Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Starring: Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien, Margaret Livingston
At the very first Academy Awards ceremony, Sunrise won for Best Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Unique and Artistic Picture. For the first year, the Academy awarded Outstanding Picture, which went to the best commercial film, and Best Unique and Artistic Film, which championed movies that were pushing the boundaries of cinema. For the second year, the Academy merged the categories into Best Picture, making 1927 the only year to have two top-prize winners.
It’s Oscars season, and Valentine’s Day just happened, so I watched one of the most romantic and critically celebrated movie of the silent film era.
A small vacation town sees tourists visit every summer. One tourist, however, has outstayed her welcome. A “Woman of the City,” this temptress has set her eyes on a local farmer, whistling to him every evening, then luring him to the local make-out spot. The farmer’s wife, meanwhile, silently suffers at home with the newborn.
To truly escape his peasant existence, the farmer and city woman conspire to drown the wife, sell his farm, and live large in the metropolis across the bay. Driven by lust for a better life and modern wife, the farmer nearly executes his aquatic homicide—until his wife looks at him so lovingly and with such desire to return to their newlywed bliss that he cannot follow through. The husband and wife then set out on a date, attempting to rediscover what their marriage and commitment means. Will their love continue burning, or should it be set out to sea and drowned?
You, personally, do not have to—aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters should. Every genre of film has its fair share of schlock, but romance has been hit so hard for so long that even a competent entry feels like a revelation. Formulaic relationships; insulting race, gender, and sexual stereotypes; idiotic miscommunications—romance is guilty of it all. As a longtime horror fan, though, I know how the slump of a genre can feel. What our current horror renaissance has unearthed and executed are the bones of the genre and immediacy of the situation.
Sunrise, then, teaches lessons that romance crafters can study. The conflict isn’t overly complicated or contrived, yet what is portrayed is done so with wild creativity. While the characters aren’t unique (my only criticism), their appeal is universal, so the audience can connect to the situation. Most importantly, the feelings at the core are genuine. I believe the farmer loved his wife, then got bored with his routine and was led astray. I believe the wife’s unyielding devotion and desire to fix the situation. I even believe the woman of the city’s goal to have her cake and eat it too. For all the artifice the film puts on display, the viewer rarely feels put upon. 95 years later, this film remains shockingly relatable.
Don’t be afraid of me! Going in, this film checked all the boxes that normally would make it feel like homework: It’s silent, it’s black and white, it’s sappy. Believe me, I’ve watched plenty of “important” films that were drier than C-Span 2.
This film gleefully defied those expectations. Yes, the film has no spoken dialogue, but the director purposely used as few title cards as possible in order to keep viewers invested. Additionally, Sunrise uses a timed soundtrack, so there are plenty of sound effects and music.
While the film is shot in monochrome, what’s on screen is anything but boring. F.W. Murnau was a German Expressionist, so he used every film trick he could to bring characters’ inner feelings to their outside world. The image on the left shows, to me, how bright, chaotic, and exhilarating theme parks can be. Early in the film, the woman of the city steps into her caretakers’ kitchen; the camera frame impossibly contains the caretakers, their dining table, their meager living space, their old-fashioned kitchen, and the stairs. While no house would ever actually be built this way, Marneu shows how cramped the temptress feels in this vacation shack. Dozens of moments like these give viewers plenty to keep their eyes on.
Finally, as you may have noticed, the characters don’t have names. Sunrise opens on title cards that warn the viewers that the following events could happen to any couple. While I’m doubtful that many current marriages are in danger because a temptress dressed as a flapper came to town via horse and buggy, I was surprised at how timeless and universal many of the dramatic beats were. Far from sappy, Sunrise reminds its central pair of what marriage means for its participants and what kind of fuel it takes to keep one going.
Perhaps the most sacred vow this film bestowed upon me, though, was its promise of economy. The film is only 94 minutes, so if this film is still a slog for you despite what I’ve mentioned, know that the storm won’t last much longer.