THIS IS NOT AMERICA: F W Murnau’s ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ [7/10]

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Sunrise is explicitly presented as a romantic fable – even the title informs us that this is more of a ‘song’ than a film. Instead of character names we have The Man (George O’Brien, who looks inexplicably different in every scene), The Wife (sweet-featured Janet Gaynor) and The Woman Of The City (vampy Margaret Livingstone). After a prologue showing tourists from The City (perhaps Manhattan?) arriving for a holiday in The Country (New York’s upstate Hudson Valley?), the film flashes forward a few weeks to show The Man, a humble farmer, in the throes of an affair with The Woman, to the dismay of The Wife. The Woman asks/tells The Man to drown The Wife, sell his farm, and escape with her back to The City. On the verge of committing the foul deed, The Man gets cold feet and asks his prospective for forgiveness. They spend a chaotic day in The City making up, then head home, their marriage re-invigorated. But fate has a trick in store…

Though now much less well-known and widely-seen than his earlier Nosferatu, Murnau’s first American film has actually aged much more gracefully. Hailed as a masterpiece on its first release, Sunrise won the ‘Artistic Quality of Production’ Academy Award* at the first ever Oscars. According to David Thomson, the fluid camerawork makes Sunrise the most groundbreaking American movie made between Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. Even Thomson admits, however, that all of Murnau’s dazzling technical skills and mastery of the film medium are placed at the service of a ‘novelette’ plot – one which would have been acknowledged, even in 1927, as a very corny kind of romance.

But there’s enough here to distract viewers from dwelling on the over-simple, over-sentimental aspects of the broad-stroke story development. There are some welcome touches of quirky humour – including an unexpectedly surreal slow-motion close-up of an inebriated piglet, swaying woozy-eyed on uncertain legs after licking up some spilt red wine. Murnau has plenty of fun with the silent-movie conventions – when the Woman tempts the Man to murder, an insidious smoke wafts across the intertitles, which then appear to ‘drown’ when the Woman plots a similar fate for The Wife.

Many of the more conventional visuals remain startling to this day – especially one dazzlingly innovative special-effects sequence in which the Man and Wife miraculously cross a road through speeding cars, then are magically transported to a forest glade, then back to the city again. These outdoor scenes are even more impressive considering that nearly everything we see on screen, from rural riverside village to buzzing modern cityscape, was constructed as a series of huge, elaborate studio sets. The plans were all drawn up in Germany by Murnau’s German technical team, which explains the very non-American look of both locales – the City resembles Berlin, while the picturesque riverside village could be a twin town for Tim Burton’s mist-shrouded Sleepy Hollow** – and adds to the film’s fairytale ambiance.

Neil Young
28th October, 2002
(seen 27th October, Cineside, Newcastle)
USA 1927 : F W Murnau : 97-110mins (silent – 8,729ft)

* This category corresponds more closely to today’s ‘Best Picture’ than the ‘Best Production’ award shared by Wings (which most reference- books wrongly describe as being the first ‘Best Picture’) and The Last Command.

** Oops — the real Sleepy Hollow is a suburb of Tarrytown, New York. Though it was built as a Dutch settlement, and so has a distinctly ‘European’ look. [NY, 5 Dec 2010]