Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was a director of universal stories; simple stories, with not too many characters, that reached for the skies in their straightforward plots and elaborate camerawork. He called his Nosferatu a Symphony of Horror, his Faust a German Folktale, and later he would travel across the world to make of his Tabu a Story of the South Seas. He made films about city girls and countrymen, angels and demons, good and evil. But it’s in his Song of Two Humans, about a man and a woman who love each other, that Murnau has his supreme achievement, a masterpiece in emotional and visual heights that is considered by some the Great American Film.
The Man (George O’Brien) and The Woman (Janet Gaynor, in an Oscar-winning performance) once loved each other, but now they’re distancing themselves: she stays at home and take care of the baby son, while he succumbs to the charms of The Woman from the City. This woman convinces The Man to drown his wife and move to the city, but at the last minute he can’t bring himself to do it. And so, with love lost and regained, they spend the day together, rediscovering what they once had, finding out a new path back to the same journey they were taking together once.
It’s the story of a second first date, and as such everything feels new once again for the two lovebirds: the man’s shabby hair caressed by the small fingers of the woman; the cuddly eyes of the woman, spelling out millions of emotions in seconds; being held in each other’s arms, and swinging around like the only two people in the only world they now know; the bright lights and the endless sights of the city, all singing and dancing and drinking (but just a little) only to return home by the end of the day; the awkwardness of making mistakes together, and the simple joy of learning from them together. living life as it is: “sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet”.
Perhaps the woman forgives her husband a bit too soon, and perhaps we should take more into account his violent behavior, but I believe that for this old classic these flaws are rendered minute by the emotional and visual depth the film provides. Sunrise is not just about love, but about a kind of romantic love that could only survive under those circumstances, and magically does. The love between the man and the woman is part of their life in the country: innocent, simple, a bit too sweet. And yet it exists, to the surprise of the people they meet in the city, and of course, to the woman from the city herself. It’s a kind of love that belongs in a time and space seemingly unreachable, and it is, in its form, transcendental.
This feeling of changing times, of a new reality contrasting with another one that slowly becomes unreachable, is essential to better perceive and understand the film: released in 1927, the golden year of the silent era, it came to theaters two weeks before The Jazz Singer instantly turned silent movies in Hollywood obsolete. Sunrise was one of the first films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects, and Murnau puts this to good use: while the characters still don’t talk, the music deliberately works to substitute moments of dialogue, such as when the man cries for help and we can hear the instruments themselves crying for him. Other Foley effects of trains, cars, animals and human voices add to a sense of environment, without ever becoming (or needing to be) an actual talkie.
Another element of the film that contrasts past and future, besides the obvious country/city dichotomy, is the gorgeous cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. As in The Last Laugh, the camera moves as if unbound by notions of weight and distance, tracking across all directions, and here this is taken to a new level, gliding through all kinds of terrain from city streets to swamps and watercourses, thanks to highly elaborate sets that mimic the marshes and fields of the real countryside with the poetic license of Murnau’s German Expressionism.
It’s the merging of these images, however, that truly resonates and creates an almost surreal feeling. With the use of double exposure, which combines static and moving shots, or even one moving shot to another, the characters seem to go outside the tangible world, almost as if their love went to another dimension at times. A walk down the street suddenly becomes a honeymoon stroll through a tunnel of green fields. A lustful conversation near the lake becomes an opportunity to envision an endless travel though the city’s long and bright avenues.
But ultimately, Sunrise is still this Song of Two Humans, and not much else. It’s about the pain, grief and forgiveness so visible in the woman, and the hate turned into redemptive love so visible in the man. It’s about a kiss in the middle of the street, and a tipsy attempt to get off the dinner table. It’s about how two lovers who can’t keep a serious face to take a photograph, and dance to an entire crowd while thinking only about themselves. It’s about the terrible things we do to the ones we love, and the immense regret that comes when we come to our senses. It’s about ourselves, everyone of us, anyone who has ever fallen in love, in our darkest and in our most beautiful moments.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing
Academy Awards: Best Unique and Artistic Picture; Best Actress; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction (nominated)
Sight and Sound’s Top 250: #5