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With: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Written by: Carl Mayer
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 95
Date: 23/09/1927

Sunrise (1927)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Love Supreme

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sunrise is the most exciting kind of movie there is. Very few times in the history of movies has an artist proved himself in outside of Hollywood, and was then invited into Hollywood and given enormous free reign and a huge budget to create a masterpiece. Right now, I'm thinking of Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, Intolerance, and maybe a few others. Sunrise belongs in that category.

Sunrise is directed by German expatriate F.W. Murnau, who in Germany made the films Nosferatu (1922) (based on Bram Stoker's Dracula), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926). He was a master of German expressionism, in which backgrounds were made to look distorted to provide a more artistic perspective. Of course, this approach required building a set for each and every shot in Sunrise, which is one reason why its budget was so high. (The uncredited set designer on Sunrise was none other than Edgar G. Ulmer, who would become a great low-budget director on his own.) And although it received good reviews in 1927, the public wasn't interested, and the picture lost money. Murnau was never allowed complete control again. His last picture, Tabu (1931), was directed with famed documentarian Robert Flaherty. They argued and didn't agree on anything, and Murnau died before the movie was released. Even so, Tabu is now considered Murnau's final masterpiece.

Sunrise, subtitled "A Song of Two Humans", concerns the age-old tale of a man having an affair. The man (George O'Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor -- who won an Oscar) live in the country with their baby and nanny. The wife wears her blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun like a helmet--the ultimate in restraint and domesticity. The husband looks dark. He has circles under his eyes, he's unshaven, and he walks with a gloomy shuffle. The City woman (Margaret Livingston) has sexy dark hair worn in a tempting style with low bangs. Just as dinner is about to be served in the couples' home, the man hears a familiar whistle from outside and goes to it. He and the city woman go out in the bushes and kiss. The city woman asks the man to kill is wife and make it look like a boating accident. He can stash a bundle of reeds in the front of the boat to float on and save himself. (Even on the title card, the word "drown" turns to liquid and sinks down the screen.)

The man agrees. He gets his wife to go boating with him. Their dog doesn't trust him and bounds after them, swimming to catch up. The man stops rowing and slowly stomps toward the wife, hands outstretched. According to Martin Scorsese, Murnau had O'Brien's shoes weighted to make him seem more menacing. At the last second, the husband can't do it. The wife runs and gets on a streetcar headed for the city. The husband joins her.

In the city alone, the couple re-bond with each other. The man gets a haircut and a shave and looks more civilized. In another scene, they walk arm in arm through traffic gazing into each other's eyes while cars whiz by all around them. Murnau takes this time to throw in some strange comedy scenes as well. A pig gets loose from a carnival and enters a dance hall. (This includes the age-old gag of a man sneaking a drink, seeing the pig, then throwing the bottle away in disgust.) The man, being a rural dweller, knows how to catch the pig and does, and becomes the hero for the night. There's another peculiar scene. When our couple is dancing, Murnau keeps cutting to two spectators--a man and a woman. The strap on the woman's dress keeps falling down, and the man nervously helps her fix it. Murnau cuts back to them several times and the man gets more and more frustrated with the runaway strap. Finally, the man gives up and yanks both dress straps down. The woman slaps him. What this has to do with the re-bonding couple, I don't know. Perhaps Murnau was simply trying to lighten the situation, or perhaps trying to say some subtle thing about the relationship between man and woman.

If Hitchcock had made Sunrise, the murder itself would have been the climax of the movie. In Murnau's film, the attempted murder happens quite quickly, and the bulk of the movie is the couple's day in the city. By the end of the day, they've fallen in love again; the man remembering why it was he married his wife in the first place. He even shoos away a gorgeous manicurist who is only trying to do her job. The whole city sequence is actually very lovely and moving. It doesn't happen too fast that you wonder why the woman would forgive the man for trying to kill her. He undergoes such a transformation that we forgive him too.

When they return home by boat a storm kicks up and the boat tips over. At the last minute, the man gives the wife the bundle of reeds to float on. The man washes up on shore and begins a frantic search for his wife. The city woman overhears the commotion and thinks that the man has succeeded in killing his wife, per their original plan. But by the end of the movie, we're sure that the man will never see the city woman ever again.

This story sounds pretty ordinary, but in fact, it's the ultimate love triangle movie. It's boiled down to its simplicity, to its core emotions. We're not really concerned with the people themselves. We're concerned with their feelings. And we can literally see those feelings through Murnau's stylized direction. The city restaurant that the couple eats in becomes heaven itself. I also think that this movie means more to me now than when I first saw it ten years ago because I'm now married and I understand the extreme sacrifice made when all other women are concerned. Sunrise is an incredible achievement, and perhaps the greatest silent drama ever made.

DVD Details: Good news and bad news. In 2001, Fox Home Video finally released one of the most highly anticipated DVDs ever, F.W. Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise (1927). Fox's new DVD comes with two scores, the original Hugo Riesenfeld mono score (still the best) and a brand new Carl Davis stereo score loosely based on the original. Contemporary cinematographer John Bailey (Groundhog Day, As Good as It Gets) provides a commentary track, mostly discussing the achievements of Murnau's gifted cameraman Karl Struss. Other extras include a look at Murnau's lost film Four Devils, the screenplay, stills and outtakes. In fact, Sunrise just may be one of the three or four most outstanding DVDs yet produced -- if not for one thing. The bad news is that Fox is not selling Sunrise. In order to get it, you either have to buy three titles (How Green Was My Valley, Gentleman's Agreement and All About Eve) from their "Fox Studio Classics" series and send in your receipts and proofs of purchase, or buy all four titles in a box set. Still, it's worth it. These other films have all been remastered and updated with extra goodies.

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