A silent masterpiece, maybe thee silent masterpiece!
Titles By: H.H. Caldwell & Katherine Hilliker
Directed By: F.W. Murnau
I have found that it is always a good sign when you begin to beg and plead with the movie you are watching. Actually, I take that back, there are times when I beg and plead for the movie to show me mercy and spare me any more horribleness. But, in this instance I was begging and pleading with the film based on the story and the emotions it was eliciting from me. It has often been said that silent pictures were more about human emotion than any other factor, and Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans is a perfect example of that. Because for as well as it does everything, it is one of the most emotionally charged films I have ever seen.
Right off the bat F.W. Murnau toys with your emotions and your expectations. By making the first moments of the film about the suspense of the Man’s actions on the boat ride he toys expertly with the audience. You wonder what the Man will do, you fear for what he will do, if you are like me you beg and plead with him to not kill his wife. It’s a testimony to the skills of Murnau that he can draw that much emotion from the audience in such a short amount of time, especially when you consider that other directors can’t get a smidgen of that emotion after a full two hours of character building. By playing on your expectations of what will or won’t happen Murnau grabs the viewer by the throat and refuses to let go. The amount of emotion invested in that boat ride ensures that the ensuing city scenes are fulfilling.
It’s sad that to this day some critics, and fans, cry about movies needed to specifically define themselves. Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans was made in 1927 and it is nowhere near a genre definable movie. It is equal parts suspense thriller, romantic comedy, slapstick and moral drama. The tonal shift from the boat scenes to the city scenes is evidence, moreso than any other part of the film, that a movie doesn’t need to fit into one genre type. The shift could have been jarring, but Murnau takes the husband and wife on a journey of their own so that they don’t fall right back into love. They feel each others pain and reconcile based on that.
What follows in the city scenes is pure joy. No longer a movie that toys with your expectations, now Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans is exhilarating to watch. Funny moment after funny moment as they rediscover their love for each other, a trip to the city fair, a country style dance. The city section of Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans is nothing more than a blast of fun and a great payoff to the earlier tension.
Then we hear, or read in actuality, that the Woman thinks it would be romantic to ride the boat back under the moonlight. It’s back to yelling at the movie for me, because you know and I know that the boat ride isn’t going to end well. Murnau tosses some twists into the mix, making us doubt how the ride will play out. Maybe they will make it across safely, but wait, here comes a storm. Will she die during the storm and the husband will take the blame? Will she die and the husband will end up a shattered man because of the irony of it all? Wait, she has the bundle of bush, maybe the husband will die and she’ll survive? What seems like such a simple boat ride with an equally simple ending is made incredibly complex by Murnau.
The ride is over, the wife is dead, or so we are led to believe. Even as the movie is near its end Murnau has yet to stop messing with our expectations. With the Woman from the City back in the picture we fully expect some sort of reprisal form the husband or angered reaction from the neighborly folk. This time it looks like we will get our wish when the Man goes ape on his forlorn lover, but then Murnau tricks us for the last time. The Woman is alive and we are given a happy ending as the sunrise bathes the screen in a final glow.
As the above should illustrate, the story in Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans is very simple, but simplicity done right often yields deep complexity and that is the case with Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans. The tortured husband, the possible outcomes, the fun of the city, the irony of the final boat ride and the downbeat ending turned happy. Impeccable storytelling from the first reel to the last, playing on a variety of emotions.
That’s the story aspect of Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans and it’s important that it’s story is so strong because while it is a technically innovative film that isn’t enough for a great film that lasts the test of time. But, technically speaking Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans was a sign of what was to come with the movie industry. Gorgeous cinematography, excellent use of music and sound effects, brilliant effects such as the ghostly image of the Woman from the City playing on the fragile mental state of the Man. The title cards were even years ahead of their time, fading in and out, drowning off of the screen, playing into the story. But, the most impressive technical achievement in Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans was the movement of the camera. Right left, zoom in and out, the camera in Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans moved as it never had before, finally delivering a true motion picture.
There you have it, a review of Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans and I didn’t even get into the acting and how Janet Gaynor was excellent and the rest of the cast was great across the board. Even if silents aren’t your thing you need to make time for Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans. It’s in my top ten of all time, it is the best silent I’ve ever seen and far better than most talkies. If you are willing to give silent films only one more shot, make that shot count and see Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, you’ll thank me later.