1927, 87 min.
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Approximately 60 days ago, I didn't even know this film existed. After watching Wings here at The Paramount earlier this summer, I did a little research because I knew that it won the first Best Picture Oscar in 1927 and wanted to know what it was up against. In the course of this investigation, I noticed that a film called Sunrise had won "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production" while Wings won "Best Picture, Production." Reading further, I saw that it was a film directed by renown German director F.W. Murnau. That made me pause. You see, Murnau is the man responsible for years of my childhood trauma. At an obviously way-too early age, I watched Nosferatu and it scared the bejezzus out of me. To this day, when I try to watch the movie, I can still feel my pulse pound in my ears, my palms get sweaty, and I find myself holding my breath until I'm blue in the face. Knowing that I was about to partake of another film by the man who created my nightmare fuel, I was hoping it would not be another horrifying experience.
Sunrise is a silent movie, and is now one of the more powerful films I have ever seen. In many ways, it is a purely visual fable. All characters are without names, and title cards appear practically at a minimum. While there are few of these cards to provide scattered dialogue, at no point does the viewer seem lost. You know exactly what's going on at all times, and you can imagine dialogue in your mind. More importantly, you can feel every emotion the characters are going through. And boy, do they run the gamut; from depression and guilt to happiness and celebration.
The story starts out rather melancholy, painting a picture of a farmer and his wife that have drifted apart. It is said that they were once happy "like children," but now he is shown to be having an affair with another woman, leaving his wife and child alone in the dead of night to meet her. She is a woman from the city, and is a siren for the urban lifestyle, seducing him away from what has always been his home and emotional refuge.
In trying to seal the deal and claim him as her own, the woman from the city suggests that the farmer murder his wife by staging a fake boating accident. Wow, this is dark subject matter, I thought to myself. Shouldn't this have been in a film noir double feature? Although initially appalled at the thought, he quickly gives in and plots the killing. The next day, the wife is enthused at the prospect of a boat ride alone with her husband, eager to spend time with him again. She does note that something is off because of his abnormal behavior, and when he finally stops the boat and prepares to kill her... well, he just can't do it.
And that was just the first act. If I had to identify one overriding directoral tool that Murnau uses to perfection, I'd have to say it's the power of misdirection. After the scene of the attempted drowning at the conclusion of the first act, I had no clue where this story was going to take me.
I will say this, though. The rest of the film deals with the remainder of the evening between the married couple. Environments change and there are many scenes of mirth, silliness, and sentiment. I can safely say that after the first act I could never have predicted scenes of carnivals, weddings, barbershops, portrait sittings, and a drunken piglet.
That's right, I said "drunken piglet." In one of the most bizarre but humorous scenes in the movie, a pig escapes from a pen and runs rampant through several buildings, eventually ending up in a restaurant kitchen. Startling the chef into dropping a bottle of vino, the pig begins to lap it up off the floor. Take a look for yourself at the pictures on the left, including the closeup shot of the intoxicated swine. Like I said, it was unexpected and surreal, but I couldn't stop laughing as the pig was slipping and sliding around on the floor. When the piglet is finally corralled, it's a great moment for the jovial audience, and many around me expressed that joy by cheering at the big screen. Who knew a drunk pig could be so much fun?
Sunrise is a great time at the movies precisely because of the bold directions it takes, eventually becoming an allegory of what a marriage can be. Moments of the bitter and the sweet are found throughout, revealing itself to be a true rare gem of cinematic art.
Not to say that it became mere frivolity. The film is so gripping and emotional that at a few key moments I was driven to tears. Sunrise's power comes from several aspects. One of the first things that struck me was how beautiful the film was. It was originally released as "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans," and while I thought that was an incredibly pretentious title at first, I can see how it fits. There's a real sense of poetry and rhythm in the shots. With this restored print one can find many subtleties in the lighting and shadows, making this landmark film a true marvel to behold visually.
Technically, the film is amazing. Murnau uses several different visual and optical effects to augment the experience. Most are utilized during daydream or fantasy sequences, and nearly all hold up just as well today, eighty-plus years after this film was released. I was particularly moved by one sequence where the man and wife are walking down the street, oblivious to the world around them. In what must have been an optical effect that resembles a type of blue screen sequence, the setting around them dissolves to a countryside. It's serene and gorgeous, until a honking horn snaps the image back to the street setting. I still grin now thinking about its execution. Sunrise is full of moments this, with breathtaking visual effects that are never "showy" for their own sake. Each trick has a purpose, whether it's to ratchet up the emotion or augment an idea. In addition, the score and sound effects are also great supporting players, creating ambiance while always allowing the story and characters to carry the load.
I still find it curious that some people refuse to watch silent movies because they consider it an incomplete version of a film. That, to me, is one of the more ludicrous things I've ever heard. If anyone honestly believes that assertion, it must only be because they haven't witnessed what a properly made silent film can accomplish. Sunrise is such an example. I can easily seen how it merited such attention, even in the presence of an expensive and sprawling epic like Wings. Wow. 1927 must have been a great time to be alive and at the movie house. Sigh.
Murnau's Sunrise is very powerful stuff, and can make a romantic out of the most jaded viewer. I loved that a film's dark and moody first half can do an about face and become a tale of rejuvenation. Love is like a magic elixir in films like these, turning back the clock and making us appreciate what we are blessed with. What we do with our days and nights is our own call to make, but life has a way of reminding us that every flaw and mistake can be amended. A new beginning is found with every daybreak, and even the coldest heart can be warmed with the first rays of each sunrise.