Movie Review: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Title: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Release Date: September 23, 1927
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: William Fox Studio

This film from the end of the Silent Movie Era is the first Hollywood production by F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu. Sunrise is informed by the German Expressionist movie as it depicts a simple moral tale and melodrama. A farmer (George O’Brien) has a fling with a vacationing woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). The woman tells the farmer he should murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) and run away to the city with him. The man lures his wife into a boat with a plan to drown her, but can’t go through with it when she pleads for his life.

And here is where the movie goes to unexpected places. The couple end up taking a trolley to a big city where they eventually reconcile and end up having a wonderful day together in the city. Gaynor does a great job of expressing the trauma of the near-murder by her husband and then the joy of their renewed affection. The whole “one perfect day” segment reminds me of the later film Make Way for Tomorrow. Except in this movie they attend the most fantastical fun fair and end up chasing an intoxicated pig. The final act depicts another near tragedy but I won’t spoil the details especially since I found it less interesting than earlier parts.

The movie takes advantage of newer, lighter cameras that can move freely through the scenery. Unfortunately these cameras were noisy so they had to revert to more stationery cameras when talkies emerged later in the same year. Sunrise is also one of the first films with a synchronized soundtrack that included sound effects, albeit no dialogue, so it’s not entirely “silent.” Intertitles are used sparingly and when they do appear they’re in a stylish font and sometimes even animated. The sets are brilliant creating a somewhat real but also fantastical city with forced perspective. The movie also makes great use of multiple exposures and superimposed images to represent memories and fantasies of the characters.

The moralistic and melodramatic aspects made the movie a little hard for me to simply joy. And it should be noted that the man puts up many red flags, even after their reconciling, that indicate that he’s not a good husband, at least to modern audiences. But this is definitely a movie that fans of the cinematic arts need to watch for its place in film history.

Rating: ***1/2