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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

top 100
sixth film

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

Thoughts:The Birth of a Nation is probably the greatest silent film ever made in terms of being a technical powerhouse and pioneering techniques of film as storytelling in the art’s infancy. F.W. Murnau's of Nosferatu fames Sunrise is – for me – the more passionate and involving movie. It’s better. Sunrise came out toward the end of the silent flims, 12 years after D.W. Griffith’s movie, but it seems far more modern. Some of the stuff in Sunrise simply amazes and while watching the film, I feel as if color were added (no, don’t call me Ted Turner) and dialogue were put in, it could almost be released today – every beautiful shot included, as a contemporary film and earn money. I think it’s the second most aesthetically beautiful silent film and has some of the most impressive set designs - ever. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the only silent movie it bows to. Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, tends to get a lot of praise, but in my mind Sunrise has the edge on Metropolis with the city sets. While Lang’s film is marvelous to look at and probably more imaginative, Sunrise hides the fact that it was filmed on a movie set. Murnau had me fooled as I went to look up what city it was filmed in, to discover all the city scenes were done on a Hollywood set. That the film can make its backdrops disappear as reality is impressive. I specifically enjoy the diner scene, with city’s bustle being viewed through the windows. Perfect mise en scene.

The story is big, in that it is symbolic of the rural flight going on in America during the 20’s as the population gradually shifted toward the city, but it’s an intimate tale of two people, a man (George O’ Brien) and his suffering wife (Janet Gaynor), as they fight infidelity and the traps of marriage. The characters, don’t even have formal names. Any name you can give the characters; Smiths, Does, or Jones is irrelevant. After the movie opens in something of a “Go to the big city!” travelogue it introduces us to a mistress that will be the temptation for the husband to cheat on his wife. It deals with this material very matter of fact. The scenes where the wife is at home with the baby, knowing her husband is stepping out on her with a mistress, are devastating. It’s melodrama of the highest order and close ups of tear drenched faces are used spectacularly.

Sunrise moves on and the story goes the route of “will the husband kill the wife to be with the mistress” and another of my top 100 films, A Place in the Sun, borrows heavily from the lake scene. The middle of the film sees the man and woman reconcile after a near murder and it becomes something of a slapstick comedy with a drunk pig and a woman who can’t keep her top on, but it’s all good. The movie never dwells and is as well paced as anything today. One shot that surprised me a bit was when the couple are walking out of a dance hall and the camera pans up and then moves to the left of the screen as the couple walk out the right of the screen. In a continuous shot the camera moves right, floating behind a fountain only to find the couple again. I wonder if Scorsese drew from this for his shot early in Taxi Driver.

Best scene: A dolly shot early on in the film shows the man going out into the moon-lit swamps to meet his mistress. The screen shows his silhouetted back, the night sky, the fog, and the moon in a perfectly balanced shot. The camera dollies along until it loses the man in the thicket, fighting through brush and branches. The camera keeps moving until at last – not reunited with the man, but finding the mistress instead, waiting like a spider for her prey. This sequence is one of the best in silent film, right up there with the Odessa Steps from Battleship Potemkin.