Edited and updated in mid 2015
Sunrise was one of “those” films. By those, I mean the films which changed cinema, which defined “before” and “after”. While the case is often made for Citizen Kane as the singular production which advanced what film could do the furthest for its time period, Sunrise is perhaps the only film to seriously challenge that claim. F. W. Murnau, the expressionist master behind classics such as Nosferatu, brought his talents to America here, and to tragic romance. In doing so he not only created an ethereal, transcendent romantic vision of the world, but he transformed what film meant for that world.
The narrative of Sunrise is simplicity itself. It’s a story of love and temptation, intentionally rendered universal through characters whose names are literally types. They are “The Man”, “The Wife”, and “The Woman from the City”. The first and the second are married, while the first and the last are having an affair. These two plot to end the marriage and run off together, having “The Man” take “The Wife” to the city on a vacation from their country abode and drown her there. When the time comes he finds he cannot continue with the plan; the trip to the magical chaos and clutter of the city only rekindles their love. Assumed tragedy later strikes and causes “The Man” to grow angry and even potentially murderous, but love looms large in Murnau’s vision and he isn’t about to give up his puppy-dog mythos of the world without a fight.
If the “plot” is simple, its telling is masterly. In his trip over the Pond, Murnau retained his vision of the world as a place filled with wonder in everyday experiences, as well as his boy-like ingenuity that allowed him to reach into a bag of tricks and create magic with them. What we get here is a rather fundamental narrative of sentimental romance, told with a magnetic, magical mastery of the cinema that conveys emotion not only in powerful ways, but in novel ones. There’s a famous shot early on, back when film was still experimenting with the moving camera, where an unchained lens follows next to the hero, only to swerve smoothly and elegantly into his own point-of-view, giving us for perhaps the first time in cinema the gaze of a diegetic character connected to the larger world around him, allowing us to see the world as he sees it and experience the narrative with the sense of lingering mystique he does.
Which is to say, the set-bound bog is a deliberately artificial explication of fear and heightened romance, but when we transition to the character’s viewpoint, we learn that his vision of the world is this mystical, heightened place. Murnau’s stagecraft of love isn’t uncanny and un-real to us because of happenstance, but because the whirling maelstrom of emotions feels uncanny and heightened from this character’s eyes. Murnau, here as he always did, is exposing an emotional truth rather than a logistical truth; that was his mission in cinema, and he performed it gallantly.
The film was also one of the first to use superimposition, a technique later chastised under Old Hollywood continuity editing for its obvious artifice and open-faced manipulation of the screen. Early on, when “The Man” and “The Wife” are together in their rural home, the “Woman from the City” is superimposed over him, giving us a sense of her presence and absence simultaneously, a feeling of perpetual existence, as though his mind is keeping her alive and giving her agency even when she isn’t physically there. Her ghostly face, layered over him, appears to almost crush him, taking over his mind and allowing him to think of nothing else.
These are but two of the more obvious tricks up Murnau’s sleeve; more generally, the film is bathed in a wonderfully luminous sense of place, an evocative mood, and an irrepressible sense of storybook vision. More generally, he gives us an astounding sense of lush atmosphere, contrasting dour, gloomy, even expressionist early scenes to convey the eternal pessimism of a life conflicted in love with exuberant city scenes to convey a sense of wondrous fantastique found in the chaos of love. Later, as the characters and the film venture back home and tragedy looms large, the composition of the film more closely mirrors the opening scenes. There is a ship-wreck, and shots of floating driftwood are given an almost dream-like sense of lethargy, as though they are floating by in a netherworld and making time stand still.
The performances enhance the dreamlike otherworldliness and storybook quality of the film. In particular, George O’ Brien as “The Man” starts off with a Shakespearean twirl in his emotional, even stilted, movements meant to convey emotion; he seems artificial, reflecting the character in a perpetual state of dreamlike stagnancy rather than human reality. He relaxes in the film’s mid-points, where he is a more comfortable character thanks to having found true love, figuratively becoming whole and real again. He gives us both a character who is believably human and much larger-than-life, and he draws on the contrast between them to evoke the conflict and torture of a character who doesn’t feel “real” without love.
Elsewhere, Margaret Livingston, draped in black as the Woman from the City, is deliciously otherworldly; she appears like a woman out of time and place, ready to descend upon the Man and suck him up (the film is by no means progressive when it comes to its storybook vision of gender, although it doesn’t entirely let the male off the hook either). Befitting the nature of the film, she and the others exist less like people and more like emotions in human form. Sunrise, as with many of Murnau’s other films like Nosferatu, is meant less to convey reality than the expression of a feeling masquerading as a fantasy. In horror, this was rendered as nightmare. Here it is dream. If certain narrative elements of Sunrise seem overplayed or rushed, the images and the acting work undeniably well for our unconsciousness. They, above all else, sell the story and define the characters and their moods.
They do more than this though. They help build these types and imbue them with the classical awe of mythic tell-tale stories. They become figures for the world, figures who epitomize hopes and dreams, and unfortunately, nightmares. The film isn’t meant in this regard to be held to “reality” – it is a fantasy of love, a parable that plays out like a storybook (enhanced by the stage-like quality of many scenes and the obvious manipulation of the camera), the kind of story that is rendered forever and will forever be affecting. When the Man and the Wife go to the city, it doesn’t reflect a real city, but the effervescence of romance intermixed with the whirlwind surreality and jutting angles of city life. It reflects Werner Herzog’s ecstatic, emotional truth, not the truth one can see with the eye around them. It’s a truth from the heart. Sunrise was produced during a more playful era of filmmaking, one where the possibilities of the medium weren’t yet known and where anything was game to an audience and an auteur ready to simply open their minds. For this reason, the sets are obvious constructs, like ostentatious, gilded play-sets built by a child let loose in the world’s fanciest toy box – for that child was Munrau, and Sunrise was his greatest toybox yet.
This distance from true reality to convey a larger, more affecting emotional reality or truth reflects the film’s subtitle, A Song of Two Humans, which explicitly casts the film in a light of its own invention, as a moody corpus of emotion, a song, produced by artists, and not truly a “reality”. Its fakery doesn’t make it less truthful. It merely allows it to peer behind the reality to find the truth, to see what the eye cannot, and to explore the world of dreams and nightmares, of hopes and fears, rather than the explicit mundane reality we see with our eyes. It allows it, above all, to play with “what is reality” as many early films did and to visualize the emotions we feel in the world in an unfettered, unrestrained way. It is the epitome of silent cinema at its most transcendentally awe-struck and unspeakably romantic, moving from the idea of romance to the implacable and unexplainable sensation of abstract love at its purest and most expressive. It is not a narrative but a manifestation of a state of mind. It is not a love but love, by itself, as an elemental fact. As a result, Murnau is not only advancing technique but falling madly in love with it. He can’t help but stare wide-eyed at his own creation. Thankfully, we can’t help it either.