Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

April 23, 2010

This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.
Sunrise is a silent, black and white, film about a man (George O’Brien) who is caught in a love triangle, between two women, one his wife (Janet Gaynor) – a country sort, rather childlike – and the other a sophisticated city women (Margaret Livingston), holidaying near the farm he owns. The city women persuades him to kill his wife by drowning, and come and live in the city. When time comes to do the deed, at the last moment he changes his mind, then chases his panicked wife to the city, where they rediscover their love in an idyllic, absurd (pig-chasing, country-dancing, barber-visiting, photograph-taking) day.

Sunrise is one of the last of the silent films, coming out almost simultaneously with “The Jazz Singer”. In a way, it represents a blind alleyway of film evolution – the early “talkies” were a step back in terms of camerawork due to the need to soundproof the camera. In Sunrise, the camera moves, fluidly, at length – there’s one noticeable scene where it follows the man to his rendevous with the city lover, crossing over a fence, moving through trees. It’s almost exactly what you don’t expect in this early a film, though it’s interesting to compare the development between this and, say, Gone With The Wind, twelve years later. It’s clear the medium was changing rapidly.

The film is directed by famed German director F.W.Murneau, his first Hollywood film, and imports much from German cinema – the sets are distorted, perspectives awry, sometimes noticeably, sometimes less so. And the language it speaks is broad, rather than refined, and often unsettling. As the man (none of the characters are ever named in the film) rows the boat, it sometimes doesn’t move at all, sometimes is propelled far faster than his oars could ever manage. George O’Brien walks through the early sections as if the weight of the world was upon his shoulders (reportedly because of the weight of the lead in the boots Murneau made him wear). The city is at times scary, cars looming out at pedestrians, a confusing mass of humanity. The buildings tower above, their angles and lines subtly wrong.

Subtitled “A Song Of Two Humans”, Sunrise has pretentions of being more meaningful than it probably is – the plot is in many ways hokey. But in Janet Gaynor it has a radiant star, despite the ludicrous wig she’s made to wear, and in the city scenes, not only do the couple fall back in love with each other, but we do with them, too. Their joy is infectious. And, through the melodramatic denoument, I found myself rooting for them wholeheartedly, and more engaged than I expected to be.

There’s a lot to unpack, and some of the most interesting bits are only touched on. For example, the man has a vast amount of repressed violence – when he’s gotten over the “kill the wife” bit, he’s right on to a “kill the corrupting city women” kick. And, if you think that’s a bit problematic… you’re right. However, Murneau has enough subtlty to let his characters be characters, and in the end one feels, perhaps, that the message of Sunrise, if there is one, is that it’s never too late to make the right decision. Or, conceivably, that pig chasing and country dancing are good ways to rescue a troubled relationship.

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