Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Mumau, 1927): USA

Reviewed by Rachel Morales. Viewed at AFI Fest 2012

Eighty-five years have passed since German director F.W. Murnau created Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, yet the film is still as beautiful and moving as ever. Truly remarkable is the fact that the story is told in a purely visual manner. So, without the benefit of dialogue, how is Murnau able to convey the emotion of his characters? Why are contemporary audience members moved to laughter and tears? This masterpiece of silent cinema, which happens to be one of the last Hollywood films before “talkies,” uses innovative editing techniques, a detailed mise-en-scène, and impeccable cinematography to tell the allegory of an American marriage.

The film immediately establishes the major conflict. A young man living in the country is being seduced by a city girl. The dark seductress looks like a 1920s flapper; in contrast, the man’s wife is a moon-faced innocent blonde. The dark seductress tries to talk the man into a Faustian deal: Murder your wife, then you’ll have me. Murnau creatively edits to build suspense: Dark lighting, abundant shadows, and a suspenseful musical score create a Hitchcockian effect reminiscent of a horror movie.

Surprisingly, The Man (whose name is never disclosed, hinting at the allegorical nature of the film) is tempted to bump off his sweet country wife. He takes her out for a boat ride, but his plot to drown her is foiled by a series of interruptions. The Wife finally realizes her husband’s true intentions, but instead of reacting in anger or fear, she decides to do whatever she can to salvage her marriage. In an Alice-in-Wonderland type of twist, The Wife ventures through the looking glass into the city. This woman, who had been perfectly content at home on the farm with her husband and baby, sacrifices her own happiness to please her dissatisfied husband, a dog that just doesn’t want to stay on the porch.

Murnau, a German who came to America under contract with William Fox, injects a lot of expressionism in Sunrise. The cutaways are sometimes jolting but they convey the sense of disorientation felt by The Wife. In the city, she is totally out of her element. In fact, the husband’s overnight trip with his spouse is reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s wandering husband in Eyes Wide Shut, another allegory about marriage. In the case of Sunrise, The Man rediscovers his love for his wife after she willingly submits to his experimentations in the city. The message is pretty clear: A woman in the 1920s may have to suffer in order to keep her marriage intact.

 

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