If you are familiar with Sunrise, when you think of it, the first thought that usually comes to your head would be the groundbreaking technical achievements. While I am not arguing that what F.W Murnau was able to accomplish is anything less than astonishing, for me, Sunrise is more emotional than technical.
To sum up this masterpiece without giving away the whole kit and kaboodle, I’ll be brief. A simple country man (George O’Brian) is tempted by a sophisticated city woman (Margaret Livingston) to not just leave his wife (Janet Gaynor), but kill her and run away to the city. The man struggles with this darkest of decisions and ultimately fails in pulling it off. What results is a fast paced and fun-filled day in the city with his wife as they try to rekindle the love they once shared.
If you have never heard of the German expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau, he is a master class in film making in the silent era. His film Nosferatu (1922) is to this day one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. He has a gift with making the camera present to the viewer a very odd, dark, dreamlike world. That same gift he has for the dark and eerie in Nosferatu is not surprisingly very present in Sunrise. In the beginning of the film many of the shots are dark and have an air of tension. The woman from the city is always dressed in black as if to say she is a witch or at the very least evil. Which I mean, come on, she totally is. As if the torment of cheating on his wife with such a woman wasn’t enough, Murnau is said to have made George O’Brian wear shoes weighted with lead so that his steps were slow and reluctant.
For me it is sometimes hard to look at actors in the silent era as doing anything more than just hamming it up for the camera. That is not the case in Sunrise. George O’Brian’s “The Man” is very much filled with torment. There are close-ups on his face where you can just look into his tear-filled eyes and feel his guilt and pain. In fact, I found a few instances, mostly towards the end of the film, where his anguish over what has transpired brought me to tears. George O’Brian had a long career in film that spanned not just the silent era, but through talkies as well. I have not seen many of his films, but seeing such a powerful performance in Sunrise makes me want to check out some more of his work.
As stated at the beginning of this review, the technical achievements of Sunrise are quite astounding. There is one scene towards the beginning of the film where O’Brian travels through a marshy area to find Livingston’s woman from the city. The silent era produced a lot of films that had stationary cameras with a series of long shots and close-ups, but to see a camera move like this to show a character’s point of view was something completely new and quite impressive. Murnau had to suspend his cameras from cables over a marsh made in the studio to get this done. That speaks volumes to the set design as well, as I had just assumed this scene was filmed outside. There are lots of scenes with flowing camera movement. The man and wife walk through traffic, the boat moving forward through the water and of course the stunning shots out the window of the moving tram. Murnau also uses quite a few super imposed images. This technique does a great job of showing the hustle and bustle of the city, with the music, carnival and dancers. However, the best example is the haunting scene in the man and wife’s bedroom where the man is having a difficult time trying to decided whether or not to kill his wife. Here we see a super-imposed, ghost-like image of the woman from the city embracing the man, as if to say “I have your heart and now I have your mind.” It’s a sad and terrifying image.
While the story in Sunrise is almost a simplistic one, it turns out to be quite beautiful. Through the imagery of Murnau and the acting of both O’Brian and Gaynor, there appears a story with a lot of heart. For some, an all too familiar story of temptation and possible betrayal. Upon release, Sunrise was a commercial flop. I find that hard to believe but when you look back and understand that the invention of the talkies with The Jazz Singer was literally just around the corner, it starts to make some sense. Having seen both films, I vastly prefer Sunrise to The Jazz Singer. Sunrise provides a wonderful mix of fantastic directing, acting, story and music to give us a film that is unique in its achievements and beautiful in execution. A film like Sunrise could not be done today to quite the same standard as the addition of dialogue to a story this simplistic could ruin the whole aesthetic. F.W. Murnau created a timeless work of art, one that should be viewed and loved today by all that consider themselves a fan of film.
Sunrise landed at 168 out of a possible 1341 movies on my Flickchart. Which converts to a rating of 4.5/5 stars of 87%. It’s my highest rated movie from the 1920s and my highest rated movie so far in the challenge (…uh, actually my only one).