SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS directed by F.W. Murnau (USA, 1927)
Some have called ‘Sunrise’ the Citizen Kane of the silent era. Like Orson Welles, F.W Murnau was given free rein and a stack of cash to realise his vision and it’s all up there on-screen to marvel at.
The German director fills the story with, for the time, innovative effects and bold studio trickery. It was also one of the first movies to be released with a specially recorded score of music and sound effects.
Is this enough to merit it being voted the greatest silent movie ever made by BFI/Sight & Sound critics, programmers and all-round cinematic smart asses?
Not in my view. Personally I’d give this honour to King Vidor’s The Crowd or Buster Keaton’s The General, but what do I know?
That said, ‘Sunrise’ does deserve a high standing for its sheer technical virtuosity and for the way it tells a simple story with such pizzazz.
Margaret Livingston plays a ‘lingering vacationer’, ‘a woman from the city’ (none of the characters have names) who attempts to use her not inconsiderable charms to lure a hunky country yokel (George O’Brien) away from his farm life with the promise of excitement in the metropolis.
Dressed to kill in black with stylishly bobbed hair she has the looks to turn any country boy’s head and is a far sexier prospect than the man’s mousey spouse (Janet Gaynor).
“What about my wife?” protests the man. The pre-noir femme-fatale suggests that she could conveniently die in a boating ‘accident’ (“Couldn’t she get drowned?”). The man is initially angered and outraged but then transforms into a skulking zombie and seems ready to carry out the dastardly deed.
His estranged wife is thrilled at the prospect of a healing river trip and ,as the couple set off, she tells her babysitter “I won’t be back for a while”.
The man looks so heavy and menacing at this point that you’d lay odds on him despatching her to a watery grave.
As they row away from dry land, their pet dog appears to have a premonition of the pending disaster. It breaks free of its tethers and bounds after them. By this point the wife too sees that something is amiss and takes the first chance she gets to do a runner.
In fleeing she hops on a tram to the city which just happens to be passing. This would have assured her escape had not the chasing husband also managed to leap on board.
In the city, everything changes. The two stumble into a church where a wedding ceremony is taking place. As they witness a couple taking their vows, the man breaks down in tears with the realisation that he very nearly destroyed his own marriage by an act of lust-fuelled madness.
He begs forgiveness and the two become like honeymooners as they gleefully explore the city. There’s a great scene where they literally bring traffic to a halt by embracing in the middle of the high street.
He gets a shave at an upmarket barbers where he resists another black-haired temptress who offers a manicure (and more?);the wife too has to fend off the advances from an “obtrusive gentleman” and these experiences makes the bond between them even stronger.
They go to a fun fair, he chases an escaping pig and they dance a country jig. A storm on the boat ride home threatens to sabotage their idyllic reconciliation. The rowing boat capsizes and while he manages to swim to safety, she is missing and, with heavy irony, presumed drowned.
This is the cue for the ‘woman from the city’ to press her case again but the object of her desire will have none of it this time. The man is on the point of throttling her until the news comes that his wife has miraculously been found alive.
The sunrise at the end symbolises that their blissful marital union has been sealed till death do they part. The woman from the city slopes off to do her damnedest elsewhere.
Thus concludes this heart-warming (who said sentimental?) morality tale which a title card tells us is “of no place and every place”.
All along, there’s a threat of a darker (and more realistic) conclusion and it could be argued that Sunrise helped set the trend for the feel-good ending which has cursed many a fine movie since. Still, as Pamela Hutchinson wisely observed in her appreciation of this film, “cynicism doesn’t make anyone happy”.