After the success of F.W. Murnau's silent German classics NOSFERATU (1922), THE LAST LAUGH (1924), and FAUST (1926), William Fox, the head of Fox Film Corp., invited Murnau to come to America, offering him carte blanche to create any kind of film he wanted. Murnau accepted, providing he
would have no studio interference, and planned SUNRISE as a purely artistic production. The result is, quite simply, an undisputed masterpiece, and that rarest of films that achieves absolute perfection in every area; in fact, it won a special Academy Award at the first Oscar ceremony for "Unique
and Artistic Production."
A woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) comes to the country for a summer vacation and seduces a simple farmer (George O'Brien), who has a wife (Janet Gaynor) and a baby. The city woman convinces the man to kill his wife and move to the city with her. She suggests that he drown the wife and
make it look like an accident. After agonizing, the man decides to do it and makes some bundles of sticks and weeds which will enable him to swim away safely. He takes his wife out for a boat trip and stops in the middle of the lake, then walks towards her with his fists clenched. Terrified, she
clasps her hands together and begins to pray. Church bells suddenly ring, shocking the man out of his trancelike state, and he rows the boat to the shore. The wife starts to cry and runs out of the boat into the woods.
He chases her onto a trolley which takes them into the city, and when they get off, he tries to buy her food and some flowers, but she can't stop crying and won't look at him or talk to him. They see a wedding taking place across the street and go into the church to watch the ceremony. He starts
to cry as the minister delivers the marriage vows, and putting his head in his wife's lap, asks her to forgive him. Later, the man gets a shave and a haircut at a barber shop, and he and his wife visit a wedding photographer and have their portrait taken; then they have a wonderful time at an
amusement park, where they play, drink, and dance for the rest of the day.
As night falls, they get back on the trolley, then sail home by moonlight, but a violent lightning storm strikes and the man ties the bundles of sticks and weeds to his wife's back. The boat capsizes, throwing them both into the water, and they're separated. The man safely reaches the shore and
organizes a search party to look for his wife, but they're unable to find her. Shattered, the man returns home and finds the city woman waiting, who thinks that he went through with their plan. He starts to strangle her when she tries to hug him, but he hears a cry from his maid, telling him his
wife has been found. He runs to see her and she's alive, but unconscious, and he puts her in bed. In the morning, the city woman leaves the village, and as the sun rises over their house, the wife opens her eyes and sees her husband and baby sleeping next to her.
One of the greatest films ever made, SUNRISE has rarely been equalled, and never surpassed, in its sheer physical beauty, its romantic intensity, its emotional poignancy, and its extraordinarily creative use of the cinematic medium. Starting with its subtitle of "A Song of Two Humans," and its
spookily beautiful painted intertitles proclaiming, "This story of a man and his wife is of no place and every place...You might hear it anywhere and at any time," it announces itself as a fairy tale right from the beginning. The whole film is suffused with an intoxicating atmosphere of
sensuality, both in style and content, and the use of stylized sets and miniatures mixed with real locations, soaring camera movements, deliberately slow movements of the actors, and the relentlessly brooding synchronized score and sound effects, all combine to create a unique and hypnotic effect.
The dazzling sets were designed with slanted walls and ceilings to create a forced perspective, further adding to the sense of unreality, while the Academy Award-winning camerawork by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss is magnificent, effortlessly floating through the air and following the characters
as they walk and ride in boats and trolleys. The camera doesn't simply move with the characters so much as it seems to express their yearnings and desires, most visibly in the scene where the man goes out at night to rendezvous with the city woman and the camera sinuously tracks through trees and
bushes to reveal a foggy marsh lit by a full, glowing moon. Murnau uses purely cinematic means to visualize feelings, memories, and fantasies by employing slow dissolves, multiple exposures, and slow-motion to show what the characters are thinking, eschewing intertitles except where absolutely
necessary. This effect is particularly striking during the scene where the husband pounds his fists on his head trying to get the images of him pushing his wife off the boat and of the city woman seducing him out of his mind.
Yet for all of its magnificent stylization and Murnau's technical virtuosity, SUNRISE is most notable for its tender humanity and its lyrical, poetic love story of betrayal and redemption. The sequence where the man and his wife reconcile after watching the wedding in church, and the street
traffic dissolves into a field of flowers as they're lost in the reverie of their kiss, is one of the most sublime moments in cinema, as is the long trolley ride into the city, with its uninterrupted, subjective views of the changing landscape. Janet Gaynor is perfect as the angelic wife who
represents the purity and innocence of the countryside, in contrast to the corruption and evil of the city woman, and she won the very first Best Actress Oscar for her performance in SUNRISE, as well as for two other films from 1927-28, Frank Borzage's 7TH HEAVEN and STREET ANGEL. George O'Brien,
who was a popular silent star of Fox epics such as John Ford's THE IRON HORSE (1924) and THREE BAD MEN (1926), and later starred in a string of RKO B westerns, is very effective as the tortured husband, convincingly portraying both the brutish and the gentle sides of his character. Unfortunately,
despite its artistic brilliance, SUNRISE was not a financial success, and since it was a very expensive film to produce, Murnau's next two projects for Fox, FOUR DEVILS (1929), also starring Gaynor, and now a lost film, and OUR DAILY BREAD, recut and retitled CITY GIRL (1930), were produced under
strict studio control. Never again was Murnau able to achieve the level of genius he demonstrated with SUNRISE, which is one of the select few films in history that show what the medium is capable of attaining at its highest, most exalted state.
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