SUNRISE: The Essentials
In the countryside where city dwellers vacation, a woman of the city has lingered in the quaint village for weeks. She is having an affair with a man who is going behind the back of his wife. The man tells the city woman that he is hers, completely, and she tells him to drown his wife and come with her to the city. The man convinces his wife to go with him on a day trip across the water so that he can drown her on the way and say it was an accident but will he go through with it?
Director: F.W. Murnau
Producer: William Fox
Writer: Hermann Sudermann (original theme "Die Reise nach Tilsit"), Carl Mayer (scenario), Katherine Hilliker and H.H. Caldwell (titles)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher and Karl Struss
Art Direction: Rochus Gliese
Assistant Art Directors: Alfred Metscher, Edgar G. Ulmer
Editing: Harold D. Schuster
Assistant Director: Herman Bing
Original Music: Willy Schmidt-Gentner, R.H. Bassett (Los Angeles premiere), Carli Elinor (Los Angeles premiere), Erno Rapee (New York premiere), Hugo Riesenfeld
Special Effects: Frank Williams
Cast: George O'Brien (The Man), Janet Gaynor (The Wife), Margaret Livingston (The Woman From the City), Bodil Rosing (The Maid), J. Farrell MacDonald (The Photographer), Ralph Sipperly (The Barber), Jane Winton (The Manicure Girl), Arthur Housman (The Obtrusive Gentleman), Eddie Boland (The Obliging Gentleman).
Why SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS is Essential
Sunrise isn't just an essential silent film; it is, in many ways, the essential silent film. Helmed by German director F.W. Murnau and brought to life by actors Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien, Sunrise represents, at once, both the pinnacle of artistic cinematic quality in the silent form and the end of an era as well. It was as if silent film reached such a height with Sunrise, that is was impossible to go any further so the world may as well usher in sound. That's a bit of an overstatement but only by a little. Murnau brings so much invention and effortless blending of realism and expressionism to the fore that most other films, silent or otherwise, pale in comparison.
Sunrise is filled with Murnau's signature optical overlays in which depth is built by adding layer upon layer to the scene until that which stands at even the remote ends of the screen are not only important but just as vital to the scene's power as that in foreground. From the first frames, Murnau begins his work. A poster of a train station advertising "Summertime" as "vacation time" dissolves into the train station itself, only this is no ordinary station. The trains in the foreground are miniatures, overlaying a station platform below, bustling with passengers, which looks out via a glass wall to the world outside, also alive and moving, as far the eye can see. Suddenly, we see a train race across the countryside, to the right, while another shoots up from a tunnel as if rocketing towards the sky, to the left. Murnau then contrasts this with a second shot of the vacationers themselves, at the crowded public beaches on the right with a shot of a ship, presumably a luxury cruise liner, to the left, overlayed upon a cityscape. Next, the screen fades to black and opens to a point-of-view shot from the stern of a ferry leisurely making its way across a scenic lake, filled with sailboats and dinghies. Aboard the ferry are urban dwellers, signaled by their tweed vests, walking sticks and boaters, heading for the shoreline where greeters await amongst the farms and cottages. Importantly, there are no optical overlays here. The countryside is presented as is. Murnau has taken the viewer on a journey from one place to another but also from one state of mind to another, all in less than two minutes of screen time.
After that extraordinary setup, the movie informs the viewer by way of inter-title that a woman from the city has lingered long after all the other vacationers have returned to their urban lives. When we fade in on her rented room in a cottage, her clothes are strewn about, a pair of high-heeled shoes rest atop a trunk and she bounces into the room sporting a bob and lighting a cigarette from the candle on a desk. From this slovenly room we cut to the owners of the cottage, downstairs in the simple, clean and bare dining room, eating their soup until the woman comes in, stares at the lady of the house, then at her shoe until the lady of the house leaves her dinner to polish the city woman's shoes. Finally, we cut to the outside as Murnau now takes the final step in this masterpiece of exposition. From the frenetic, multi-cut, multi-layered shots of the city, to the un-layered yet still multi-cut scenes of the lake, we now follow the woman walking from the cottage down the road, past some villagers to a small farmhouse, all in one, steady, uncut tracking shot. Murnau has wound everything down to this moment, both literally and figuratively, when the woman calls on her married lover and sets the story in motion. In all, from train station to farmhouse, about four minutes of screen time have been used and yet, in that four minutes, Murnau has accomplished more than most film makers do in their entire careers.
It is precisely this kind of artistry that was lost in the first years of sound as cameras were battened down and the movies were more concerned with filming two people talking - often awkwardly - than visually telling a story. By the mid-thirties, much of the visual fluidity of the late silent period had found its way back into film but telling the story solely through pictures was lost. Sunrise stands as the last great achievement of silent cinema before sound took over and silent film was relegated to a handful of masterworks by the great Charlie Chaplin, who stood fast against the advent of sound for years.
But Sunrise is essential for more prosaic reasons, too. It holds a place in film history unmatched by any other in that it won the first, and still only, Oscar® for Unique and Artistic Production. Another nominee in that category, King Vidor's monumental The Crowd (1928), stands with Sunrise as one of the best films from the silent period. The other award, for Outstanding Picture (later renamed Best Picture), went to Wings (1927), directed by William Wellman. Janet Gaynor would also win the first Best Actress for it (her award actually specified three films: Sunrise, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, 1928). Murnau was not nominated for a directing award for his extraordinary work but its artistic success marked a bold debut for Murnau in America.
by Greg Ferrara