(1927, F.W. Murnau)
A Song Of Two Humans
Last time we looked at the influential German silent film director F.W. Murnau here on SvTM, it was with his famous vampire movie, Nosferatu. This time, we take a look at something very different: a romance movie, and one that was made in Hollywood instead of Germany. However, while Nosferatu was a very conventional vampire movie, there’s something very unconventional about Sunrise.
This is immediately obvious when the plot starts. In a seaside town, the Woman From The City (Margaret Livingston) arrives and seduces a local Man (George O’Brien), and convinces him to murder his Wife (Janet Gaynor). When he takes his Wife out on a boat ride, he finds that he can’t drown her, and instead returns to shore, where she flees. However, after he pursues her, they end up spending a rather lovely day in the City together, where they rekindle their love for one another.
Yeah, there’s a bit of a mood shift in that plot, you might notice. Starting out as a dark murder thriller, the movie takes a sudden turn into romantic whimsy, and on paper that sounds absolutely awful. In practice, however, it’s actually very good.
Sunrise leaps into the affair between the Man and the City Woman straight away (no one has names, by the way) and initially gives off the impression it’s a dark, moody thriller. I like dark, moody murder thrillers so this seemed right up my street. The deed is planned, the unsuspecting victim is led away and things are all very tense and mysterious, and I enjoyed all this.
But then the movie shifts into romantic whimsy, but it does so effectively. There’s a lengthy apologetic scene, and a somewhat religious epiphany when the Man and Wife crash a wedding. While the shift is a little too fast initially, it works for the setting of the film and feels believable despite everything.
The romantic whimsy was also incredibly charming. Both leads had great chemistry, and while the movie doesn’t have much a plot in the middle, it definitely works well as a character piece. We get to witness these two people rekindle their romance, and it’s hard not to smile at them as they do so. You’ll laugh and you’ll go “awww” even if you’re determined not to. For example, if you’re a cynical amateur movie reviewer.
But it also gets dark again towards the end, which helps to make the opening feel less superfluous. We get scenes of sadness and possible loss and redemption and it helps tie everything together in the end, including the issue of what happens to the City Woman, who disappears for much of the movie but comes back at the end to receive her comeuppance for her attempt to dismantle this loving relationship.
In fact, I really was impressed at how well-constructed the story was. By being a gradually rediscovered romance bookended by some Very Dark Things, it manages to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time, and manages to be entertaining and exciting for many different reasons. The bookends also manage to make the movie something more than just a happy day at the fair, and give it some meaningful purpose.
I was also impressed by how well the movie managed to tell its story with next to no dialogue. This is very much the definition of a silent movie, since there are only a few instances where characters actually talk to one another, and most are towards the beginning. Everyone communicates via body language that’s easy to understand. I don’t know how Murnau did it, but I felt that it was genius.
I have little bad to say about Sunrise. Definitely one of the best silent movies I’ve ever seen, and certainly one of the best romances. It’s believable, it’s simple in a good way, and it’s exciting at times. What more do you need from a good movie?
Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor & Margaret Livingston
Written by Hermann Sudermann (short story – “Die Reise nach Tilsit”) and Carl Mayer
Produced by William Fox
Cinematography by Charles Rosher & Karl Struss
Edited by Harold D. Schuster
Favourite Scene: The photography scene was absolutely adorable.
Scene That Bugged Me: At one point the man and wife are in a fancy restaurant, and they pay with a few coins. A FEW COINS?! WHAT IS THIS?!
Watch it if: You like romances and silent movies
Avoid it if: You really did want that murder thriller to be the main plot
Posted on October 1, 2013, in 1920s, Comedy, Drama, Romance, Thriller and tagged affair, carl mayer, f.w. murnau, funfair, george o'brien, hermann sudermann, janey gaynor, love, margaret livingston, movies, photographs, romance, storm, sunrise, weddings, william fox. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.