Published on July 22nd, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy0
Oldie of the Week – Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927)
Taylor dishes on F.W. Murnau’s 1927 classic, an elemental but visually dazzling example of silent cinema’s prescience. The film is expressionistic and truly innovative.
This week, we’re taking another trip to the silent era to discuss one of the most highly acclaimed films not only of the silent period but of all time: F.W Murnau’s masterful romantic drama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), starring Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien. Murnau was a German filmmaker who made a name for himself in the 20s with a series of films noted for their striking and inventive sense of visual style, including Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926), before leaving Germany for Hollywood to make Sunrise, his first English language film. Winner of the Oscar for “Best Unique and Artistic Production” at the inaugural Academy Awards in 1929 (which honored films produced in 1927 and 1928), the film is a stylistic tour de force, with Murnau making gorgeously expressive use of multiple exposures, elegant tracking shots, elaborate depth staging, and dark, low key cinematography.
The story is very simple. A husband (George O’Brien) and wife (Janet Gaynor) on a small farm have drifted apart as they have fallen on hard economic times. The husband wanders around in a dejected haze, neglecting his wife and child and openly having an affair with a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) who has been staying in their little town on vacation. Things come to a head when the woman from the city convinces the husband to drown his wife, sell the farm and run off to the city with her. Unable to bring himself to carry out the plan, the husband follows his wife to the city and they spend the day together, reconnecting after he realizes the error of his ways and pleads forgiveness.
The middle section of the film is a plotless, lyrical and comically romantic sequence as the husband and wife get their picture taken by a photographer (and sneak out after they accidentally break one of his statues), and attend a carnival where they get into a mishap with a runaway pig. The climax comes when the husband and wife are paddling their boat back home from the city when a severe thunderstorm hits. In an ironic twist, the wife almost ends up drowned after all, but is finally rescued after it seems as if all hope is lost. The happy ending finds the couple reunited and closer than ever, while the woman who came between them heads back to the city.
Such an elemental story requires strong performances to succeed, and the two main actors here are excellent. Janet Gaynor is a tremendously appealing presence, skillfully capturing the wife’s pain as her husband slips away from her, striking just the right note of heightened melodramatic anguish without going so far that it becomes unbelievable. In the light hearted sections she’s incredibly charming, bright eyed and sweetly innocent but also cheeky and playful. Similarly, George O’Brien is terrific as the husband, looking convincingly ragged and menacing in his early scenes and dashingly romantic in the later ones. The actors ably carry the film, projecting passionate and intense emotion while remaining grounded and believable.
The film’s visual style is one of its greatest strengths, and its most striking moments involve the intermingling of reality and fantasy. As the husband and the woman from the city are sitting by the river as she tries to convince him to come with her, we see an image of the city appear floating above them. Later, while back at home, the man tries to shake the memory of the city woman, but she appears in double exposure as a ghostly presence, wrapping her arms around him. After the husband and wife are reconciled, these double exposures are used to represent the dreamy romantic haze in which they find themselves. The most famous example is a stunning shot that follows them from behind as they walk across the street, with cars zooming in front of and behind them that they are too busy gazing longingly into each other’s eyes to notice. As they continue walking across the street, the backdrop dissolves from a busy city street to an idyllic grassy field, before turning back into the city as the honking cars stir them form their reverie.
The film also uses the Fox studio’s experimental Movietone system, which means it has a synchronized musical soundtrack as well as some sound effects. These effects are used sparingly but effectively, with the noise of cheering and clapping crowds adding a sense of liveliness to the city scenes. They are used for important symbolic sounds, like the church bell. Associated with the wedding the protagonists watch together when the husband breaks down and repents, it represents the responsibility, the wife and marriage, that the man is running from and must be called back to. It is the sound driving him to snap out of his haze of influence of the city woman and come back to what is important.
Sunrise also gives me the opportunity to expound on of my favourite silent film pet themes, the expressive use of intertitles. The film uses an attractive stylized font to display the text, helping to keep the intertitles visually interesting and appealing. But one memorable scene goes above and beyond this with a particularly effective use of intertitles. As the woman from the city is trying to convince the man to drown his wife, her dialogue does not appear all at once instead. It first reads “couldn’t she get…” and waits a few seconds before adding ‘drowned,’ which appears in a shaky font, emphasizing the word by replicating the way it is spoken and making its use more impactful. This intertitle then begins to dissolve eerily, as if the phrase itself is being washed away, as the film fades to an imagined shot of the husband pushing his wife into the river. This stylish use of intertitle text helps to express the darkness and violence of the city woman’s plan. Furthermore, the scene takes place at night beside a misty lake, and during the intertitles fog is seen drifting in the background. This makes the intertitles feel like a part of the physical world of the film; they are connected to the visual style of the filmed scenes. Rather than simply presenting the dialogue, they are thoughtfully integrated with the overall aesthetic of the film.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans tells an intentionally broad and depersonalized story. Its characters are nameless, and its settings are simply “The City and “The Farm.” The films means to tell a tale of universal human emotion, a story “of no place and every place,” as the opening titles put it. While this lack of specificity might lead to a story that feels bland and generic in lesser hands, Sunrise is able to overcome the possible limitations of its pared down narrative through Murnau’s masterful command of film technique, serving up one stunning image after another. This formal brilliance in combination with strong performances from the two leads makes a virtue of the film’s narrative simplicity, making it a powerfully elemental, larger-than-life depiction of love, devotion, and repentance.