Friday, September 23, 2011

"Life is much the same, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet."

Film: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Year: 1927
Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell MacDonald, Ralph Sipperly, Jane Winton.
Running time: 94 min.

Yes, I do love films. But cinema is one medium which never fails to amaze me. While there has been multi-layered dream sequences in Inception and beautifully mind-blowing cinematography in Avatar, the modern technology is not the thing which puts me in a state of amazement. In fact, it's the older films that do this, as they obviously knew what they were doing and did it much better. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, as far as I'm concerned, is the most amazing movie I have ever watched. Everything from the remarkable technical achievements to the acting to the story is just so perfect. You know, before I started watching this, I felt so weird because it was Friday night and I was watching a 84 year old silent film, and that's not what normal teenagers do. Afterwards, I had a happy feeling that I probably had a better night than any of them.

Sunrise is a nuanced look at love, corruption and redemption, shown through a married couple simply known as The Man (George O'Brien) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor). At first, we see The Man greeting his lover, The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) under the moonlight by the lake. He's left his wife behind to be with this woman, and his wife sits at home with their baby crying. This woman encourages the man to leave his farm and his wife and come to the city, and even goes as far as suggesting that he drown his wife and make it look like an accident. The man is at first apprehensive about this, but he comes around to the idea after thinking of the glittering promise of the city and another passionate kiss from his woman. On the next day, the man tries to carry out his plan, but realises that he can't do it. Due to his sudden violent nature, the wife is afraid of him, and she runs from him, only to end up in the city. And it's here, in this city - where the man was supposed to go to be with his mistress - that the man and his wife reconcile and enjoy their love just like they used to.

Let me take a moment to imagine how this movie would have turned out had it been made in modern times. The scene where the man goes to see the woman would have probably turned into a very passionate sex scene. Judging by the violence in some of the films we see nowadays, the poor wife probably would have gone through a lot more than just drowning. When the couple end up in the city...well, they would have had fun sitting at the park with their new iPads updating their Facebook profiles. Truth is, while there may be some good romantic flicks coming through (and they're usually always indies), films that focus themselves solely on romance usually end up outrageously overdone and massively melodramatic. Sunrise, however, is a romance that enjoys the little things, as it would seem. Yes, it can be melodramatic, but that it is what you can expect from the time it was made in. Instead of looking at a couple who have yet to fall in love, the film looks at a couple who have been in love, have fallen out of love, and have been given a chance by life to fall back in love. Because of this, they can enjoy the little things, as opposed to the big fireworks of new-found love.

The film begins in a dark state of depression as the woman tries to get the man to leave his wife, and it's like she is constantly on his back reminding him that he has to do this terrible thing. My heart just broke when I saw Janet Gaynor crying as she lost her husband to the night yet again. Gaynor's performance is so luminous and sweet it's easy to be on her side of it all. On the flipside, at the beginning George O'Brien has a very scary, dark side to his performance that is mostly influenced by the woman from the city. The sheer difference between the wife and the woman makes for an interesting and sad contrast, which makes O'Brien's character and performance stronger. But the film soon makes the transition from the moody state to a happier, brighter one, where we are allowed to enjoy the little moments of love in this couple's relationship. It's a simple story, which is told simply. Yet, it feels so real, and I could almost feel every emotion that the characters would have felt.

A great deal of the film's excellent emotional connectivity is the brilliant direction by F.W. Murnau. What he did with this film was amazing considering that it was made 84 years ago and even with the technology that we have now, no one seems to be able to make a film like this with the flair that he had. He overlaps images - one of the best uses of this was the scene where you can see the woman in the man's imagination urging him to do the terrible act. The opening montage depicts the city in a surreal, dream-like fashion. As the couple reconcile, they are shown walking through the city which then dissolves into a lush meadow...seamlessly, just to add a beautiful little romantic touch to this couple. At the Oscars (the first ceremony), this film won the prize for "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production". This is an award that it truly deserved, because for its time it was unique and definitely artistic. Even now, it is still unique and artistic. It's probably the last great silent film, and maybe the greatest silent film of them all.

I truly loved this movie. I felt like I hadn't ever seen anything so flawless in its execution and so affecting to the core. Yes, this probably is the most amazing movie that I have ever seen. It may sound like an exaggeration, but you have to remember, I come from the generation who thinks that the Transformers franchise is the most monumental cinematic achievement ever created. And to me, those three films look like peanuts compared to this.

What I got:


  1. Great review Stevee. This was definitely an amazing technical achievement for its time, that storm scene is my favorite.

  2. I will see if i can find this on netflix(or if it happens to be in my dads dvd collection). Good review

  3. I've had my eye on this for a while, and I will definitely have to bump it up as I love Murnau. I'm sure it's a brilliant film but I think calling it the greatest silent film is quite a statement for you to make. I will definitely have to look into it closer. For the record I maintain THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN as my favourite silent film, followed closely by UN CHIEN ANDALOU, GREED and NAPOLEON.

  4. Given what Kids These Days are like (not to mention some Adults These Days), I'm impressed that a teenager has not only heard of Sunrise, but has 1) access to it and 2) the desire to actually watch it. Calling it the greatest silent film (though it's not the last great one) is indeed a big call, but certainly not unjustified, and you seem to have "got" the film quicker than I did; it took me a second viewing to appreciate why the tonal shift in the second half (which threw me on first viewing) is necessary, not just to give us a break after the first half but also to enhance the drama in the last reel as well. It's amazing stuff.

  5. I'll back you up wholeheartedly on calling it the greatest silent film. There are others I'd put on par with it, like Metropolis and Modern Times, but Sunrise is certainly deserving of the honor as well.

    Seeing this with a live orchestra a couple of years ago remains one of the most exhilarating moviegoing experiences I've ever had. It wasn't the first silent film I saw, but it was certainly the one that convinced me beyond all doubt that we lost something in the transition to sound. Not that sound isn't great, too, but there's a particular aesthetic to films like _Sunrise_ that's unmatched.

  6. Bonjour Tristesse - That storm scene was brilliant! But it was really sad :(

    Julian - If you can find it, give it a go. It's definitely worth it!

    Tyler - I'm probably not as much as an expert on silent films as you, so just ignore my comment. I need to see The Battleship Potemkin!

    James - Haha, I am a weird teenager who will literally watch anything, especially if it's made before 1950. I liked the tonal shift...I just liked everything!

    Jandy Stone - Thanks! Wow...a live orchestra! That would have been amazing! And I totally agree with what you said!

  7. Yay! I'm so glad you loved this! You're right about how great Murnau's visual flair is in this film. Even today, there are a lot of compelling images in this film.

    And the emotional element is a strong part of why I love this film. I cry every single time I watch this film it's so powerful and I'm always amazed at the emotional journey this film takes us on.

    One of my all time favorites


You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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