“Don’t be afraid of me!” That might take a little work, bud.
DIRECTED BY F.W. MURNAU WRITTEN BY CARL MAYER MUSIC BY HUGO RIESENFELD + Ernö Rapée
STARRING GEORGE O'BRIEN JANET GAYNOR MARGARET LIVINGSTON
An unfaithful man is pushed to his limits by his mistress and almost drowns his wife before backing down and learning how to be a better husband. That carnival looked like so much fun except for the drunk pig! We get to watch a couple at their absolute best and worst and love each other fiercely. At its core, the film is about falling back in love and it’s one of my absolute favorite films now. Also, a haircut and a nice shave can do a lot for a man in distress.
This movie… wow. I’d like to thank F.W. Murnau for providing me with the most emotionally turbulent 95 minutes I’ve experienced in a while. The beauty. The heartbreak. The soundtrack. Let’s get into the history of director Murnau’s signature style, German Expressionism, before diving into everything that makes this film gorgeous.
German Expressionism was a creative and artistic movement that began before WWI and continued until the end of the 1930s, reaching its peak in the 1920s, when Sunrise was made. Staples of this genre include distorted imagery, high angles, and deep shadows – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari being the first and arguably most famous example. Expressionism made a comeback after WWII as a way for Germany to reckon with their country’s actions during the war. This movement was not one to shy away from dramatic and aggressive portrayals of emotion, and often confronted the audience with its innovative use of filmic language. Examples of this movement can be seen today with directors such as Werner Herzog, Ridley Scott, and Tim Burton. Films such as Nosferatu and The Last Laugh cemented F.W. Murnau as a major contributor to this movement.
When Murnau moved to Hollywood, his first film was Sunrise, a revolutionary and inventive feat in filmmaking that effectively tells a simple story of a man and his wife falling back in love. George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor deliver unexpected and timeless performances as The Man and The Wife. The camerawork and editing are beautiful and the music is a big contributor to the narrative. Most importantly, Murnau’s infusion of Expressionism into a seemingly straightforward story about a husband and wife completely redefines the drama/romance genres that came before and creates an innovative and uniquely emotional experience.
Sunrise often gets overshadowed by another film that came out just two weeks later: The Jazz Singer. In fact, the 1998 AFI Top 100 List had The Jazz Singer at #90 while Sunrise was left off completely. Thankfully, the 10th Anniversary list had Sunrise at #82 and The Jazz Singer was removed. Technically, The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length talkie. However, Sunrise was the first film to utilize the state-of-the-art Fox Movietone sound-on-film system which allowed musical accompaniment as well as occasional dialogue to be synchronized with the visual. In scenes where The Man and The Wife are walking in the city streets and kiss, you can hear the drivers stomp on the brakes and yell at them to get out of the road. It’s a surprising and invigorating moment that fits perfectly within the story.
The soundtrack itself is so alluring. At times, it is playful, like when The Man and The Wife dance at the fair together or get their photo taken at the studio. The expressionist tilt here is meant to amplify their love and send it through the screen, directly into our hearts. Other times, it’s gripping, like when The Woman from the City shouts her entrancing siren call. Sometimes, it’s emotionally gut-wrenching, like when The Wife goes missing. Instead of hearing The Man yell out her name while looking with the search party, we see him scream and his voice is replaced by a deep horn. In moments like these, the influence of Expressionism is meant to evoke a sorrow similar to the style’s original intent. It is this delicate balance of dread and hope that keep us interested and take us on a worthy emotional journey.
It’s clear to me that so much love went into this film. Love of storytelling, love of filmmaking, and love of romance. Attention is brought to every detail of this film, including the very few title cards. When The Woman from the City suggests that she and The Man get rid of his wife and run away together, the title card “Couldn’t she get drowned?” pops up and drips down the screen. This choice is stylistically memorable and pulled me in immediately. When The Man wakes up the next morning, he is haunted by the touch of his mistress and the editing crossfades imagery of The Woman from the City wrapped around his shoulders. Decisions like this make it impossible for the viewer to look away and give us a sense of the appreciation put into this film.
Sunrise would not be the same if not for the overarching influence of German Expressionism in every aspect of filmmaking. The attention to detail makes it artistically unique and visually enticing. Although some are critical of the somewhat saccharine ending, I think it’s what makes the film so rewatchable. After the rollercoaster of emotion on which this film takes us, it gives us a loving ending full of hope. It provides us with a sense of security, trust, and comfort. As cheesy and overstated as it sounds, we all need a little extra love right now. With this movie in particular, it feels good to feel love. Sunrise is timeless and will always be one of my favorite films. I’m glad it’s getting the recognition it deserves.
- Janet Gaynor, sweetheart, I’m so sorry to whoever made you wear that wig because it is not working.
- The Woman from the City character was nominated for AFI’s Top 100 Heroes and Villains? Wonder who created that list!
- Murnau was gay and I love that for him.
- Apparently the whole film can be found on YouTube. I hope this doesn’t get taken down, but here’s the link if you want to sob uncontrollably like I did: