Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and the purity of Cinema
F W Murnau's 1927 classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a film about sex and love, about lust and family, about money and poverty. It is a paean of marriage, a film in which a man is torn between the seductive dreams that belong to the young and the comforting yet sometimes unappreciated familiarity of home.
Indeed, the film begins with a man for whom familiarity has bred contempt – or at least malcontent. He is a farmer with few pennies to rub together but with land and cattle. He is seduced by a vamp from the city. She is everything that he may once have dreamed of – she dances with energetic sexuality, her clothes are the finest satin, her hair bobbed in the latest fashion, she smokes cigarettes and conjures up images of nightclubs and the bright lights of the big city.
His wife has nothing on this woman. She works hard, dresses poorly, lives for her home, her child and her husband. She belongs to the very village that he dreams of leaving.
The man and the vamp (we are never told their names) hatch a plan to kill the wife, to sell the farm and escape into the city. Of course, we know that she will love him only for as long as the money lasts. After that he will be left with nothing. We know and so do the older members of the village - It doesn't take a sophisticate to see through her, just someone who hasn't been blinded by the frenzy of her shaking hips.
The story is extremely simple and has few surprises. The man and his wife do set off on a boat to the mainland, he does intend to kill her but at the last moment he realises that he can't do it. Once on the other side, having understood his intentions, she flees and he pursues her.
It's difficult to explain what happens next, not because its complicated but because it is the exact opposite. It is so straight forward, so sentimental, that to put it in words diminishes it. Sunrise is a visual experience, a perfect example of how Silent Cinema was able to break through the limits of its technology and become pure cinema.
Alfred Hitchcock, a man who understood the true nature and language of the cinema arts, said that silent pictures were the purest form of cinema. He told Francios Truffaut that this purity had been replaced with what he called 'Photographs of people talking.' If anyone wanted to understand why the great director held silent film to such esteem, they should look no further than Sunrise.
The film was made after producer William Fox (whose company later merged with 20th Century to create the juggernaut that is 20th Century Fox) brought German filmmaker F W Murnau to the US and gave him free rein to make whatever he wanted. He did this based on Murnau's excellent filmography which included Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Faust and the great The Last Laugh. The final result, reportedly costing a whopping $1Million was released in 1927, the year that Warner Brothers gave the world The Jazz Singer and the history of film was forever changed. Murnau built huge sets, lit from every possible angle so the camera could move with a freedom that wouldn't be seen again for many years. At the first Academy Awards it won the prize for best Artistic film and it is easy to see why. You won't see it on any lists of Best Picture winners, however, as the Artistic Film award was never to be given again (the winner of best Entertainment Film – Wings – is officially listed as the first Oscar winner for best film).
The photography (Charles Rosher and Karl Struss are credited as the cinematographers) is truly a thing of beauty. It looks like an early Noir but has a lightness to the character that Noir would have cowered from. It is a romance with moments that would suit Wuthering Heights yet it is in no way gothic. It is just a simple, honest film.
Murnau wasn't a great lover of titles (The Last Laugh famously only has one intertitle in the whole film) but here he uses them ingeniously. A great example is when the man and the vamp are conspiring together. She says, referring to the wife, 'Couldn't she get drowned' the title of which seems to melt on the screen as if it too was being washed away with water.
The subtitle - A Song of Two Humans - sums up the film perfectly, capturing its lyrical, ephemeral quality.
Yet, despite the vastness of the sets and the beauty of the frames, the film is about just two people. Yes, we are introduced to the vamp early on but she is merely a plot point. Sunrise is about a relationship being reborn. From the moment the lovers step out of the church, where the man is confronted with the betrayal he had agreed to and the promise he had made when he said his vows is laid before him, the film is not concerned about anything else.
Murnau obviously had great affection the two main characters (played by George O'Brian and Janet Gaynor), making fun of their country-ness but never judging them. They are not sophisticated, they are in an environment which is quite alien to them, yet it doesn't matter. Even when the band leader chooses a peasant dance for them towards the end of their date, they care little about his condescension. They just want to have fun, that's all that matters.
I was first made aware of Sunrise many years ago when I saw one image of it in a book. I am not sure why but that one still, taken towards the end of the film when the husband is on a boat looking for his wife who, it seems, has been lost at sea, made an impression on me. The night is punctuated by the lights on the many lamps that the searchers are carrying. It is an image that stayed with me for many years and I became obsessed with finding and watching this film.
Sunrise is a magnificent movie. It is, in my opinion, the greatest of the silent era, which is high praise itself. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Warm, romantic, tense, comedic and terrific.