Thursday, June 13, 2024

NFR Project: 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans'


Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Dir: F.W. Murnau

Scr: Carl Mayer

Pho: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss

Ed: Harold Schuster

Premiere: September 23, 1927

95 min.

This would not be the last time that critics acclaimed a film that the public ignored. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is self-consciously arty – it won the only Oscar for Unique and Artistic Picture at the very first Oscars ceremony in 1929. It won Best Cinematography for Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. The lead actress Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress award for this (and for her work in Street Angel [1928]).

However, it did not earn back its rather extravagant budget. It was the first American project of the famed German director F.W. Murnau, who up to this time had created classics such as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926) in his native country. He was brought to Hollywood with a reputation that gave him great leeway in the production of the film.

Murnau made the most of his opportunity. Often cited as one of the greatest films ever made, it sweeps the viewer into a penetratingly compelling story that needs no words to make itself understood.

It tells of a farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Gaynor). A “city woman” (Margaret Livingston) seduces him. We begin with the principals in mid-misery, one from guilt and the other from sorrow. The city woman urges the farmer to kill his wife, sell his farm, and come to the city with her.

Double exposures reveal the farmer’s thoughts, contrasting with his anguished features. The filmmakers track down complex paths through the studio-created marshes, embodying the meandering, wavering walk of the guilty husband. The two embark on an ominous journey via boat to the city. The farmer stands over his wife, ready to kill, then abruptly relents.

What happens next is the entire play of two personalities, running through the emotions of despair, fear, shame, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all in the context of a visit to a vivid, Expressionistic cityscape. Murnau moves the story on with economy and precision, mirroring camera setups, gestures, postures, using all the resources of the pictorial field and the actors’ skill to convey a true love story.

Murnau slows down the pace and lets the camera linger n the face of his actors. He allows them to move through multiple states of thought; patiently, he records their reactions and realizations. The story is a simple melodrama, but Murnau and his collaborators find the truth and beauty in the tale and bring it to life.

Not only are the visuals beautiful, moody, and expressive, but the film is graced with the addition of sound, of a kind. While not a talking picture, a soundtrack of music and effects was married to the print and played in the early sound-film houses. Hugo Riesenfeld’s score carefully reinforces the images and feelings onscreen.

The picture’s unexpectedly melodramatic ending could easily be seen as far-fetched (the farmer considered drowning his wife, and then loses her in a storm on the water on their way home), but the film is so involving that it allows the suspension of disbelief to continue.

Sunrise is a revelation of feeling couched in a familiar story of universal appeal. It does what silent film did best – it transcends cultural barriers, making itself intelligible to everyone.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Wings.

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