2012 Poll Rank: #5
It seems appropriate that we discuss Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans just as the Library of Congress has announced that 75% of all silent films have been lost to time. Sunrise is the result of producer William Fox bringing F.W. Murnau to Hollywood after being impressed by the German filmmaker's ambitious expressionist films. The film includes plenty of Murnau's staples, such as forced-perspective shots and edits laced with symbolism. With Sunrise, though, he sought to do something much more: create a universal story of love lost and regained.
To this end, the film follows a man (George O'Brien) who's been tempted by a woman visiting from the city (Margaret Livingston) to sell his farm and drown his wife (Janet Gaynor), then run away with her to the city. However, when the man can't bring himself to follow through with the plan, he rediscovers the love he has for his wife while they are in the city together.
What's most interesting about the film is how Murnau explores the city, both the physical location and the ideas it symbolizes, with his camera. The film's relationship to the city is complex, a mix of quixotic optimism and lascivious immorality.
On the one hand, there's the city as a den of temptation and loose morals, best represented by the woman from the city. From the very opening shots, she is preparing to go out and woo the man, and a brief glimpse of her bare back can be seen. She's a temptress, a representation of the sin and decadence that the city holds, briefly invading the pure rural village. And she succeeds, as the man succumbs to her charms to the point where he nearly fulfills her plan to run away with her. The city, then, is viewed as a corrupting force during the first part of the film.
Could Murnau's representation of the city within the film be read as his attitude towards coming to America? It's certainly possible: America's reputation as a flourishing, decadent land famous for its sprawling urban landscapes (particularly New York, in the Jazz Age) was a source of both celebration and consternation internationally at the time the film was made. With Sunrise being Murnau's first film made in America, its universality can seem quite tethered to the man behind the camera, exploring the corrupting power and brilliant opulence of a strange new land. And the film's final shot, the titular sunrise, is the beacon of hope that maybe those seemingly opposing forces can co-exist for the better. As the film itself notes, life's the same everywhere: "sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet."
On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Ordet (1955)