Sunrise first published by EyeforFilm, 3 Dec 2005
After his film The Last Laugh (1926) was met with critical rapture (if not quite box office success) in America, F.W. Murnau was lured to Hollywood by William Fox’s offer of a blank cheque and carte blanche to make any film he pleased. The result was Sunrise, loosely adapted from the title story of Carl Mayer from Hermann Sudermann’s anthology Die Reise Nach Tilsit, and declared by Cahiers Du Cinema in 1967 “the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema”. It certainly is a beautifully constructed piece, employing a great deal of cinematographic artifice to convey a story of beguiling simplicity on the vicissitudes of life.
A vacationing flapper-cum-vamp (Margaret Livingstone) has seduced a man from the country (George O’Brien) and persuaded him to return with her to the city after drowning his wife (Janet Gaynor) in a boating “accident” – but the guilt-ridden man cannot bring himself to carry out the deed and instead spends a day with his wife in the city, where they both fall in love all over again. Returning late that night, their boat is caught in a violent storm and the man washes ashore, convinced his wife has drowned. Yet miraculously she has survived, and the sunrise brings another day.
Premiering just 13 days before the release of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer, Murnau’s film bridges the gap between the era of silent cinema, and of the talkies. From the former, it brings visual storytelling at its most sophisticated, full of impossibly fluid tracking shots, hallucinatory double exposures, richly textured lighting and manipulations of perspective, while the latter is prefigured by an innovative Movietone soundtrack that features not only an instrumental score by Hugo Riesenfeld, with occasional imitative sounds (e.g. a horse’s whinny) synched to the action, but also actual ambient noises (in one scene the couple’s romantic reverie is interrupted by the blare of car horns and the shouts of drivers).
If the story is focused upon the storms that must be weathered in the marriage of an archetypal, unnamed man and woman, then this Song Of Two Humans, as the film was subtitled, also sees other dualities dancing and reeling to its tune. For a whole series of classic oppositions have been woven into the film’s fabric – city and country, mother and whore, day and night, bitter and sweet, life and death – that become reconciled and unified by the carefully balanced symmetries of a dawn which, as at the end of Murnau’ Nosferatu (1922), brings cyclical renewal.
Perhaps most striking of all is the unexpectedly harmonious marriage of German expressionism and Hollywood romanticism. From the former, Murnau has borrowed his sloping, angular sets, his gothic chiaroscuro lighting and his brooding hero, who, at least in the film’s first section, shuffles about like a tormented monster (an effect enhanced by Murnau’s insistence that O’Brien wear lead weights in his shoes), while the latter has informed the Chaplin-esque comedy of the later city scenes and the redemptive, optimistic ending.
If the film aspires to being a universal fable of human experience, it is not difficult to discern in its texture a more specifically self-referential strand of meaning. For in one sense the film allegorises Murnau’s own journey from his native Germany to the seductive “big city” of Los Angeles, reflecting both his anxieties about being corrupted by a whorish Hollywood and his hopes of remaining true to the expressionist Muse to whom he had become wed as an artist.
In effect, Sunrise reveals Murnau’s greatest joys and deepest fears, and, as such, is a monument to one of cinema’s great practitioners at the very peak of his craft.
strap: F.W. Murnau’s symmetrical feature travels between darkness and light, city and country, expressionism and romanticism, silent and Talkie.