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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans Review

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by Mark Botwright Oct 8, 2009

    Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans Review
    It's always a welcome occurrence to see any title being released on the Blu-ray format, but when it is one that is so universally acclaimed, as Sunrise is, it becomes even more of an event. It may not be the first title that springs to mind when the name F.W. Murnau is uttered, but it is thoroughly deserving of its place on many a list of the all time greats. Most will undoubtedly know of his iconic depiction of Nosferatu, and with the ever changing fashions of the day, vampires have been in and out of Hollywood vogue numerous times since its release back in 1922. With a revival every decade due to a TV series or blockbuster, a new generation of film fans become bewitched by his masterful use of light and shade in the horror field, thus it is perhaps understandable why fewer cinema goers are as aware of his Hollywood debut that was Sunrise.

    It was overshadowed to a certain extent at the time of its initial release due to Warner Brothers' famed pioneering “talkie” The Jazz Singer. Due to this it was something of a Box Office failure, but further generations have come to herald its visionary style as arguably the pinnacle of Murnau's creative output. Harder to sell to a modern audience (which might explain its continued backseat to Nosferatu in much of the general public's consciousness), it is a fairly straightforward narrative in terms of base plot. The story is essentially a love triangle between a man, his wife and his lover. This adulterous tryst is what sets the story in motion and propels the central figure of the husband into the darkness of his own morality and beyond. All extraneous elements appear to have been stripped away, with the man simply titled imaginatively as “The Man”, his wife as “The Wife” and the interloper in this twosome's marriage as “The Woman from the City”.

    Such simplistic intricacies as names have been done away with in favour of a more allegorical style. The setting of a picturesque village by the waterside inhabited by rural country folk is one that evokes picture book tales of yore. Of the few captioned words that are included in the duration, most sentences come from the narrator, with the opening setting the scene perfectly with the following, “This song of the man and his wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets.....in the city's turmoil or under the open sky on the farm....life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.” This accessibility of setting and stripped down starting point are compounded to great effect by the introduction of the central trio, all of whom are easily identifiable and to some degree archetypes of many genres of stories in different mediums. We are given brief flashbacks in this first act, but they are momentary pauses for the viewer to grasp what is necessary i.e that a third party has spoilt an otherwise idyllic marriage.

    Things soon gather pace, as the depiction of the woman from the city shows her to be a seductress who is bewitching the man. Her whistling at his window to beckon him out of his humble dwelling is not unlike that of the sirens of ancient mythology, luring men in their ships onto the rocks with their singing. She is the very essence of a temptress, bedecked in a black satin dress, shown to glisten like a dark jewel in comparison to the matted shades of the humble people's functional clothing. It is not long before the back story has been filled in completely and we learn that he has all but ruined his farm by spending his money on the vacationing woman from the city who refuses to return from whence she came. The man's wife is little more than an addition to the story at this point, as the central themes are those of the adulterous pair, with Murnau throwing several symbolic metaphors for the duo's situation at the viewer. The man is drawn into the mire of the foggy night, where his lover stands waiting, twirling a flower she has plucked nonchalantly, before tossing it aside when she spies her co-conspirator in this affair. Yet the dalliance outside of his marriage is not all she wants him to be an accomplice in. In this key scene we watch on in horror as the vamp seduces him, her face on top of his in the dominant role. It is not long before her plan is whispered to him, that perhaps his wife might be drowned, and the battle commences proper. It is not a fight between the man and his lover though that interests Murnau, but rather that of love itself and possible redemption.

    The cinematography is nothing short of amazing, with subtle camera movement, playful use of light and shade, and some startlingly layered images that merge with the actors to wonderful effect. The use of perspective, with a myriad of clever trickery associated with it, to draw the viewer's gaze into the frame, continues to influence fellow directors to this day. If for nothing else, Sunrise should be ever hailed as a technical masterpiece. Yet that is not all it achieved. The story holds up as one with enough delicacy of human emotion to remain pertinent in any age. Like much of the acting involved in the silent era, there are broad strokes used to convey differing sentiments, but the two central figures of the man and his wife have the perfect actors bringing their passion and heartbreak to life. George O' Brien moves almost seamlessly from the forlorn wretch with a troubled conscience to a man who has rediscovered his humanity, whilst Janet Gaynor (who rightly wo an Academy Award for her performance) seems able to convey the smallest emotion with merely her eyes. There are certainly far less theatrical, overly dramatic swoonings and throwing of limbs as seen in many other silent films. Most of the story is propelled by looks, facial twitches and the clenching of hands and other objects.

    There are many reasons to watch Sunrise, but for me the main draw is less of a technical one, be it acting or directing, but rather that of the fluid narrative. It is easy to see the blending of European expressionistic film into the American system to create the film noir genre and the main plot précis reads like a classic thriller. Yet halfway through, Murnau pulls the rug out from under the viewer and changes the whole outlook of what we assumed we were about to watch. There are character transformations and a transition in mood that I dare say should not work, but somehow simply do. It serves to heighten the suspense when, in the final act, the shadow of a planned deed comes back to haunt the man and his wife in an almost destined manner. This last throw of the dice finishes the host of emotions Murnau has dragged us through. From tension, through trepidation, soul searching, repentance, redemption, love and whimsy right back to its roots of suspense and potential sorrow. It might be billed as a song of two humans, but this is far more poetical in nature and deserves to be considered as one of the greats. That it still continues to shine after eighty years is evidence of its potency in evocation of emotion and the sublime technique behind its craft.