Blindspot Review: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

To Love Again

Sunrise wife turned away

This is the fifth post in my Blindspot review series. I will be publishing one like it each month for the rest of 2015.

There is an unexpected turn of events in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans that occurs about 30 minutes into the film, one which I will reveal after the second paragraph of this review because the loveliness of F.W. Murnau’s classic depends on the hour following this distinctive narrative shift.

As the film begins, a married farmer (George O’Brien) is having an affair with a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston in high heels and full femme fatale mode). He is so seduced by her that, at her request, he agrees to murder his wife, sell his house, and leave the countryside with her. This scheme is made all the more disturbing because his wife is played by the almost doll-like Janet Gaynor, who appears so sweet and delicate that it seems unfathomable anyone would consider killing her. Whenever she breaks down crying on account of her husband, our hearts break with her.

Playing the farmer, O’Brien conveys an even more troubling array of emotions. He gives a performance charged with tortured sexuality and an almost bestial violence that erupts suddenly and uncontrollably – in this first part of the film, he is constantly hunched over, tense, uneasy. In this, his acting prefigures the performance style of the great Jean Gabin, who will become the icon of French Poetic Realism, a movement that certainly owes much to the treacherous storyline and impressionistic imagery in Sunrise. In its juxtaposition of city and country, Murnau’s film also feels like a precursor to Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country. The difference is, Murnau casts the female urbanite as the locus of sexual freedom, whereas Renoir’s city folk comprise dimwitted, neglectful men and sexually frustrated women who willingly elope with the virile men of the country. Murnau’s film came out of the U.S. in 1927, Renoir’s France in 1936. It’s interesting how anxieties about modernity can manifest themselves so differently in two, almost (but not quite) contemporaneous films.

Those who haven’t seen the film should watch it here and avoid reading beyond this point.

Intent on drowning his wife in the local river, the farmer invites her for a leisurely afternoon row. Their first departure is interrupted by the barking family dog, the classic omen for bad things to come. By the time they are successfully away from shore, he can barely contain his anxiety, and when the moment comes for him to kill, he can’t go through with it. But it’s too late – his wife has seen murder in his eyes, and she flees from him in a panic. He pursues, desperately trying to make things right.

Ironically, the two of them end up in the city, her weeping from an unspeakable sadness, him attempting in vain to comfort her. They go on like this for some number of minutes, gradually her crying stops, and they wander into a church where a wedding is taking place. The priest is reading out the marriage vows, and hearing these words makes the farmer realize the gravity of what he’d tried to do. He starts streaming tears as well, and the wife holds him, kissing away his self-loathing with her forgiveness. They walk out, hand-in-hand like newlyweds. This is one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen in recent years.

What follows is a joyous romp through the city that is so light-hearted I could hardly believe I was watching the same movie. Most films that alter their tones in so dramatic a fashion are either poorly made or cheekily self-referential. Not Sunrise. This film is both resplendently put-together and deeply sincere, and this latter section of the film resonates with the spirit of that concluding image from the church scene. Murnau is telling a story of falling in love again, and even if the relatively speedy reconciliation between husband and wife seems a tad implausible given his earlier intention to murder, the sentiment of romantic revival remains powerful. To me, Sunrise works as a thematic partner to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, except the last five minutes of that film are here expanded to nearly an hour.

The couple’s laughter-filled urban odyssey is comedic in nature, featuring the shenanigans and misadventures of two adults who’ve tapped their inner youth. There’s a pseudo-slapstick scene in a barbershop, a silly-sweet episode at a photographer’s studio, and even a moment involving a runaway piglet at a fair. And yet, the entertainment value of this narrative stretch lies not so much in our enjoying the comedy for its own sake as in our appreciating what these moments mean to the two characters. Sunrise contains encounters that are, truth be told, only mildly funny, but when we see how much fun the man and his wife are having with each other, the scenes take on a poignant air. The comedy here has an intimate quality, aiming not so much to please moviegoers sitting beyond the fourth wall as to depict a couple appreciating each other’s company. The accumulation of private amusements shared between husband and wife makes for a uniquely moving comic experience driven by the giddy, goofy ecstasy of rediscovering love.

Within this achingly wonderful film, the only flaw I could find was the way Murnau glosses over the ethical ramifications of the farmer’s violent tendencies. It’s true that, to a degree, these anti-heroic qualities are precisely what make him so riveting a character, but on several occasions, the movie straight up disregards what should have been alarmingly excessive displays of aggression. At one point, the farmer brandishes a knife at a man who is flirting with his wife, a gesture whose severity seems hypocritical given that he himself had cheated on her just a day earlier (plus, the man was clearly unaware that she was married). At another, he chokes a woman in response to a tragic turn of events even though she was in no way responsible for what happened (even if his anger toward her is not altogether unreasonable). There is also, of course, the intended murder, but this violent act is openly condemned by the film through the construction of a foreboding atmosphere (more on that in the next paragraph) as well as the farmer’s later expressions of shame. In contrast, the other two instances of violence are presented casually and even applauded by the film, unsettling interruptions in a work otherwise attune to the consequences people’s actions can have.

That small misstep aside, Sunrise is a gorgeous film, but its beauty transcends narrative. Cinematographers Charles Rocher and Karl Struss harvest dreamlike imagery from urban and rural terrains alike, imprinting the characters’ emotions onto the surrounding landscape. As the the farmer stumbles through marshland to make an illicit rendezvous with his lover, the image is overrun by heavy fog, the surrounding trees seem to hide unseen menaces, and the naked moon conjures up thoughts of werewolves and graveyards. Along with a sense of impending horror, which is confirmed when the idea of murder is introduced, his fear and guilt are made palpable through the visuals. Later in the scene, we see images of big city life cutting into the lovers’ fantasies, which are represented as split-screen mosaics of sound and light, hovering above the characters’ heads. So far, so innovative.

Equally magical is the music, which, orchestrated by Maurice Baron and scored by Erno Rapee, is by turns ominous, raucous, and gentle – it carries the desired mood of each moment to new heights of feeling. Sunrise being a silent film, one particularly nice musical touch involved substituting the wailing of a horn for a character’s anguished cries. Without diminishing the pathos of the scene, the striking instrumental furnishes the moment with an added layer of haunting poetry.

Then there is the scene in the film when, concluding their tour of the city, man and wife drift by boat across a lake. Moonlight shimmers on the water, and a raft passes by in the background, carrying dancers prancing around a raging bonfire. Watching this scene, I thought, “This moment is perfect.” Such thoughts tend to populate the mind when faced with the enchantments of Sunrise.

Grade: A

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