Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

I cannot love Sunrise.

I have tried. I’ve seen the movie more than once; aware, since my first viewing, of its eminence. This was director F.W. Murnau’s greatest American film—some say his greatest, period. Its in-camera effects, particularly in the film’s first half, conjured a world where the boundaries between fantasy and reality fell away. Viewers were, and still are, mesmerized by every brain-boggling scene, myself included. But I’m unable to divorce Sunrise’s technical brilliance from its story. It is about the fall, then heroic rise, of a sociopath.

The sociopath is a person, like we all are. He has dreams. He’s also a farmer, whose conception of urban life is a collection of dynamic, generic images—mashed-together bits of bathing beauties and ships, and trains running perpendicular to other trains. Murnau presents this at the beginning of the film, attributing it to no one in particular, but then again, as an early title card reads: “This song… is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.” OK, but the only person you’ll see thinking this way is the Man. This stew of the real and the hoped-for is very much his thing.

The Man (George O’Brien) has a Wife (Janet Gaynor), and a toddler son. They live on a piece of land not far from the water, and across that water (traversable by rowboat, if you’re as rugged and brawny as the Man), is the City. City dwellers visit the area in the summer time, sometimes staying for weeks. Vacation season over, one guest, the entitled Woman from the City, has hung around. She’s sleeping with the Man.

The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) is a bad influence. “Now he ruins himself… money lenders strip the farm,” gossips one neighbor. The Wife seems oblivious to it all, though she’s probably not. Gaynor plays her early scenes with a tone of tentative worry—her Wife is wound tight from her hairdo to her… well, you’ve got to wonder. Compared to Livingston’s fast woman, Gaynor looks almost asexual. Maybe that’s why the Man is easy prey.

Or maybe ‘prey’ is the wrong term. Murnau was a deep director, not prone to cliché. His later film, the less-celebrated City Girl (1930), challenged the dichotomy between city life and the supposed idyll of the countryside, and I think he was challenging it here, too—after all, the Man’s failings occur on the farm, not when he reaches the city. But it is still a piece of the city that turns him bad. Or rather, triggers his badness. And the Man, it must be said, is very bad. He plots to murder his wife.

The plotting scene is one of silent cinema’s most famous. In one tremendous tracking shot, Murnau’s camera captures, then pulls ahead of the skulking Man, winding its way past the trees of a swamp and we know—instinctively, I think—that the Man is following us. That the camera never stops, or even shudders, along its path is important. It makes the journey from A to B inexorable. We reach the waiting Woman before the Man does, and when he does show up, seconds later, we feel he was bound to do so.

But he wasn’t. The Woman is sexy, yes; persuasive, and all too eager to see the Wife at the bottom of the lake. “Couldn’t she get drowned?” she asks, the words on the title card pooling and sliding downward like they’re sucked into a drain. Like they’re being drowned. But who’s seeing it that way? The Woman or the Man? It’s the Man—the same Man who was so obsessed with the Woman that we once saw grasping, spectral versions of her crowd around his haunt-eyed head. That too was his projection. When the real Woman suggests murder, he nearly strangles her. She clings to him, pathetic, trying to kiss his face. He has the power. And when the Man is towering over his wife in a little rowboat, looking like Frankenstein as it dawns on poor Janet Gaynor that she’s about to get drowned, he has the power then, too. There’s no Women from the City around. Just him.

It’s during this sequence that Sunrise loses me. I can understand the Man pulling back from homicide—though debauched and degraded, he’s not yet able to take that final step. I totally buy O’Brien’s horror at himself, and his pitiful pleas for forgiveness (how many abusive husbands have done the same)? I appreciate Gaynor’s traumatized Wife, who flees him as soon as she’s able, and continues to appear shell-shocked as he follows her on her aimless flight into the city. But once there, she forgives him. And I don’t believe she could.

Could you, in the course of a few hours, forgive a man who planned your murder? One who stopped short because he lost the nerve? We’re talking about a mortal threat here; not simple betrayal. Yet the Wife does, eventually, forgive him, and the Couple shifts, radically, from their opposite emotional poles to unity; a pair of giddy youngsters determined to have a good time in the big smoke.

Murnau’s reconciliation scene is poetic, if nothing else. The Man hands the Wife flowers (a symbol of rural life, as plants often are in Sunrise), and the Wife clutches them like a bouquet. They attend—crash, really—a wedding, adopt the newlywed’s vows as their own, and are born again as a couple in this urban fantasy land. It is a profoundly abstract solution, and had Gaynor not played her Wife with such naturalism, I might have swallowed it.

If this break-up/make-up doesn’t work for you, you have to start viewing Sunrise a different way. The special effects in the film’s first half, which added weight to a budding crime drama, now become the film’s baseline of normalcy. Really, you might be tempted to think Sunrise has gone off the rails, but everything about it is so well-made; you sort of hand your brain over to it. You give it the benefit of the doubt. You begin wondering if this City is real at all. It’s so impossibly bright, noisy, happy—like a candy shop, where everything’s expensive but nothing costs too much, and no one looks down on rural people for the way they dress, and where being rural actually comes in handy, like when a piglet runs amok in a dance hall and it takes a strapping farmer’s boy to snatch that piglet up, then entertain the adoring crowd with a peasant’s jig. The City is Party-Town, and only when the Couple leaves does it start to rain. You wonder if the past really happened. You become like the couple.

This may be the real brilliance of Sunrise. Certainly I don’t think Murnau failed to make the film he was trying to make. I can’t point to a single poorly made moment. I can’t fault the acting, particularly in Gaynor’s case. But for me, two less famous scenes sum Sunrise up. The first, still in the city, finds Man and Wife gazing at sample wedding photos in a glass case in front of a photographer’s studio. The men and women in those photos are ideals, in the sense any advertisement strives for ideals, and the Couple desire to be ideal. The glass reflects their faces, melding them with the photos. It is a small scene compared to the tricks of forced perspective and double exposure Murnau uses elsewhere, but unlike those, it is (we presume) real, not a projection of the Couple’s fantasies.

The second scene finds the Man once again with his hands around the Woman from the City’s throat. He now believes his Wife is dead, and the Woman, believing that he murdered her as planned, had happened upon him joyously. Like the monster he is, he chooses to destroy her to bury his guilt. And perhaps it will occur to you, as he throttles her, that the Woman indeed loves the man entirely. She endured his violence at least once already; she pursued him even as his finances diminished; pleaded with him to return to the city with her, even though she’d surely have supported him there. Is this handsome country boy her fantasy? Her dream of happiness? The one trying to kill her now? For the Woman, I have a shred of pity. For the Man, I have none.

For the Wife, I see a dark future.


Silent Volume has featured Murnau films three times now. Along with City Girl, read about Nosferatu (1922) and Tabu (1931).

Where to find Sunrise:
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is available on DVD as part of Murnau, Borzage and Fox, an expansive, twelve-film box set, along with many earlier versions of varying quality. I saw the film earlier this week at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox.


  1. Your reviews are so achingly eloquent.

    I was not wholly charmed by Sunrise either...the technicality of the film was stunning, but like you, I had a hard time believing the Wife would forgive him so easily, as if it were a spat over burnt toast.

  2. Gaynor plays it as though she were forgiving infidelity...which, presumably, she's already had to forgive a few times.

  3. Excellent review.

    I just watched a recent release that included the same instant-forgiveness-after-you-tried-to-kill-me trope, but, fooey, I can't remember what it was...

  4. Thanks for this review/essay. To your litany of sociopathy, I'd definitely add the scene where The Man faux-stabs the guy (the Obtrusive Gentleman) in the the throat who's been harrassing his wife. I think that, qua later movie viewers, we recognize The Man's character at that point: he's Travis from Taxi Driver, he's Kit from Badlands, he's whoever the hell Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater always play...

    I only just got around to watching Sunrise and have been trying to make sense of it, and your note has helped a lot. Thanks.

  5. Never thought about the movie this way before.

  6. I can appreciate it (and I do), but I've never been able to love it.

  7. wow....what a very different and stimulating take on one of my favorite silents. I think I fell for it sugar coated hook line and sinker back in college. i still love it but I see a lot of your points. hard to take as a viewer but technically a wonderful film. you said a lot of thought provoking statements. Thanks, chris!

  8. The problem is that you are looking at SUNRISE as a realistic experience rather than as a parable or allegory. The opening titles set the tone for the film:
    "This song
    of the Man and his Wife
    is of no place
    and of every place;
    You might hear it anywhere
    at any time.
    For wherever the sun rises and sets...
    in the city's turmoil
    under the open sky of the farm;
    life is much the same;
    sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet."
    In SUNRISE, Murnau created at allegory (parable). An allegory is the representation of spiritual, moral, or other abstract meanings through the actions of fictional characters that serve as symbols. Thus the MAN, the WIFE, and the CITY WOMAN are symbols of the TEMPTED (mankind), the LIGHT (Christ), and DARKNESS (Satan). The viewer who looks at SUNRISE allegorically through spiritual eyes will understands its deeper meanings.