Never had a silent film struck so loud a chord as that which is made in Sunrise.
Directed by FW Murnau and released by Fox Films (before they merged with 20th Century Studios), this is one of the most impressive films of the silent era. If Citizen Kane showcased all the tools in the filmmaker’s box in the early sound era, this does the same for silent films.
The plot is deceptively simple. A Man, who lives on a farm with his wife, A Woman, and their son, A Child, meets a A Woman From the City (no one has names in this… really!). He has an affair with her, and she eventually convinces him to kill his wife so they can sell the farm and move to the City to live. She concocts for him a plan where he rows his wife out into the middle of the lake they live near and drowns her.
The Man agrees to this plan, but when the time comes, as he looms over his wife and she cowers in fear, he finds he can’t do it, and the two travel to the City together, where they are reminded of why they fell in love in the first place.
As said, the plot is somewhat simple, but the same cannot be said for the direction and the sets. Murnau, famed for movies such as Nosferatu and Faust was hired by William Fox to come to America and make four movies, of which this was the first (and probably the best, though 4 Devils was supposed to be sensational and is, alas, a lost movie).
Murnau, who was a major force in German film, brought to the studio all his gifts as a filmmaker. When you watch the movie look at the early trick photography that was used to create a split-screen view (they put tape on one side of the film, shot that image, and then put tape on the other side and shot that image to create a split-screen effect), or watch the way the camera follows the Man as he goes to meet the Woman From the City out near the lake.
Just as amazing are the sets; surreal and grand in their design. Look at the first view of the City, where you see an amazing street view, with impossible angles that can’t exist in real life. A lot of this was accomplished by having painted sets with normal adults in the foreground and midgets and children in the background to give an illusion of largeness.
To call it a silent film isn’t really even accurate. At this point Hollywood had began to experiment with early sound technology, and Sunrise actually had a soundtrack, though it was composed entirely of music and limited sound effects. It won’t blow away your sound system, but it adds a nice touch, particularly when a tune familiar to all begins to play. You won’t know it by name, but it’s called “Funeral March of the Marionettes”, and you’ve heard it before, trust me.
Sunrise was nominated for awards at the very first Academy Awards. It went home with Best Actress for Janet Gaynor (who later said had she realized how important the award would become, she would have enjoyed it more, rather than swooning over Douglas Fairbanks as he gave it to her), and an award for “Best Unique and Artistic Production”, which was never awarded to any other movie. For the curious a film called Wings took home Best Picture and is widely regarded as very inferior (and, along with Cavalcade, is one of only two Best Picture winners that are, bafflingly, not available on DVD in region 1).
The film is both easy and impossible to describe. It really needs to be witnessed for itself. Your local Blockbuster won’t have a copy, but the library probably does (though probably on VHS). The film was released a couple years ago on DVD as part of 20th Century Fox’s “Studio Classics” line. Sadly, though, they didn’t release it on its own; it can only be bought as part of a four-disc collection which you can buy by clicking here. On the plus side, last time I checked, the collection was only $16, and that’s a darn good price for four great movies, including Sunrise, Gentleman’s Agreement, How Green Was my Valley and the wonderful All About Eve. Not bad!
As for the director, F W Murnau, he died sadly at an early age in 1931 when the car he was riding in crashed. It was being driven by his fourteen-year-old driver/boy-toy, which brings to mind the old saying from a friend of mine, “Never let the jailbait drive.” Contrary to popular rumor, he did not die while giving the boy a blowjob. It’s a pity he died at all; I would’ve loved to seen what he could’ve done in the sound era. Still, with films like this, he left a fine legacy, and that’s no bad thing.