Sunrise: A Song of Two Human (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

“Don’t be afraid of me!”
After reflecting on the technical prowess of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, we now move onto F.W. Murnaus Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Crucially, Sunrise came at a time whereby the sound era was due to hit Hollywood, eroding all the hard-work established by the industry since Thomas Edison. Sunrise represents the pinnacle of the Silent Era – overshadowing the work of Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffiths. In Sight & Sound, Isabel Stevens notes how “a vote for Sunrise is a vote, of course, for a lost world”. Indeed, the irony in a title such as ‘Sunrise’, signifying the dawning of a new day, could not be more relevant – as it was the sound era that would change cinema forever following the release of The Jazz Singer in the same year.
The City Girl
On the surface, the film could easily slip into melodrama, as the story reflects a love-story between a man and his wife as they struggle within married life. The couple live within the country when the man falls for a woman from the city. The temptress tells him of the world she comes from; they fantasize about the possible future in a stunning use of layering. The bottom third shows the two looking to the sky, which then transforms into the city-streets and neon-lights. And she convinces him to murder his wife by drowning her in the river. He builds himself up to commit the crime but, wracked with guilt, he cannot do it. She becomes afraid, aware of his intent – before the two rekindle their love in the city.
The narrative itself progresses with a swift pace as a film could, and does, today. The techniques, innovative for their time, are used to great effect to ensure that the momentum of the story is not lost. In the initial set-up, we are shown in flashback the ‘happier times’ which the married couple had. This subtle plot-point informs you of the romance and tragic outcome of their marriage. You sympathise with the man as he has fallen out of love with his wife – but you can see that his wife has not lost hope in him. The characters are fully fleshed out – their challenges, difficulties and hopes are realised forcing you to truly root for them when they witness a Wedding and emotionally ‘remarry’ to begin a new life together.

Girl Interrupted at Her Music by Vermeer

The Influenced and the Influencer

In terms of the silent era, akin to many films of the time, the influences hark back further than cinema. In the case of Sunrise, there is a clear connection to the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ in the mid 1600’s and, specifically the work of Vermeer, whose work often consisted of domestic-scenes within middle-class society. The man and woman seem to be of a similar ilk, whereby they clearly can support their child with a carer (though, without a clear description, it could be a relative). The couple own a farm, but have sold off many animals so it might be fair to consider their status as ‘lower’ middle-class. This social facet is not a major issue within the film, and the relationship with Vermeer is primarily within the composition and framing of each shot in the context of a village; Country women gossip about the couple; animals move across the frame under expressive-lighting.

Indeed, expressive lighting also relates the film to the German Expressionists that Murnau was affiliated with. His move to Hollywood in 1926 followed an extremely successful period whereby he directed Nosferatu and Faust. The use of lighting to gain a sense of expression directly feeds back to this time period in addition to a clear correlation between the role of the ‘City Girl’ and ‘Nosferatu’ as both characters lurk in the shadows and command our attention with outstretched arms and black-costume.

Following Sunrise, I am sure that the middle-act of the couple re-establishing their love influenced Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow, a film which portrays an old-age couple reigniting their romance by walking around New York; visiting bars and venues which they recalled when they were on their honeymoon. Both couples reflect on their lives together and are aware of the lack of time they had given each other. In Sunrise, the couple are younger and we see the birth of a child stalling their romance. Whilst in Make Way For Tomorrow, it is the long-period of raising their children that has stopped them from committing to a holiday sooner. Though Make Way for Tomorrow was made a full-decade later, I am sure the success critically in Hollywood for Sunrise surely reached McCarey.

The Timelessness
I could state further influences; the city-girl in a ghost-like use of multi-layer tempts and haunts the man in his life akin to Teddy Daniel’s dreams in the outstanding Shutter Island; the hustle and bustle of the city seems to capture the mood that, in full colour would be reminiscent of Breakfast at Tiffany’s as Hepburn and Peppard walk the streets. The list goes on, with a “shadow looming” over films including Citizen Kane and Beauty and the Beast (from 1946) according to Joshua Klein. In terms of technique, in one instance Murnau manages to catch a state of bliss as the lovers walk through a city staring into each other’s eyes as the streets magically dissolve into a scenic, peaceful countryside, before re-emerging in the city and literally stopping traffic. These stylistic shots were ground-breaking. Crane shots as the camera glides from above in a continuous movement as we enter the fairground remains influential today whilst the dripping text for the title-cards could have marked a moment whereby text-on-screen was shown to be so much more than mere description or dialogue. Crucially, these techniques showed Murnau’s confidence and skill as he won over the hearts of a Hollywood that continued to grow. Fox must’ve been proud of their investment in Murnau.
Unfortunately Sunrise was a box-office failure on its release, but it garnered many awards – including one of the very-first Oscars. In 1927, the Academy Awards had two awards that eventually became the prestigious ‘Best Picture’. Originally, the two categories were for ‘Production’ and ‘Unique and Artistic Production’. Sunrise won the latter (Oscar-Movie buffs will note that Wings won ‘Production’). Mark Cousins, in The Story of Film commends the “poetic force” of Sunrise and truly, this is what has held the film in such high regard. Cousins notes how “Master, Vidor and Rey, already considered… the contrasting values of country and the city” but, even in 2012, it had not captured this with such beauty and clarity – invoking the gentleness of Vermeer and the bold elements of German Expressionism.
In many ways, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans definitively marked the end of the silent era and you can see from this film alone why many believed that the use of sound was a ‘fad’. This type of poetic-beauty could not be recreated for many years to come – indeed you could ask the question; Has this type of beauty ever been recreated? You only need to watch it to decide, because it is not an easy question to answer.


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