Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

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This film may be one of the most lovely things I have ever seen.

Sunrise has that elusive quality; it captures the viewer from its opening moments, and continues to enthral throughout, right until the final frame. Seeing Sunrise  for the first time, I felt something akin to watching Citizen Kane for the first time, or being transported to a thrilling Los Angeles summer in Sunset Boulevard. For this movie possesses that same plunge into a different place and a different time, whilst supplying the fascinated viewer with cinematic innovation and with themes and emotions to which we can all relate.

These intrinsic, common emotions are brought to life, for the most part, through the timeless story of Sunrise. A simple farmer is involved in a passionate affair with a Woman From The City. She persuades him to drown his wife, and to save himself with a stack of bulrushes. Although very unwilling at first, the man ultimately agrees to do as his mistress has asked. Through the elusiveness of the character’s names, Murnau quickly establishes a universality to the story. As the title card says, it is a tale of

No place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time.  For wherever the sun rises and sets in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.

The actors of this film, and, indeed all great silent movies, possess a certain drama in their eyes —through their faces and bodies they tell that single story with unbelievable ease. This acting style simply cannot be learnt, for it is completely  unique to this long-gone era.  And to master it is to have been completely immersed in it, to have grown with it as an actor.

The physicality of this silent style is seen particularly in the performance of George O’Brien as the Man. When he first proposes to his wife that they go out for an outing across the lake (the first step in his elaborate plan of murder) the Man’s gait is heavy and his shoulders are hunched, as if he carries a great weight upon his shoulders. When his troubles are finally set free however, the Man’s walk is light and easy, and his smile is perfectly uncomplicated  as his conscience is set to peace.

For me though, it was Janet Gaynor in the role of the Wife who shone (literally at times) in this film. Unlike the falsity and seductive darkness of the City Woman, Gaynor’s character is a symbol of purity and goodness. In the more light-hearted scenes we also see an endearing heroine, full of good-humour and country charm.

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In the tradition of his earlier films, Murnau’s first Hollywood movie is rich with symbolism and fascinating allegory. One example of is the use of the church bells to highlight the most crucial moments of Sunrise. This technique can be seen when the Man rises up, as if to push his wife over the edge of the boat; it is employed also when he realises the full extent of his madness and, perhaps most importantly, in the scene where the couple’s marriage is newly strengthened and they walk out a church together with a deep hope and a sweetly profound happiness.

I believe much has already been said about the great technological innovation of Sunrise. Indeed, I had originally planned for a piece that focussed more or less exclusively on the breathtaking techniques that feature so heavily in the film: the skilful use of superimposition and the fluidity of camera movement to name just a couple. I realised soon afterwards though that such thorough analysis of the makings of this film was almost unnecessary.

This point can be illustrated in the scene of the climatic storm. If you pick the scene apart, frame by frame, you may  discover surprising and pioneering elements. And while these  elements are especially good to throw out  there when you’re trying for the cinematically cerebral article, these techniques are not what Sunrise should be exclusively remembered for.

Rather, Murnau’s mastery of light and shadow, the originality in his shots and in his imagery, should be remembered as an enhancer to the emotions he brings to his audience. During the scene of the storm, it is the great fear and painful tension that you ultimately take away with you. The final irony, the Man tying the bulrushes to his wife, sacrificing his own life to save hers, is a dramatic reversal of his original intentions, and magnifies the tragedy of the situation.

Sunrise as a whole is wonderfully moving, and remains to this day one of the most visually poetic films to have ever been made. Perhaps the most rousing and memorable scene comes during the final moments of the film. At sunrise, the Wife finally opens her eyes after a tumultuous and very dangerous night, much to the delight and great relief of her husband. Her blonde locks flow freely around her for the first time, and with the new dawn comes a true tranquility and the promise of another day. The words finis rise slowly from the bottom of the screen, mirroring the miraculous but beautifully satisfying survival of the Wife.

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2 Comments

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  1. Great post. Murnau definitely resides on the shortlist of silent-era directors willing to take massive narrative and technological leaps with the camera. He and Lange, amongst others, plotted the formula for what Hollywood became soon after, so it’s no surprise that their films would still resonate so clearly today.

    1. Very true. The early pioneers of the silent eras were among the most influential directors; they gave us an amazing body of work in this very crucial time of cinema. It’s a definite shame that not nearly enough people watch and appreciate their films today. Glad you enjoyed the review!

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