Sunrise, subtitled A Song of Two Humans is one of those gems that often separates a legitimate critics top film list from somebody who pretends to know what they are talking about when it comes to cinema. I had yet to see this movie and felt as though I was missing something spectacular. To be honest, as the film began I thought I was watching a rather dull film, but this notion ended quite quickly. The moment director F.W. Murnau began overlapping images and incorporating bizarre camera angles, I was hooked. This film is an expressionist masterpiece that pours out darkness almost consuming the the faint light that surrounds the characters, becoming a study in the blackest parts of the human psyche, most notably deceit and infidelity. However, like any good film made before Citizen Kane, it offers redemption and viewers are left with a cinematic treat that is both rewarding and heartfelt, a feat that is becoming harder and harder to deliver in contemporary cinema.
I have mentioned in many reviews that some film plots are very simple and unapologetically plain. Sunrise may prove to have the simplest plot of any film I ever review. With that being said, it may also have one of the deepest-rooted narratives of any piece of cinema I have encountered. This simple story of redemption is so honest, emotional and beautiful that I could not look away, fearing that I would miss some subtlety that would turn the entire narrative on its head. The narrative goes like this The Man (George O'Brien) is so deeply consumed by lust for The Woman From The City (Margaret Livingston) that he is making a fool of his wife The Woman (Janet Gaynor) and blowing his meager earnings to please the city socialite. In an oneiric scene The Woman From The City demands that The Man kill her wife and move to the city with her, promising a world of razzmatazz and joviality that explodes off the screen in orgiastic joy. Half-drunken on idealism The Man agrees and plans an elaborate method to kill The Woman whilst rowing to the city. The Woman mistakes this offering of a trip to the city for a chance to rekindle their relationship, only to become shocked when The Man tries to kill her. Unable to commit to the act The Man begs for The Woman's forgiveness as they dock on shore and approach the city. Realizing the error of his ways, The Woman accepts The Man's apologies and the couple engage in a carefree romp through the city. Their flame rekindled the couple heads back to their farm town by boat, only to get caught in a hectic storm that capsizes the boat. Believing he has lost his wife, The Man goes into a severe depression while The Woman From The City believes his act to be purposeful. Fortunately for The Man, it is discover that The Woman has indeed survived the wreck with little harm. The Man dismisses The Woman From The City and refuses to continue his infidelities leaving the couple together in a happy embrace, thus ending the film, simply and poetically.
The film is full of critical analysis, Murnau was a director who was very self-aware about the images he projected and Sunrise is certainly no exception. With a oeuvre that includes an adaptation of Tartuffe, as well as the critically acclaimed Nosferatu, it is clear that Murnau loved the study of human experience. Sunrise particularly concerns itself with the tragedy of human desire. The desire manifests itself in many ways throughout the film, whether it is The Man's desire for another lover, or The Woman's desire for normalcy within her family. Even The Woman From The City desires the acceptance of the village people, despite engaging in infidelity which she fails to realize destroys this possibility. These desires are rather blatant, but the larger issue of longing comes through in the form of capitalist desires. Money is arguably its own character within the film, every main character is tied to it in some form and it is exchanged throughout the film. In fact, the only reason that The Man and The Woman are capable of rekindling their love is because of an apparent excess of wealth produced by The Man. It is implied at the films onset that The Man has no money, yet the couple spends lavishly in the city as though they had an unlimited well of finances. It implies that happiness and the cessation of desire can only occur through monetary escape. This argument helps add another layer to the film, particularly the possibility that the couple's trip to the city was actually a dream. Many of the occurrences in the city are literally impossible, notably the instance in which The Man and The Woman walk through traffic without being hit, or when The Man plays the carnival game that appears to have a never ending supply of balls for him to throw. The scenes are illogical and surreal, all indicative of dreams. Contrast this with the literal stormy seas of reality that the couple must go through. They are shot with close angles and become far more believable than any of the city scenes. Furthermore, it is only in The Man's moment of severe loss that he realizes that the reality of nothingness makes the fleeting dreams of unlimited wealth ridiculous and that a life in poverty with love is far more rewarding than a life with riches that lacks love. Sure, this particular reading of Sunrise is a possible stretch, but I cannot help but think Murnau has such ideas in mind.
This movie is on top film lists for a reason, it is perfect filmmaking and a shining moment in the silent film era. I believe there was briefly a blu-ray copy of this released, but it is sadly out of print. If you can drop money on that get it, if not a regular DVD will work fine. The only thing that will not work is not watching this film, because you would be doing yourself a terrible injustice.