After a number of big hits in Germany, director F.W. Murnau was enticed to come to Hollywood, given a massive budget, and promised complete creative control. The result of this deal was Sunrise (1927), the highest ranking silent film on the Sight & Sound list. The story of Sunrise is very simple: a farmer is seduced by a woman from the city and convinced to kill his wife. He finds himself unable to commit the murder and instead falls in love with his wife all over again during a day out in the big city. But to tell this fable Murnau employs a number of innovative visual techniques, impressive and elaborate sets, and some of the first use of sound in a major motion picture. For most of the silent era the camera remained static, or perhaps a few tracking shots were possible; in Sunrise the camera flies over tables and marshes, freed from prior constraints. It was also the first movie to have a musical score attached to the film, enabling the syncing of music and even some sound effects to the action on screen. At the first Academy Awards, Sunrise won the Oscar for Best Creative or Artistic Film, an award that has not been handed out since. (95 min.)
S. – Given my new appreciation of silent film, a positive acquaintance with Murnau and a ranking inside the Top 10 on the list, I was anticipating great things from Sunrise. Unfortunately I found it quite underwhelming. There are many of visual and creative elements that were extremely well done and the incorporation of the musical score to assist with the story-telling was neat, but the story itself was rather trite and lacked the emotional depth to elevate it to a powerful tale of redemption. Perhaps if I hadn’t had it’s #5 ranking at the front of my mind I might have found the story more satisfactory, instead I was left mystified by how this average film has attained such high regard.
J. – I think I was more than underwhelmed; I was downright disappointed. The synopsis we’ve laid out in the introduction really makes it sound like you’re in for a tremendous experience with Sunrise, but it just never comes together, regardless of how innovative it may have been for its day. I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t like the film; I absolutely did, but I am also mystified by its placement on the Sight & Sound list.
The full title of the movie is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and that subtitle is appropriate given the dreamy, fantasyland feel of the film and its innovative use of music. It is essentially a fable, and one that uses heightened emotions and simple refrains to sing a simple song. I will never give a film or a book any crap because it has a simple story, but if you are going to take that approach then there must be something else to compensate for the lack of plot. Jane Austen’s novels can all basically be summed up as, “A bunch of flawed women trying to get husbands and they ultimately do,” but that premise is not what makes her books such a pleasure to read — it’s the language and the characters. Likewise, the raw emotional punch of The Passion of Joan of Arc or the evocative imagery and cynical comedy of Murnau’s own The Last Laugh are excellent examples of films that use simple, almost allegorical tales but tell them in gripping and evocative ways. There is no such thing as a bad story, only a story poorly told — and I think Sunrise unfortunately is just such a telling.
S. – Murnau was not restrained by budget for Sunrise and it shows, the sets are full and mostly marvelous. They are also put to good use, the camera zooms around giving you a range of different angles and the opportunity to weave through crowds or around trees in pursuit of the main players. There is also a the use of rear projection to throw the actors right into the midst of the action be it storm-whipped waves or bustling city traffic. These innovations add a vitality to the film that is very appealing, much of the middle section where the husband and wife are enjoying their day out in the city feels like a celebration of a director playing with his fine, new toys. The disconnect that this rather prolonged day in the city follows on from the revelation that the cheating husband was moments away from drowning his wife so that he could run off with his mistress seems to be overlooked. The mood of the film changes from wretchedness and despair to levity and playfulness in a heartbeat. I found that hard to swallow but held out for a meaningful resolution. Once the fun and games were over and the return journey to the farm was underway there was an opportunity to explore the deeper consequences of the husband’s betrayal, I was really disappointed that such an innocuous ending was provided.
J. – The ending really did deprive the movie of a great big emotional wallop that could have been very compelling, albeit a serious downer. But I think that again comes back to this idea of it being a fable, and a rather dreamlike one at that. In the end everyone wakes up, as it were, and finds that everything has returned to as it should be. Not the finest of endings, but at least it did avoid a number of the cliches like the country somehow being morally superior to the city or that execrable “there’s no place like home” nonsense.
I think Sunrise fares best when one doesn’t really bother with the story and instead focuses on how it is told. Because the stylistic elements and the visuals are the film’s strengths, there are a number of wonderful shots throughout the course of this film. And I can walk away really loving some of them — particularly that wonderful sequence of The Man visualizing the excitement of life in the city. But with this kind of story those moments need to be hitting the screen constantly (as they do in, say, The Last Laugh), but in Sunrise they are few and far between. I will say, though, that whenever a scene is set at night, Sunrise (ironically) tends to look and feel fantastic. The marshland where The Man meets The Woman of the City is a gorgeous set and the light from the full moon is used to great effect. This scene and other night scenes (like the search party in the boats) are very evocative and have an emotional heft that easily overcomes the deficiencies of the story. The daytime scenes, however, are dull and lifeless, particularly those set in the city. Other than that excellent sequence you mentioned of the couple walking into traffic, the day in the city scenes are confused (in a bad way), overlong, visually uninteresting, and painfully unfunny. If these two are falling in love with each other again through this then they really deserve each other — any other two people would be bored stiff. Thankfully, by the time night descended on the city there were amusement parks, dance halls, and a drunk pig to liven things up and provide some eye candy.
S. – I agree that the nighttime scenes are the most memorable. Murnau is terrific at creating atmosphere when the light is scarce. But as a fable Sunrise fails for me because the behaviour of the main characters does not seem genuine unless they are idiots. A simple story can be great as long as simple doesn’t equate with stupid. There were many lovely visual elements to this film but it is without the structure to create something wonderful. I am at a bit of a loss how the director who cheekily gave a big “up yours” to the studio demand for a happy ending to The Last Laugh would willingly compose such a saccharine finale here. In my opinion Sunrise doesn’t hold a candle to the The Passion of Joan of Arc and Man with a Movie Camera, two of it’s companions in the Sight & Sound Top 10, and falls well short of the The Last Laugh.
J. – It certainly is a pity that, despite having complete artistic freedom, Murnau turned out a work that seems more compromised than The Last Laugh. I can see why this movie was considered so innovative in many ways: the movement of the camera flying above the tables in the restaurant must have been remarkable in 1927. And certainly the use of sound and music is really a massive step forward. But these things are commonplace now, and this speaks to the debate we’ve been having now and again throughout this blog — does innovation equal greatness? I think Sunrise demonstrates that neither of us think innovation alone is sufficient grounds for acclaim, or at least not the level of acclaim that marks a film as being among the 10 best ever made.
Sunrise is often a beautiful film, but it is also often banal. It has visual splendor but emotional staleness. It moved cinema forward by leaps, but lacks a strong enough aesthetic to stand on equal footing with its descendants. I suppose the strongest verdict we can express is that even though we have only yammered about 17 Sight & Sound films to date, Sunrise did not make either of our “Top 10 So Far” lists — shocking considering its Sight & Sound rank.
S., I think we are going to need to have a proper discussion about innovation versus the test of time. Luckily, I think Sunrise and our next yammer (another Sight & Sound Top 10 film) might offer a good means to do so.