A swan song of two humans, a final pronouncement of love: one whose spirit is divided by the aching lure of modernity, and another whose devotion is drowned in the cold depths of despair. Amidst the angry breaking waves and shrouded moonlit rendezvous’, one man almost sacrifices his integrity for a brief respite from patriarchal routine, his thick hands that once tilled the fields of his lovely wife now weapons of her demise, until his senses return and they attempt to rediscover the ethereal spark that will once again ignite fiery passion.
F.W. Murnau’s mute homage to human nature is one of cinema’s crowning achievements, both in substance and style. His use of deep focus photography, detailed rear projection, and fantastic tracking shots were years ahead of their time, with modest set designs slightly skewed to impart a distorted perception and busy long shots establishing fragile humanity lost amid the steel and concrete jungle. SUNRISE was the template that imbued future directors with a melodramatic and creative vision, raising popular cinema above puerile standards and into the realm of artistic expression: though not the first to achieve this goal, it certainly was one of the best.
George O’Brien’s masculine pathos and Janet Gaynor’s angelic visage haunt the silver screen, reflecting desperation and adoration through the subtly of mirrored eyes while Margaret Livingston’s sultry femme fatale exudes an ominous sexuality. The nameless protagonist, his hunched shoulders revealing his murderous intentions like a monster stalking his prey, rejects temptation at the last possible moment while his frightened wife cowers at the stern of a tiny boat. Together they travel to the big city, the metaphor concerning our humanity reduced to clacking machinery and noxious fumes, the individual lost amid crowded scenarios, but together they find salvation.
Murnau’s sparse use of Title Cards allows the narrative to focus upon the characters and grandiose cinematography, communicating on a basic emotional level, uninterrupted by blank screens and intrusive text. The tempestuous story is also spiked with moments of tenderness and humor, such as the frenetic dance sequence and drunken pig chase to the slippery spaghetti straps barely concealing a woman’s bosom. Murnau’s classic is a shining accomplishment of silent cinema, a creation whose horizon has set the standard for contemporary filmmakers.
Final Grade: (A+)