The story follows a rural man (George O'Brien) who, under the influence of an urban temptress (Margaret Livingston), plans to kill his wife (Janet 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 A Storm Is Coming...
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's National Film Registry (1989).
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.
- Big Bad: The Woman from the City is the closest thing the story has to a villain, and she was responsible for the man nearly drowning his 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.
- City Mouse: The Woman, with her tight dresses and heels, obviously doesn't fit in the rural village. And she knows it, which is why she wants the Man to come to the city with her.
- Comforting Comforter: The Wife does this for her husband. Later he does it for her on the boat trip back.
- Down on the Farm: Setting for the first part, contrasting with the latter portion when the couple goes to the City.
- Dramatic Slip: The wife, when running from her husband into the woods.
- 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. He slips his leash and tries to come along to protect her, but the Man takes him back before returning to the boat.
- Fascinating Eyebrow: The photographer raises his eyebrow fashionably when the couple leaves his studio.
- The Flapper: The Woman from the City is a combination of this and The Vamp.
- 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.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls: Played with. The church bells ring in a doom-y way as the man takes the wife out on what's supposed to be a fatal boat ride. But when they ring again, making higher notes, they help snap him out of it.
- 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.
- He Cleans Up Nicely: The Man starts off with a scruffy beard, unkempt hair, and a hunched animal-like posture. After he realizes his shortcomings, he gets cleaned up and starts standing up straighter.
- Heroic BSoD: When the Man thinks his wife has drowned, he goes into such a numb state of shock the other villagers have to lead him home. When he sees her empty bed, he breaks down in despair and begins to cry.
- Hostile Weather: Which nearly kills The Man and The Wife. Ironically, the bulrushes the Man planned to use to aid in his murder end up saving them both.
- Important Haircut: The Man gets a shave, getting rid of his scruffy beard, symbolic of being renewed and cleansing 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 is to make the wife's drowning look like an accident. The husband is supposed to save himself by using some bulrushes as a life raft, then scatter them on his way to shore to hide the evidence.
- Messy Pig: One gets loose from a carnival game and runs into a restaurant. The Man uses his farming skills to wrangle it when none of the city boys can manage it.
- The Mistress: The Woman from the City has already seduced the Man when the story begins. The Wife obviously knows something is up, but is unwilling to confront him.
- Mood Whiplash: Everywhere. The scene where the Man nearly 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.
- My God, What Have I Done?: The Man immediately realizes he doesn't have the kind of mental character to kill his wife, but it only truly hits him how far he's fallen when he witnesses the church wedding.
- 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.
- 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.
- Thunder Equals Downpour: One lightning bolt, cue torrential thunderstorm.
- Unstoppable Rage: When it seems that the Wife has drowned in the storm, the Man is stricken with grief, while the Woman from the City thinks everything has gone according to plan. She tries to get the Man to run away with her, pissing him off so badly he almost kills her before the Wife is found alive.
- The Vamp: The Woman from the City, who likes adultery and wants to graduate to murder.
- When It Rains, It Pours: On the way back home.