Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau) ****

Director: FW Murnau

Cast: George O' Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

Background: FW Murnau had already made a name for himself with his German films Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, and Faust. He caught the attention of William Fox, head of the Fox Film Corporation, who invited him to Hollywood and gave Murnau complete creative freedom to make whatever movie he wanted. Murnau decided to adapt a German novel (The Excursion to Tilsit) and the result was Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans.

The Story: A married man (O' Brien) is cheating on his wife (Gaynor) with a woman from the city (Livingston). The woman wants him to move to the city with her, and conceives a plan for him to kill his wife by drowning her. The man can't go through with it, but the wife is now afraid and runs away from him. He follows her to the city, where they spend the rest of their day as he tries to get her to forgive him.

Thoughts: It's not hard to see why this is considered one of the greatest films ever made. Murnau's ability to tell a story without using extensive title cards is very impressive (he previously made the Last Laugh without a single title card). The film really comes alive once they hit the city. The city is portrayed very energetically. For example, I love the shots where the couple crosses the street seemingly unaware of the cars speeding by them. There's also some unexpected comic relief. A sequence where the man chases down a drunk pig would feel right at home in a Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd film. Gaynor's performance is particularly remarkable. She portrays the wife as a lonely and then frightened woman who is rejuvenated by her husband's newfound love for her. I did find the ending to be a bit curious. The jarring juxtaposition of the final two scenes suggests that Murnau was going for something darker than most people have attributed. This is still a great film, whatever the intent of the ending.

Postscript: Sunrise was the 12th highest grossing film of the year, and went on three awards at the very first Oscar ceremony (Best Artistic Production, Best Actress, Best Cinematography). It appeared on Sight and Sound's 2002 top 10 list of greatest films ever made, and the updated 2007 AFI list of 100 Greatest Films at #82.

Murnau would only make three more films, none of them reaching the same acclaim as this one. Janey Gaynor continued to be very successful over the next decade, with her most notable performance coming in 1937's A Star is Born. George O'Brien kept acting through the 50's, but was never a notable star.

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