Full title: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
. A 1927 film directed by F. W. Murnau
. It was his first American film and won two Oscars at the first Academy Award
ceremony: Best Cinematography and Best Artistic Quality of Production (an alternate Best Picture award that existed only that year). It is perhaps best known for its massive critical acclaim (even over 80 years later) and for either inventing or perfecting many of the camera, special effects and storytelling techniques we take for granted now.
The story follows a rural man (George O'Brien) who, under the influence of an urban temptress (Margaret Livingston), plans to kill his wife (Gaynor) by pushing her out of a boat. He can't go through with it, though: the couple continue their boat ride to The City
, where they reconcile and have a day's worth of innocent adventures.
But when they begin to row home, a storm rises, the boat sinks, and the man believes his wife to be dead.
The temptress approaches the man again, but this time he rejects her; he is about to strangle her when villagers arrive with news of his wife's survival. He abandons his erstwhile mistress and returns to his wife. The film ends with them together, watching the sun rise.Sunrise
is considered a stylistic masterpiece and is the Ur Example
, Trope Maker
or Trope Codifier
of many now-common camera and special effects techniques like Epic Tracking Shot
and Forced Perspective
. Its lyrical camera movement and minimal use of intertitles are typical of Murnau, and German Expressionist
influence shows in the oversized sets of the amusement park where much of the film takes place and in the juxtaposition of outdoorsy tactile details with soundstage artificiality in the village scenes. But the setting is not disturbing in itself, as it is in many German Expressionist films (the fractured brainscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
, the cold machine-world of Metropolis
, the corrupt antiquation of Murnau's own Nosferatu
). Instead, it functions as an unobtrusive, archetypal backdrop for what is in essence a modern fable.
Janet Gaynor won the first ever Academy Award
for Best Actress for this film, as well as 7th Heaven
and Street Angel
(at that first ceremony, the acting awards were given for one's body of work during the year).
The film was selected for preservation in the inaugural year of the Library of Congress' National Film Registry
This film provides examples of:
- Amusement Park: The man and wife go to one after reconciling.
- Betty and Veronica: The scheming, evil Woman from the City and the sweet, nurturing Wife.
- Chekhov's Boomerang: The bulrushes, gathered up to be the Man's life preserver, first save his life, then the Wife's.
- Chroma Key: What looks at first like an egregiously bad green-screen effect of the Man and Wife walking across a city street, is revealed to be deliberate when the effect changes to the Man and Wife walking through a beautiful field of flowers, suggesting how they're tuning out the world as they renew their love for each other.
- The City: The Woman is from there, and the Man and Wife renew their love there.
- Comforting Comforter: The Wife does this for her husband. Later he does it for her on the boat trip back.
- Dramatic Slip: The wife, when running from her husband into the woods.
- Down on the Farm: Setting for the first part, contrasting with the latter portion when the couple goes to the City.
- Easily Forgiven: Your husband said he was sorry. Check. He said he was really, really sorry. Check. But you know, he did almost murder you, and that was after he cheated on you and sold off much of your farm.
- Epic Tracking Shot: Not by modern standards, maybe, but the way the camera follows the Man as he walks through the swamp to meet the Woman was very innovative for 1928 Hollywood.
- Evil-Detecting Dog: When the Man takes the Wife out on the lake, their dog knows something is up.
- Fascinating Eyebrow: The photographer raises his eye brow fashionably when the couple leaves his studio.
- Forced Perspective: Used for much of the movie to make the sets both in the village and in the city look bigger than they really were.
- Fun With Intertitles: When the Woman asks the Man "Couldn't she be drowned?", the titles melt and fall to the bottom of the screen.
- Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: If we hadn't already figured out that the Woman From The City was bad after finding out she's breaking up the Man's marriage, or after seeing her plot the murder of the Wife, that cigarette she keeps puffing on would do it.
- Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: The angelic, loving Wife has blonde hair—this is definitely an artistic choice, as Gaynor was a natural brunette.
- Heavy Sleeper: The Wife falls asleep on the way back and doesn't wake up when the wind picks up and a storm rolls over the boat. It takes a clap of thunder to bring her around. In fairness, the film does show that she's a little bit drunk after their night out in the City.
- Important Haircut: The Man gets a shave, getting rid of his scruffy beard, symbolic of being renewed and cleaning himself.
- Kubrick Stare: The husband puts this face on right before he gets up to drown his wife.
- Letting Her Hair Down: The Wife in the last scene.
- Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: The Woman from The City is the Dark Feminine (hedonist, cheater, brunette), while The Wife is the Light Feminine (good all the way through, blonde).
- Make It Look Like an Accident: The plan was to make the wife's drowning look like an accident.
- Messy Pig: One gets loose at a restaurant.
- The Mistress: The Woman From The City.
- Mood Whiplash: Everywhere. The scene where the Man tries to murder his Wife is pretty scary. After that the narrative is tragic for a while, then it morphs into something like a country-bumpkin-in-the-city comedy, then it's quite romantic and sweet as the Man and the Wife sail home under the moon, and then the storm happens...
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Averted at the last moment.
- Nameless Narrative: The archetypal characters are known only as The Man, The Wife, and The Woman from the City.
- One Head Taller: Gaynor didn't even get to O'Brien's collarbone level. This makes the scene where he looms over her in the boat particularly effective.
- Short Title: Long, Elaborate Subtitle: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
- Silence Is Golden: While, yes, its a "silent" film, the movie actually has very little dialogue and very few intertitles. Most character interactions are through facial expressions and body motions.
- "Silent film" is in quotes here because the only thing that makes it a silent film is its lack of spoken dialogue: Sunrise was the first film to use the experimental Fox Movietone system, making it the first motion picture have its sound track printed on film. Aside from the score being present, there's even some early use of sound effects during a scene where the Man and Wife are standing in the middle of an intersection (that scene also features some wordless grumbles, making Sunrise one of the earliest films with some form of recorded human noise).
- Thunder Equals Downpour: One lightning bolt, cue torrential thunderstorm.
- The Vamp: The Woman from the City, who likes adultery and wants to graduate to murder.
- Wedding Day: The Man and Wife stumble upon a wedding in the City, leading to their reconciliation.
- When It Rains, It Pours: On the way back home.