Film Score: Hugo Riesenfeld Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Starring: Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien, Margaret Livingston and Bodil Rosing
Sunrise was the winner of the first ever Academy Award for best picture of the year, you won’t find it on many lists. That’s because that first year the best picture award was divided into two categories, most popular picture which was given to William Wellman’s Wings, and the most artistic picture given to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s masterpiece. From then on the there was only one award for the film of the year and so the Academy made the boneheaded decision that only one of those two films should be retroactively named best picture and decided popularity was more important. Boy, were they wrong. Sunrise is one of the most satisfying and complete cinematic experiences on film, silent or sound. It is the apotheosis of what filmmaking art could be. It may very well be the greatest film of all time.
Murnau subtitled his film, A Song of Two Humans. And even that bit of synesthesia says a lot about what is to come. Murnau has distilled human experience into the most basic of emotions, love and hate, and plays them out on the screen like a concert pianist improvising variations on a theme. The film opens on a montage of summertime, of vacations, a ferryboat bringing happy people ashore. But in that bucolic rural community is a man and a wife who are unhappy. George O’Brien’s farm is being sold off bit by bit to pay his debts, and he seeks solace in the arms of a woman from the city, leaving Janet Gaynor alone with their child. The city woman wants him to sell his farm and move to the city with her, suggesting that he drown his wife in order to get rid of her. Compelled to find a way out of his unhappiness he goes ahead with the plan, in spite of his obvious inner turmoil over it. Once faced with the deed itself, however, O’Brien can’t go through with it and Gaynor leaps from the boat and dashes away from him the moment they are ashore.
He, of course, follows her, first on a trolley that takes the characters from the rural waterfront to the bustling city in one long take where the audience can see the change in scenery outside as the train moves. Of course Gaynor is terrified of this man she once thought of as her husband, and this conflict will not be an easy one to overcome. But as unforgettable as the city scenes are, the film eventually comes full circle in an almost magical way. There’s an interesting parallel between the boat scene in Murnau’s film, which was inspired by the short story “Die Reise nach Tilsit” by the German author Hermann Sudermann, and a similar scene--though one with a very different outcome--by Theodore Dryser in his novel An American Tragedy. But this also mirrors the production as a whole, with William Fox hiring Murnau specifically to make a German Expressionist film in Hollywood for him.
The first thing one notices is the fluidity of the camera, tracking and zooming effortlessly. One way Murnau did this was to mount the camera on tracks above the sets rather than on the floor and it makes a huge difference in the freedom of the camera. The production design is also uniformly excellent, with a very Expressionistic darkness in the rural scenes and a frenetic brightness in the city scenes. Even the titles become part of the film, mirroring the ideas that they convey, and Rochus Gliese was nominated that year for best art direction at the Oscars. The imagery is absolutely stunning. Double exposures move in and out of the scenes, conveying information and setting moods. Lighting, especially the use of shadow, is incredibly advanced and the symbolism, while blunt, is beautifully effective. Foreshortening of the sets gives added length to rooms as well as exteriors, emphasizing the Expressionist effect. And gauze placed over the camera lens gives the entire production a dreamlike quality. Murnau’s cameramen Charles Rosher and Karl Struss were rightly given the Oscar that year for best cinematography.
There is so much to say about this film that it’s hardly possible to scratch the surface here. One way to explore it more thoroughly is through the terrific series of books put out by the British Film Institute. Their volume on Sunrise, though brief, is an excellent introduction to the depth and complexity of the film. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay in The A List is also appropriately reverential. In addition to best picture and cinematography, Janet Gaynor was also awarded an Oscar for her work that year that also included Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven. Murnau is, of course, probably best know for his horror film Nosferatu which, though certainly artistically satisfying, pales in comparison to the confidence and cinematic mastery displayed here. Murnau’s next film, 4 Devils is now lost, and he made only two more pictures before an auto accident cut short a career that would have been incredible to see unfold in sound films. Even so, many people consider Murnau one of the greatest directors of all time, myself included, and Sunrise is the supreme example of his genius.