent had to be preserved above all others, with the greatest respect to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Napoleon, The Wedding March, Nosferatu and all the other great classics of this lost art form, without Sunrise one would feel that the cinema itself had died. In Interview With the Vampire Brad Pitt’s Louis mourns the loss of sunrises, but witnesses Murnau’s and even he, a soulless killer, can feel the emotion on the screen.
The story follows a young farmer entangled with a vampish woman from the city, who tries to tempt him from his wife by selling his farm – which he has already let loan sharks strip bare to finance his affair – and getting him to kill his once beloved spouse to run off to the city with her. However, when push (excuse the pun) comes to shove, and he takes his wife out on the boat, he cannot kill her, though she realises his intentions and runs away. He then realises his folly and spends the day trying to win her love back.
Silent films are often romanticised for their use of light, and this is a perfect case in point; there are uses of light here you never knew existed and the sun’s symbolism is as potent here as it was in Nosferatu five years earlier. Sure, the candlelight and lanterns may not seem as alive as those in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, but they still burn and light up the screen. This may be an American film made by an American studio who had given its director carte blanche, but it’s made by an German director, based on a German script (by great scenarist Carl Mayer) of a German author’s work (William Dieterle’s All That Money Can Buy certainly owed a debt to it), and Murnau manages to combine this German sensibility with a shiny romantic gloss that is pure Hollywood. That in itself is Murnau’s greatest masterstroke, not the expressionism itself, which is merely brilliantly eyecatching, but counterpoint of the symbolism. The film may be entitled Sunrise, but it’s at night when the moon is bright that many of the film’s symbolism is sharpest and Murnau’s use of double exposure to suggest dreams and suggestion is quite magnificent and, in its day, must have been revolutionary. Further irony is in the fact that, though the city is what lures the husband to consider killing his wife, it is there that he comes to love her again and win her back so that, in its slightly strange way, it’s just saying what The Wizard of Oz said a dozen years later, that happiness is in your own backyard.
It’s in the city that the real romance shines through, like a sun in itself. In today’s world many might see the wife’s forgiveness as too submissive, and they might be right, in this day and age. But then romance really did mean something, or at least romance on the cinema really did mean something. This wasn’t just love so much as devotion, a devotion not only existent in wives but in animals, as witness the dog’s hurrying to the boat and diving in when he senses his mistress’ life is in danger. And, though this is Murnau’s baby in every way, one cannot praise the actors enough, with Janet Gaynor, sporting a hair-do so tightly braided as to resemble a golden skullcap, quite unforgettable as the long suffering, loyal wife, radiating an inner beauty enough to shame the brightest stars (both actresses and astronomical).
The opening caption reads: “this song of a man and his wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time.” Never was a truer word spoken, for this is as universal as the fact that the sun will always rise. Too often films are referred to as transcendental experiences, well Sunrise really is one. It’s the greatest paean to love ever filmed and one of the greatest films of all time. Finis.