Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (1927)

Directed by F.W. Murnau

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Sunrise is a heartwarming story of young love in a busy city.  It’s playful and beautiful, told with an elegance and sense of humor.  Sure the man was about to drown his wife in a lake so that he could run away with another woman, but see he didn’t, and then he realized he loved her.

So this is a complete melodrama, but it certainly works.  It’s actually quite easy to forget about the absurd attempted murder because when it happens we don’t really know any of the characters involved.  There’s a young woman tempting a man away from his wife and child, they share a single embrace under a full moon, she tells him to drown his wife, he tries to and then doesn’t.  It all happens pretty quickly, before the characters have any opportunity to transcend the melodrama and their characterizations.

His wife, understandably petrified, runs away and hops on a train that takes her out of their small lakeside village and to the big city.  He follows her, desperate to win her back, and it’s in that process that we learn about the two of them.

Okay we never learn all that much.  The characters don’t even have names, and this being a silent film they never say anything, nor are there many titles to suggest what they might be saying.  Instead they are man and woman, and their love is universal, or meant to be.

He follows her into a church, they witness a marriage (framed beautifully with light slicing through the stained glass windows), and as the priest marries them, the man grows emotional and despondent and begs forgiveness.  Right then and there his wife offers it to him, and they then run around the city like kids in love, taking advantage of everything that presents itself to them, kind of like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

That it is so engaging and even entertaining has to do with the technical accomplishments of the film.  The camera moves in ways unlike in so many films from that time period.  Where often there were static compositions giving way to more static compositions, this time around the camera glides like in an Alfonso Cuaron film.  It isn’t exactly showy but it is rather modern, and if it feels modern now, then it surely felt magical back then.

There is also an impressive, immersive, dreamlike use of dissolves and double exposures.  In one moment the characters share a loving embrace while walking through the city, which then dissolves into a forrest which then dissolves back into the city, ending with stopped traffic honking with irritation at the blindly in love couple.

The background slowly fades from one location to the next while the man and wife remain in constant embrace, as if they’ve forgotten how to let go of each other.

In another moment they walk through a dangerously busy street, with cars zooming this way and that, as if they are Jesus walking on water.  As cars zoom quickly past them in the background or between them and the camera, they walk with a confidence that nothing can touch, let alone cripple, them.  You can see, of course, the rough edges of the objects behind and in front of them, like cardboard cutouts sewn to the frame, calling attention to the artifice of the visual effect, but it works nevertheless.  In it’s own way, as is often the case with certain old special effects, it works because of the visible seams.  You have a sense of how difficult it must’ve been to accomplish.

The story is much more like a dream than a film, due in part to the imagery and the lack of dialogue, but also because so much of it has to do with a single story beat: the married couple falls back in love.

There is the drama at the beginning, and when a storm interrupts their honeymoon there will be drama and suspense in the end, but so much of the film drips with the surreal, joyous qualities of a pleasant dream, wherein conflict doesn’t exist.

Up Next: Transit (2018), Midsommar (2019), Red River (1948)

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