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

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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An unnamed farmer (George O'Brien) is infatuated with a slatternly woman from the city (Margaret Livingston), who convinces him to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor). This man then takes his innocent spouse out in his boat so that he can drown her, but repents at the last moment and is unable to go through with the crime. She, however, realizing his intentions, flees to city, to which the man follows her. There, the two are reconciled and spend a day together rekindling their love.

While far from perfect, F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a wonderfully touching and consistently lovely film.

The story the director tells is, frankly, melodramatic and maudlin, but it is so skillfully related that it is still able to captivate and move the viewer. Without spoken dialogue and with a minimum of intertitles, the film's characters are made to inhabit the screen with a genuine immediacy. The moviegoer is, as a result, likely to be horrified by the man's decision to murder his wife, to be entranced by her innocence, to be delighted by their honest reconciliation, and to be thrilled by the excitement of their adventures in the city. In fact, whether he is arousing laughter, such when he has the man chasing after a pig through the crowds gathered at a fair, or obsessive longing, such as when he shows the man surrounded and intoxicated by phantoms of the woman from the city, Murnau has created numerous moments which are able to elicit a poignant emotional reaction from the moviegoer.

Moreover, the film is consistently attractive visually and is frequently punctuated by truly beautiful images. The viewer is thus, at different times, treated to a variety of breathtaking sets, including an impossibly quaint village of thatched cottages, a magnificent glass roofed train station, and a vast passageway through which queues of people are marching towards an amusement park at its far end. Fortunately, Murnau has filmed these places with tremendous sensitivity. In one scene, he presents the man wandering through a moonlit wilderness on his way to a tryst with the woman from the city, midway through which he shifts to the character's perspective and allows the moviegoer to participate in his lustful expectation. In others, Murnau combines different images or superimposes one image upon another and thereby elicits feelings of dizzying excitement, and, in still others, he merely employs a given tableau to stir up a particular emotion, such as when he brings out a sense of regret by showing the woman from the city riding away from her beloved along a twisting country road in the back of a wagon. Even without its story, Sunrise is so filled with gorgeously realized sequences that it is sure to retain the moviegoer's interest throughout its duration.

In spite of its several virtues, the movie is weakened by its often painful contrast of a nostalgically presented and idyllic vision of rural life with the busy, sinful existences of city dwellers. Throughout Sunrise, the viewer is repeatedly reminded how quiet and happy the former is and how depraved the latter. The woman from the city, for example, is shown to be a seductive, conniving flapper who is almost always puffing on a cigarette. Many of her fellow urbanites are just as bad as she is. When the man and his wife themselves go to the city, the latter is accosted by a lecherous dandy, the former by a sexy manicurist, and both are surrounded and nearly overwhelmed by maddened, shouting crowds. The viewer, having seen these various elements, may, however, wonder if Murnau is not deluding himself with the vision he has conjured up. After all, would the director have really wanted to live as an illiterate farmer without access to the arts or education? Would he have enjoyed an existence in a place where he would have been socially ostracized and probably regularly assaulted as a result of his sexual preferences? Whatever the answers to such questions may be, I personally would not want to live in such an environment and cannot bring myself to idealize it. If I were to do so, I would merely be deceiving myself, which is something I have no desire to do.

Such faults, though real, are never severe enough to spoil Sunrise's appeal. The movie is so engaging and so nicely made that it really is a delight to watch.

Review by Keith Allen

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