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Bucket List Movie #445: Sunrise (1927)

Updated on June 12, 2014
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F.W. Murnau
F.W. Murnau | Source

Sometimes I like going against the grain. Sometimes I like getting on my soapbox and caterwauling to anyone who cares to listen about how I dislike something that's generally beloved by everyone else. For instance, I will always think that Lost in Translation was a snooze-fest about a couple of navel-gazing, narcissistic bores who don't realize how good they have it. I love and admire Orson Welles, but I greatly prefer Touch of Evil to Citizen Kane. And don't get me started on how much I hate Jane Eyre.

But other times, it gives me pause when an acclaimed classic fails to move me. I have to wonder how much of it is the film itself, and how much is me. Am I too ignorant? Unimaginative? Insensitive? Tainted by modern sensibilities? I know I'm getting over-analytical, but I try to watch movies with a mindset that borders on tabula rasa. Other than knowing the plot of today's film, 1927's Sunrise, I watched it with an open mind. I will say that there is no denying the absolutely gorgeous, innovative direction, editing, and cinematography. Sunrise was directed by F.W. Murnau, who is most famous for directing what is possibly the greatest vampire film ever, Nosferatu. I recommend Nosferatu for two reasons: one, because Max Schreck's vampire is creepy and repulsive (no sparkles, thanks very much), and two, because it'll prepare you to better appreciate one of the greatest "what if" fantasy films ever, 2000's Shadow of the Vampire.

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The story of Sunrise is simple: our protagonists, called only the Man (George O'Brien) and the Wife (Janet Gaynor) live on a farm. Their once happy marriage is being destroyed by the Man's trysts with the Lady from the City (Margaret Livingston). The Wife, poor thing, knows what's going on, and is powerless to stop it. The Lady one day suggests the Man drown his Wife (the title cards reading "couldn't she get drowned?" waver and sink, a very memorable effect) so they can run off together. The Man, due to being either weak or pure evil (or both), agrees. He takes the Wife out for a rowboat ride, which she accepts with such childlike joy our hearts break for her. Even their faithful German Shepherd senses danger (a nod to Rin Tin Tin?), and tries to come along. The Wife's good cheer fades to nervousness and suspicion. In one glorious scene, Gaynor predates modern actors by showing, with just her eyes, her character's inner turmoil and doubts. The time comes, the man stands over his wife, prepared to capsize the boat and let her drown, and… he doesn't go through with it. The Wife is understandably shaken, but eventually forgives him.

So what was my beef with Sunrise? Well, the story could have been a compelling one… the problem is that the central conflict I just mentioned is resolved within the first half hour. That's right, something that could have been (or should have been) the climax is wrapped up in the first half hour. We have an hour until the movie's over. Sooooo... where do we go from here?

After begging her forgiveness by following her around and buying her flowers, the Man is forgiven by the Wife, all in the same day. Wow. I almost have to applaud her. I hold a grudge against people who spoil TV show finales for me, but she forgave her husband for trying to off her within the very hour he did it! We get lighthearted scenes involving a trip to the beauty parlor, a visit to a photographer, and a jaunt at the fair, where they dance and chase a cute little pig that gets drunk. Maybe I should have thinking about how sweet all this love and forgiveness was, my thoughts read more like,

Hey, remember when he cheated on his wife and then tried to kill her?!?!




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See, many people dislike silent films for a myriad of reasons, not just because "they're silent". My biggest issue with most silent films is there is minimal story and an inordinate amount of padding. Not all silent films are guilty of this, mind you; Metropolis, for instance, has a solid story from beginning to end. City Lights has a seemingly simple plot, but even the wackier, more slapstick moments contribute not only the main story (the Little Tramp's quest to help the blind flower girl), but the central theme of the film (how the poor are treated by society). But many silent film plots tend to be as follows: a definite beginning, a kinda-sorta end, a mishmash of scenes for the middle.

That's what bothered me about Sunrise: the Man is absolved his infidelity and his plot to kill his wife so hastily and so early on that there's no more story to tell. The very fact that the Man is a philandering bastard who agreed to try to drown his wife, not unlike Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, really casts a pall on everything else that follows. I'm not saying that he couldn't redeem himself, but, admit it, don't you wish he could have done more to earn forgiveness than buy flowers, shave, and take his wife to some silly fair? Make him grovel, honey, you're more than entitled!

The final scene takes place during a violent rainstorm (that still holds up today), where it seems that an O.Henry-like dramatic twist is being set up as the Man appears to have lost the Wife in the storm. Was this the theme all along? That you should always appreciate your loved ones (and, you know, not try to murder them) since they will one day be taken from you by circumstances that will always be beyond your control? If you're curious, read on.



WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD


The Wife lives.

The Man thinks his wife is dead, and even tries to strangle the Lady in a rage (choke yourself first, dude), but it turns out the Wife is alive! Yup! She lived! So the Lady leaves without complaint, and the Man and the Wife live happily ever after, his previous infidelity and attempted murder not hovering over their lives in any way! Consequences? Pssh! What are those? Kill, f***, marry, am I right?!

The. Hell.

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But what do I know? Sunrise is a beloved classic of world cinema, and swept the very first Academy Awards ceremony. It has been lovingly preserved through the years and even received a blu-ray release.

Tiresome Trivia of the Day: Janet Gaynor not only won the very first Best Actress Oscar, but, until Marlee Matlin's win in 1987, she was the youngest Best Actress winner at age 22. As of this posting, she is the third youngest winner.

Did I miss something? Am I too rigid in my expectations? I wanted to love Sunrise, if only because it is so innovative in its cinematography. Murnau has always been praised for his use of light and shadow, and it is praise well-deserved. The night scenes are absolutely stunning, with Murnau favoring shots of moonlight on the water (I'm a sucker for these, too, for they always look so ethereal, especially in black and white). He also uses many cross fades in the title cards to show the action they're describing, then return to the text. Murnau puts the popular, ghostly, double exposure effect to remarkable use, such as when the Man is fantasizing about the Lady caressing him. Interestingly, there are many audible voices and sounds on the soundtrack, despite this being a silent film, which lends an earthiness to Sunrise's mood piece feel.

So Sunrise is a winner in technical effects, but I just couldn't bring myself to like the story. Check it out for yourself, and maybe you'll discover what I might have missed.

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