If cinema is meant to provoke an immediate, visceral reaction from its audiences, then the attainment of "movie magic" must surely be the greatest achievement a film can reach. Largely, but not always, antithetical to the rise of the subdued, minimal dramas that almost exclusively bring home Oscar gold now, "movie magic" requires grandeur and imagination; when someone snidely derides a fantasy for being "unrealistic," they are actively attacking the greatest facet of film, that it can take us to places that do not, can not, exist. A handful of directors can reliably tap into this elusive current: Terry Gilliam with his twisted fables, John Ford with his epic Westerns, Spielberg with his escapist fantasies. All could move into worlds entirely unlike our own, while maintaining an emotional intimacy that allows audiences to effortlessly slip into the films, to explore these auteur's elaborate creations and to feel the emotions of the characters and surroundings, even if that can be attributed to manipulation on the filmmakers' part.
No other film comes close, however, to attaining the level of pure magic as F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Released in cinema's first major crossroads -- the death of silent film in favor of the talkies -- it taps into the indefinable allure of cinematic sensuality. So universal is its story that the characters are named merely after what they are (The Man, The Wife). (Remember that all the early Beatles tunes, the ones that made them kings of the world, were written with first- and second-person pronouns, allowing anyone to place themselves in the lyrics). As with the magical films of Ford, Gilliam and Spielberg, Sunrise contains a darker element; after all, German ex-pat Murnau found a job in Hollywood when William Fox hired him to make one of his expressionistic pictures for American audiences. Magic needs a hint of evil though, as it is, of course, one of the dark arts.
The action of Sunrise rests on The Man (George O'Brien), a farmer who neglects his Wife (Janet Gaynor) in favor of the seductive Woman From The City (Margaret Livingston), a dark-haired vixen who beckons the Man from his home with a whistle, and he sneaks out of the house just before his Wife returns with dinner and drops her head sadly, acutely aware of where her husband has gone. As the two illicit lovers embrace and kiss on the shore of a lake, the Woman suggests that The Man kill his wife and sell his farm to move to the city with her. "Couldn't she get...drowned?" she whispers into his ear, and the final word in the intertitle begins to wave and sink as if water.
Normally I separate the plot and my interpretation and my comments upon the style of the film, not simply to tackle one thing at a time but because I'm completely unschooled on the technical aspects of filmmaking, largely unable to express my thoughts on direction in terms outside its emotional impact on me and how well I feel it serves the story; the chief benefit of this technical ignorance is the greater ease with which I can jump between discussing the story and direction through the link of personal effectiveness. With Sunrise, however, even this slight degree of separation conflicts with any proper interpretation the film, as no other film has so fluidly combined its style and content, above even such visually propulsive gems as Last Year at Marienbad and Persona.
Consider that early scene where The Man heads to the lake to meet his lover: in a time when the camera still remained static, Murnau, with the aid of cinematographers Charles Rusher and Karl Strauss, employs a complicated tracking shot that would have proved difficult for a filmmaker to accomplish decades later. The camera moves over hilly terrain, following The Man as he climbs over fences and stomps through muddy fields without ever breaking its perfectly horizontal movement. In his commentary track, cinematographer John Bailey describes in detail how Murnau and his crew rigged the shot to allow the camera to move so perfectly over such rough terrain, but what's more important than how it was accomplished is the effect. This was a time when the film camera had only just begun to move, before the advent of the talkies would require ludicrous contraptions built around the cameras to insulate the sound they made that inhibited movement before filmmakers could fully explore the growing possibilities of visual technique; as if to prove what a mistake Hollywood and the general public were making by so wholly falling for what was still too unrefined to be called anything but a fad, the camera in Sunrise, "officially" considered the send-off of the silent era, does not move so much as float, zooming and tracking in ways that are exciting today, to say nothing of the awe they must have inspired in those who watched it upon its release.
The Man initially refuses The Woman's offer -- violently so; he briefly strangles her -- but pauses and agrees, and the two look across the lake and imagine their future life together in the city on the other side, the sky suddenly melting into a vision of city life. The fast-paced montage is terrifying, an image of unbridled avarice choked with the damned bounding across the screen (which is split to allow two circles of Hell to be shown at once), the greatest depiction of pure, mass lust since the erotic dance in Lang's Metropolis. It's just sensual enough to be tempting, but it's unsettling in its mélange of warped carnival attractions and inhuman movement.
After returning home, The Man plans the murder, collecting a bundle of reeds that he can use for flotation after he throttles his wife and capsizes the boat to make it look like an accident. The Wife does not bother to ask where he's been, knowing the answer anyway and hoping that her silence might bring out affection. Indeed, The Man pauses when he looks upon her and his eyes dart fearfully to the reeds, weighing the full impact of what he's considering, but a specter of The Woman fades behind him, gently caressing him until he makes up his mind and tells his wife that they're going on a little trip.
For all of Murnau's jaw-dropping technique, one of the most fascinating aspects of Sunrise's visual acumen is the lack of close-ups in situations that would normally call for them in post-Griffith and -Eisentein silent film: Murnau leaves Gaynor in a long shot when she returns to an empty dinner table at the beginning, capturing her anguish without pressing up to her nose. On the boat, when The Man stops and rises to kill her, Murnau uses some close-ups but inserts shots from behind O'Brien to watch him lumber forward like Frankenstein's monster (Murnau weighted O'Brien's shoes to enhance the effect).
In another film, this would be the climax, but Murnau uses the attempted murder as the end of the first act. The Man advances toward The Wife until his shadow covers her, and then he stops, ashamed of himself. Embarrassed and full of self-loathing, he drops down back in his seat and continues rowing to the other side of the lake. The Wife, naturally runs until she reaches the city, and The Man chases her. We see then why Murnau and writer Carl Meyer structured the story this way: Sunrise is not about whether a man murders his wife but whether that couple can rekindle their relationship. By reaching the climax in the first 20 minutes, Murnau gives himself enough time to pull the protagonist out of such an appalling tailspin to the point that his wife can forgive him without rushing the story into unbelievability.
The two uneasily make their way through the city, The Wife still afraid of her genuflecting, profusely apologizing husband; only when they find themselves in a chapel watching a wedding do they reconcile. As the couple leaves the chapel, they wade into the city, unconcerned with anything but each other, and the area around the changes into a gorgeous meadow where they stand and kiss...until all the people who just slammed on their brakes to avoid hitting these lovesick fools start blaring their horns. I dare you to find me a more romantic, effervescent moment in the history of the cinema. The set Murnau commissioned for the city street reportedly cost Fox over $200,000, and they reused it in other productions to get their money's worth. Luckily for them, it could match an array of genres at atmospheres; Murnau himself casts two entirely separate moods with it. The frenzy of the city life around the recommitted couple is warm and joyous, as if The Man and The Wife were the ones who'd just exchanged vows and the entire city acted as their reception. Compare the ecstasy of the romp of the second act with the hedonistic orgy of The Man's lustful vision at the beginning; cut these two scenes and show them, out of context, to a random viewer and they'd believe they were watching clips from two movies.
Never flagging once are O'Brien and Gaynor. O'Brien's initial ennui gives way to brooding, which in turn becomes terrifying rage; yet his transformation into a charming, loving husband seems perfectly natural. Check out his goofy smile when he poses with The Wife for a photo at one of those tacky amusement park booths that can take on a poetic timelessness when two lovebirds ask for a picture; the cameraman jovially informs The Man that his lady is "the sweetest wife I've seen all year," and O'Brien beams a smile that could shame Tom Cruise. At a barbershop, he demonstrates his new dedication by vociferously refusing a manicure from an attractive woman simply trying to do her job. Gaynor, who won the Oscar for Best Actress (though in a time when actors were rewarded for all the work they'd done that year instead of a specific performance), is heartbreaking as The Wife: we can feel every drop of agony in her relationship, and we can only look on in horror as she reacts to The Man's ominous proclamation that they're going on a trip with pure glee, desperate for the chance to spend some time with her husband. I've never reacted to silent characters the way I have to these two, including Chaplin's Tramp: we're so attuned to their emotional wavelengths that it's as much a relief to us when they reconcile and find rejuvenated happiness in each other as it is to them.
Greatly aiding their emotional connection to the audience is Murnau, who at all times wrangles his mastery of expressionism into a story that expresses joy, not terror. Fans will remember that the director made The Last Laugh entirely without title cards, but there are scarcely any here, either, which allows us to place ourselves in the situations, imagining our own conversations from the acting and framing. There is actually some sound, though; the first major feature to utilize the Movietone system, Sunrise contains sounds of church bells, trains and car horns, all used symbolically but also, perhaps, to jolt the audience a bit (Lord knows I still jump occasionally when a sound effect chimes in). The original mono score, by Hugo Riesenfeld, matches the feeling perfectly: not simply fluffy and romantic, Riesenfeld's score is ethereal and occasionally haunting, appropriate for the noir-ish fable Sunrise is. Perhaps the greatest aspect of Murnau's direction, however, is his use of overlapping images, half-dissolved into each other, that brilliantly communicate the character's thoughts, such as the image of the lake laid over The Man as he contemplates murdering his wife.
The last section of the film offers a form of punishment for The Man, as, returning from their bliss in the city, he and The Wife run into a vicious storm on the lake that capsizes their boat and separates the two. Convinced his wife drowned, a perverse wish now fulfilled, he collapses in grief, leaping from his home when The Woman arrives, believing him to have killed her. The Man chokes The Woman until he hears someone announce that The Wife is alive, and he rushes to her bed, leaving The Woman to make her way back to the city in ignominy as The Man and The Wife gently kiss, the image of the two fading into one last dissolve that shows the sun rising.
"The motion picture camera," wrote Todd Ludy in an appreciation of the film, "for so long tethered by sheer bulk and naivete -- had with Sunrise finally learned to fly." Indeed, the great joy of Murnau's masterpiece is its freedom, a floating beauty that permitted it to connect viscerally and purely with the characters, as well as take leave of the story at times for intriguing asides. Note the appearances of animals in the film, especially the family dog that runs after The Man and The Wife as they set sail on their dark voyage. Is the dog just a friendly dope, running after its masters because it wants to go on a ride too, or does it sense what The Man is planning to do? An amusing bit at a dance party following the couple's reconciliation shows a woman whose dress strap keeps falling off her shoulder as a man sheepishly returns it to its proper place; it falls one too many times, though, and the man yanks the other one down in exasperation, causing the woman to slap him. Makes you wonder if there isn't some commentary on the relationships between men and women in there.
Sunrise essentially closed the book on silent film, much the same way Touch of Evil ended the initial run of film noir: there were silents afterward (including two masterpieces from Chaplin as well as Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc), but it's such a stylistic summary and apotheosis of what came before it that it simply must be viewed as a turning point. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is the greatest piece of romantic (in both senses of the word) enticement ever committed to celluloid. If there was any doubt that this film belonged in my personal list of the 10 greatest films ever made, they've been blasted away, incinerated by the blazing majesty of its final shot and the boundless ecstasy of pure cinema.
A note: The home video copy I used for this review was the Region-Free Blu-Ray put out by the Eureka! (the British equivalent of Criterion) as the flagship title of their Masters of Cinema series on Blu-Ray. The results were simply stunning: this film is 82 years old, and though some lines and scratches remain and will always remain, the picture quality is unbelievable, especially in a newly discovered alternate print of the film intended for Czech audiences. Sadly, that version is cut significantly (73 minutes to the Movietone 94-minute cut), but there are even less damages on it, and at times it looks like a well-preserved film made decades later. Both versions are eye-opening (you can make out the shine on a shoe), and this Blu-Ray has made me an instant fan for Eureka (I'll be receiving their BD of Tokyo Sonata later in the week, which I'm greatly looking forward to).