The visual language of cinema is redefined for Hollywood, with this expressionistic, fairy-tale, silent masterpiece
Director: FW Murnau
Cast: George O’Brien (The Man), Janet Gaynor (The Wife), Margaret Livingston (The City Woman), Bodil Rosing (Maid), J Farrell MacDonald (Photographer), Ralph Sipperly (Barber), Jane Winton (Manicurist), Arthur Housman (Obtrusive gentleman), Eddie Boland (Obliging gentleman)
It’s 1928 and Hollywood has a neat idea. How about an annual awards ceremony toasting the best the industry has produced in the last year? But how on earth do you decide the “best” film? Isn’t comparing war films to arthouse films like comparing apples and oranges? The solution? An award for Outstanding Production and another for Best Unique and Artistic Picture. FW Murnau’s revolutionary silent movie, Sunshine: A Song of Two Humans, was the first and last winner of the latter category: a movie so technically inventive and astonishingly cinematically literate that its influence has seeped into almost every frame of footage shot by the movies ever since.
It would be fair to say Sunrise is less a narrative, more a quiet piece of expressionist art. Its plot is incredibly slim, essentially a fairy tale. In an unspecified country village (presumably in America, but it might as well be from the Brothers Grimm), a married man (George O’Brien) falls in lust with a floozy from the big city (Margaret Livingston). Before he can take the infatuation any further than canoodling by a country lake, he’s got to get rid of his wife (Janet Gaynor). He takes her out on a boat, planning to “get her drowned”, but can’t go through with it. She works out his intent though and runs. He follows her and they wind up in the big city, where a series of encounters helps them remember they actually do love each other. When they return to the village, she briefly seems lost in a genuine boating accident, before a fairy tale ending.
That’s what Sunrise is: a fairy tale. Murnau aimed at universality in his film. Namesless every people and generic, fantastic locations. A dreamlike structure and pace. It would have a monster who becomes a prince, a damsel in distress who saves the day and a wicked “crone” who wants to shatter their happiness. This is all part of turning it into a universal fable. It makes for a beautiful simplicity in narrative that is surprisingly effective if you surrender yourself to it. No one is going to mistake it for Tolstoy or Zola (for all it’s Therese Raquin remix), but you might just mistake it from something from Hans Christian Anderson.
This atmosphere benefits even more from Murnau’s artistry. One of the true founding fathers of cinema, Murnau believed in the power of images. (He died with the advent of sound – somehow that seems sadly fitting for a director whose poetic visual power would have sunk forever under the fixed rigidity of Hollywood movie cameras capturing sound.) Sunrise has fewer intertitles than almost any other silent movie. Most are concentrated in the film’s first 20 minutes, establishing plot and character. Then it relies almost entirely on the power of images.
Sunrise may be a slight story, but cinematically it’s a heavyweight. Today, transitions, flashbacks, montages, superimposed images and vivid panoramas are just part and parcel of film. But many of these techniques date from the work of Murnau, and Hollywood really woke up to them with his first American film. Sunrise is immaculately shot – photographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss would also win one of those Oscars – a series of beautifully composed images, with a free flowing camera that looks normal today but reinvented the industry back then. Few other films, except maybe Citizen Kane, can claim to be as influential on cinematic technique.
Look at the opening montage of the big city. What seems like a straightforward fixed shot was a triumph of invention. The city was a carefully constructed set, with the shot combining forced perspective of a model train, dwarf extras and intelligent angles and camera positioning to create a vibrant, overhead shot of city life quite unlike anything anyone had seen before. (Rochus Gleis’ Oscar-winning art design is superb.) The city, when we see it in more depth, is a fascinating collection of architectural influences contrasting beautifully with the village’s homespun ruralism.
The camerawork and editing is sublime, its use of superimposed images truly extraordinary. As the man meets his fancy woman by a lake, they lie back and look at the stars. Above them, in the night sky, images of the city are imposed that stress its energy, excitement and raw sex appeal (can-can dancers and the like). It’s almost like our lovers are watching an actual movie.
Later the imposition will be reversed: after reconciling in the city, man and wife walk down a busy street – without a cut, as they walk, the street fades away and is replaced by the country fields of their home. In most cases, the imagery throws the character’s inner longings up on the screen for the viewer to digest. It doesn’t stop there. Images at various points show the city woman imposed standing behind the man as he debates killing his wife (again those inner thoughts given visual life). As the man lies back on his bed and stares at his wife, water is superimposed on top of him – it’s clear what he is thinking.
Murnau shoots with an expressionistic, early-morning brilliance, the man working home from his assignation – his slumped back and shoulders (George O’Brien joked his back did most of the work) telling us everything about his mood, in contrast with the brilliance of the surroundings, which we realise he finds as overwhelming as we do (he even gets slightly lost in the frame).
The possible drowning is a masterclass in cutting – moving swiftly from the man’s furrowed brow, as he builds up to what he must do, and the wife’s growing realisation of what he has in mind. A big part of the film’s poetic beauty is how this point of no return is an entrée to a love story. Reunited in the city, the two walk into a church and witness a wedding: the ceremony reminds them of the one they once shared, and Murnau captures the two of them emerging from the church just before the married couple, cementing the rebirth of their marriage. It’s an overwhelmingly optimistic view of love and the durability of the human spirit.
The film’s long second act of hijinks in the city can strain the patience of some. It’s effectively the couple’s second honeymoon, from having their photos taken (a candid moment of genuine love) to dancing at a Moulin Rouge style club where the man captures an escaped pig (yes seriously). It’s dreamlike (the camera work, especially in the club, reflecting this) but undoubtedly low on plot and drama. But it’s charming in its simplicity and in Murnau’s little touches of wit – the couple’s attempt to hide a damaged statue in the photographer’s studio is surprisingly funny.
It all leads us back to the narrowly averted tragedy of the final act as – irony of ironies – the newly reconciled couple are swept up in a genuine storm on the river that nearly sweeps the wife to her death. The man is distraught – so much so his homicidal rage is often overlooked him. Anyone seriously considering bumping his wife off is not well adjusted, and his reaction to the presumed loss of his wife it to attempt to strangle his lover.
This doesn’t intrude on the optimism of the tale and Murnau’s desire to present a fairy-tale like restoration of domestic bliss (after all, darker things happen in Brothers Grimm), all of which ends with an art deco sunset that kisses the frame. O’Brien’s body language may seem crude today, but it perfectly communicates the tempest at the heart of the man’s doubt. Gaynor has a beautiful innocence to her (she won an Oscar as well). Together they play enraptured love without being cloying, and are equally convincing during the rage and accusation.
Murnau, inexplicably, didn’t get an Oscar (not even a nomination), but Sunrise is a testament to his artistic brilliance with cinema. Effectively, he created a new grammar for this language, a superb use of visuals, effects, editing and production to lift a slight story into the realms of high art. Which is what Sunrise is: an arthouse poem, a visual feast that will linger with you long after its runtime has elapsed. Its influence has touched so many parts of cinema, that you might wonder today what all the fuss is about. But everything from your arthouse darling to your favourite Marvel blockbuster owes Sunrise a debt.