Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Sunrise (1927)
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Background

Sunrise (1927) is German director F. W. Murnau's compelling American debut - his first project for Hollywood's Fox Film Corporation (and William Fox), but planned in Germany. It was the first feature film released with synchronized sound-on-film using the Fox Movietone system, and incorporating a musical score by Hugo Riesenfeld. It appeared at the very end of the silent era and came only a few days before the opening of Warner Bros.' famous 'first talkie' The Jazz Singer (1927). The sensational opening of Warners' film overshadowed the release of Fox's most expensive silent film to date, and it failed at the box-office due to its high cost.

The fable-like, poignant story, subtitled A Song of Two Humans, is a silent-era melodramatic masterpiece - a beautiful, atmospheric, lyrical and poetic work of art with roots in the German Expressionist movement (from 1914 to 1924). The story of corruption and redemption involves a rustic farmer in a romanticized rural town who falls prey to the seductive wiles of a city vamp in an illicit affair. He plots to murder his loving wife during a boat trip to the temptation-ridden city. His conscience is awakened during the attempted killing and he relents, and in the city the couple fall in love again. On their return trip, a tempestuous storm appears to drown the wife, but she is eventually found and the family is reunited and reconciled.

Austrian Carl Mayer wrote the screenplay, adapting the story/novella A Trip to Tilsit ("Die Reise Nach Tilsit") by novelist/playwright Hermann Sudermann. Released in the first year of the Academy Awards, the film was honored with four nominations and it won all but Interior Decoration. Although Wings (1927) won the Best Production award (now termed Best Picture), Sunrise won the equally prestigious Best Unique and Artistic Picture award - a second 'Best Picture' category that was discontinued after the first year. Janet Gaynor also won the Best Actress award (for her body of work), and Charles Rosher and Karl Struss won the first Academy Award for Cinematography (the first with panchromatic stock), for their skillful use of superimposition, effective employment of imagery and symbolism, and its poeticism.

Exquisitely visualized and sensually photographed, the impressionistic film would stand on its own even without the few dialogue or title cards that currently appear. Breakthrough camera tracking movements fluidly and sophisticatedly move through space (the marsh, the trolley ride to town, boats, dance halls, trolley cars, and city traffic), creating an unusual illusion of depth and vastness. The moving camera was to influence future films, including John Ford's The Informer (1935) and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). All the sets (both exterior and interior) were constructed to recede slightly in the distance, to produce further illusions of depth. Other techniques included placing larger physical objects in the foreground of shots, and having midgets as figures in the city backgrounds.

With a sophisticated use of light, dark and shadows, moods and the contrast between rural 'country' life and urban 'city' life are emphasized through sun-lit and studio-lit exterior and interior shots. The moonlight, the swampy marshes, and the surface of the lake all capture the astonishing play of the light. The emerging and semi-dangerous emancipation of flapper women in the 1920s was captured in the character of the diabolical yet erotic modern City Woman. Dialectical or dichotomous oppositions are commonplace as thematic elements: sunrise/sunset, day/night, good/evil, sun/moon, corruption/purity, peace/violence, the country/the city, the Old World/the New World, nature/culture, sensuality/innocence, the blonde, faithful peasant wife/the dark sultry city vamp or femme fatale, and sin/redemption.

The Story

The beautifully-realized, poetic film opens with an allegorical subtitle: A Song of Two Humans:

The main characters are unnamed archetypal figures in a love triangle: the Man, the Wife, and the Woman from the City (the Vamp). The story is a classic, timeless, universal tale of attempted murder, love, emotion, seduction, and reconciliation. A rural couple's enduring love overcomes the hostile, destructive forces of the Jazz Age city. The fable is described:

This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets in the city's turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.

Summertime...vacation time

The beautifully-acted and sensitively-directed film opens with a montage - half a dozen images of the bustling city in the summer time. It is vacation time and fast-moving trains and steamships leave the city to bring vacationers/beachgoers to the peaceful countryside or ocean seaside for leisure. A ferry boat approaches an unnamed, ambiguous location [the village was filmed by Lake Arrowhead, California] - probably a European country during the early years of the 20th century. Some of the summer travelers/resort-goers are wealthy enough to be idle and 'linger' about:

Among the vacationists was a Woman of the City. Several weeks had passed since her coming and still she lingered.

In the opening sequence, a dark, bobbed-haired, sophisticated urban vamp (Margaret Livingston) - wearing a low-cut slip and wrap - is holidaying in the country from the metropolis. The vamp has rented a room in one of the country houses. In her simple rustic room, she dances in and lights her cigarette at a burning candle, and then changes into a slinky black dress with shiny high-heeled shoes and stockings. She forces the elderly peasant woman in her quarters to clean her shoes with a cloth. In an elaborate tracking shot, she walks down the village road to the outside of one of the farmhouses where she voyeuristically spies a lighted window. There, she signals with a soft, clandestine whistle and summons a fallen, married country Man (George O'Brien). Undecisive and hesitant for a while, he finally gestures to her from the window that he will meet her, and without a word to his light-haired Wife (Janet Gaynor with a flattened blonde wig), he leaves without touching his dinner that is being set on the table. This has been a frequent occurrence - his angelic wife sinks into a chair with a gloomy and embittered look.

Neighbor women comment about how the married couple's bucolic lives have been changed:

They used to be like children, carefree...always happy and laughing...

The card dissolves into a flashback of their happy, idyllic life and their love of their child before their lives were destroyed. The farmer is plowing the land with his two oxen, while his wife cares for their child under a tree. But now, to save the heavily-mortgaged farm, the adulterous man must sell his cow.

Now he ruins himself for that woman from the city - Money-lenders strip the farm - and his wife sits alone.

The wife slowly rises and enters their bedroom, where she waits helplessly for her husband and sobs with her head buried in a pillow next to their young child.

In the darkness of midnight under a gigantic full moon which reflects on the water and shines through the haze, the dazed, guilt-ridden but bewitched husband is in sexual thrall to the passionate city woman. In a memorable sequence, he stealthily trudges from his home to secretly meet and conspire with his tempting mistress on the edge of the misty, moonlit marshes. [Director Murnau forced his lead actor to wear weighted shoes to produce the effect - a hunched-over, laborious, hesitating gait in his step. Similarities to Murnau's 1922 silent vampire masterpiece Nosferatu are apparent in this sequence when the Man is under the vamp's spell. The City Woman also resembles the vamp-ire.]

The camera appears to follow and then lose him - the thicket of vegetation opens up on both sides to reveal her dark figure waiting for him and silhouetted against the moon. She twirls a flower in her hand and then tosses it away [a symbol of nature and the country that she despises]. The temptress primps in a mirror held in her purse and applies make-up. After he appears, the supernatural spell and erotic charm of the city woman seduces him and he pulls her into his arms for a passionate, fervent kiss - she steals his sanity and soul as she literally pulls him down into the swamp. While being kissed as they lie on the grass, the seductress tempts him, visualizing for him how to murder his wife:

Woman: Tell me. You are all mine? (He nods and kisses her again. She strokes his hair.) Sell your farm...come with me to the City.
Man: ...and my wife?
Woman: (laughing and holding close to his neck) Couldn't she get drowned? [The word drowned fades into view.]

After suggesting the means by which he should kill his wife, the words on the title card 'Couldn't she get drowned' melt and slide down the screen and disappear. She fills his mind with terrible and seductive images: he imagines throwing his wife from a boat and drowning her. At first, he is horrified by the idea, but she persuasively suggests:

...then overturn the boat...it will look like an accident.

He violently struggles with her (both emotionally and physically), first by strangling her, shaking her, and pushing her away. But the vamp eventually overpowers him with kisses and he succumbs. They fall back onto the grass as she repeats the temptation:

Leave all this behind...come to the City! Come to the City!

He fantasizes about reveling in the hedonistic, pleasure-loving, swinging night life of the 'bright lights' and bustle of the City - a montage of images projected above them in the sky are rhythmically overpowering, mesmerizing, sexual, and violent. Dancing and shimmying seductively in front of him and before a projected image of a music-playing band, he is infatuated with her and convinced to carry out her plan. Kneeling, he wraps both of his arms around her legs - and snuggles his face into her crotch. She falls into his embrace with more erotic kisses.

In an unusually long camera movement along the muddy ground in the swamp, the camera tracks his huge footprints next to hers as they walk to a clearing. With dirtied feet, the duplicitous city woman gathers some bulrushes in her hand and outlines what he should do to save himself and bring about his wife's demise:

...after the boat has capsized, save yourself with these bulrushes. The rushes will hold you up. Scatter them before you reach the shore and tell everyone she drowned by accident.

The scene dissolves to black. Returning home the next morning from his rendezvous with the evil woman, he passes fishnets blowing in the wind - symbolic of the web of entrapment enveloping him. He secretly stashes the bulrushes in a barn after a horse violently nuzzles him. Sneaking stealthily to his bed, he lies down as if drugged. As he falls asleep exhausted, he sleeps fitfully while consumed and obsessed with his murderous plot. He imagines water flowing over him in a super-imposed image - the water in which he intends to drown and murder his wife. [Metaphorically, his own spirit is drowning in the waters.] The water dissolves and serves as a transition into the next scene.

The next morning, his wife tenderly caresses his head and covers him with a bedspread. He wakes up and sits upright, imagining the bulrushes have been exposed. While his wife feeds the chickens (and their chicks) outside, he stares at her and fantasizes that the vamp is caressing and embracing him in more super-imposed shots. He recalls - with horror - his murderous plan to kill his wife - pressing his fists to his temples.

He rises and takes the hands of his unsuspecting wife - his body is hunched forward as though he literally carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He moves in a heavy stupor as if the vamp has drained him of blood. To set his possessed plan in motion, he tells her that she is invited on a picnic outing in their rowboat. Excitedly, she tells his mother: "We're going for a trip across the water. I may not be back for quite a while." Again, he presses his clenched fists to the sides of his head, and imagines tossing his wife overboard in a super-imposition. The Wife hurriedly selects a pretty dress and bonnet from her closet, changes her clothes, and kisses her baby goodbye. Hunched-over and stepping laboriously, the Man moves toward the dock and rowboat, with the bulrushes wrapped in a canvas.

As he carefully hides the bundle of bulrushes aboard the boat, his wife pets their dog and then runs down to the water's edge where he is preparing the boat. She steps into the back of the boat and sits down next to the rudder. Sensing something foreboding, their dog barks, jumps after them into the water and swims toward them as they push off from the dock. The Man must row back to the dock, walk back to their house and lock up the agitated dog - interrupting his carefully-timed plans. As they push off from the dock, church bells ring.

In their crossing, an unbelievably frightful scene fraught with danger and tension, he determinedly rows hunkered down and stern-faced without looking across at his wife. Halfway across, her coquettish smile slowly fades to sadness and fear as she suddenly realizes something is terribly wrong with her troubled husband. When he stops rowing, he appears deranged and under a evil spell - a monstrous figure. When he stands up and lumbers toward her in the boat in the middle of the lake, church bells ring to signify a climactic juncture in the plot. Concerned about his intentions, she cowers back from him over the back of the little boat. She recoils further, clasps her hands in prayer, and makes pitiful pleas for her life. In a close-up, his hands are clenched in a strangle-pose at his waist. The church bells ring again to signal the exact instant when he decides to spare the life of his humble wife. He is unable to go through with the killing. The guilt-ridden, irrationally-acting husband breaks down, changes his mind, and throws his arms over his face. Then he desperately rows his heart-broken wife, moving swiftly to the opposite shore. The murder has been averted and the dangerous moment has passed, but she is still terrified and fears for her life.

As they land and he anchors the boat at the shore, he vainly tries to tell her that he is sorry, but the distraught wife rushes away from him into the forest. The husband chases after her, begging for forgiveness and reassuring her of his love: "Don't be afraid of me!" She falls twice as she races up a hill. She reaches a tram-trolley car turn-around, the end of the line in a wooded area by the lake where the streetcar makes a loop in preparation for its return to the city. [The trolley literally conjoins the countryside with the urban environment.] In a state of extreme anguish, she climbs onboard the tram just before her husband catches her. He follows her and jumps on the departing train at the last moment.

The camera takes a position immediately behind and to one side of her - focused out through the front and side windows. During almost the entire trolley-car ride to the city, one of cinema's most exquisitely-fashioned sequences, the camera is set in the same position, viewing the scenery as the tram turns and glides through curves - first trees and forests next to the lake, then the outskirts of the city with suburbia, factories, shops, and houses, and then the City itself. Subjectively, the presentation of the approaching metropolis [in a specially-constructed mile-long track] is designed to be as spectacular or spacious as it would appear to rustic, wide-eyed peasants seeing it for the first time, or after a long period of anticipation. Even the bouncing of the trolley car completes the effect.

During almost the entire ride, he gestures for her attention and apologetically asks for her forgiveness, assuring her that she has nothing to fear. But she rides in stunned silence and avoids looking at him - providing a sharp contrast to the ever-changing scenery moving behind them. After entering the city square [the Fox Film lot in Beverly Hills], the tram is engulfed by other traffic - cars, carts, and pedestrians. When the Wife runs off the tram to escape from him, she narrowly avoids being hit by heavy city traffic and is rescued by her husband. The city is threatening and dangerous to them.


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