In 1927, the same year that introduced sound films, F.W. Murnau showed the world the full potential of silent cinema. Sunrise, with its innovative techniques and imaginative style, is visual storytelling at its most pure. That Murnau would die in a car accident just three years later is one of the great tragedies of film history.
- Director: F.W. Murnau
- Writer: Carl Mayer, Hermann Sudermann, Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell
- Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
A married farmer (George O’Brien) is seduced by a visiting woman (Margaret Livingston) from the city and goes as far as plotting the murder of his own wife (Janet Gaynor). He and his wife are said to have once been like children, “always carefree, always happy.” Tempted by a new woman, the farmer’s thoughts threaten to become actions.
Sunrise is an example of perfect filmmaking. F.W. Murnau demonstrates the full potential of silent cinema by pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling. With great tracking shots, crane shots, double-exposure frames with complimentary imagery, the perfect use of rack focus, title-cards with dissolving lettering, and the depth of field within each frame, it is not surprising that Sunrise is considered by some to be the Citizen Kane of American silent cinema. Each shot, whether executed for emotional effect or to maximize suspense, feels precise. Consider the scenes where the farmer is shown dealing with his conscience. Each shot is long enough to make us feel his internal struggle, but not a second longer. Consider also the sequence where the farmer takes his wife out to the lake on a boat. As he contemplates murder, Murnau cuts between a dog sensing danger and the action on the boat. As the dog becomes increasingly restless and breaks free, the suspense grabs you with a death grip.
Aside from featuring a masterful control of various storytelling techniques, Sunrise maintains much of its appeal due to its simple and universal story. In fact, every character is intentionally unnamed, making each character universally appealing and open to interpretations. Beyond technical excellency, Murnau showcases his artistic talent from beginning to end. Drawing from his days as a filmmaker in Germany, Murnau was well-versed in Expressionistic set-design. Not surprisingly, Sunrise provides a wide range of sophisticated sets, including a breathtaking storm sequence that feels convincing even by today’s standards. The cinematography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss adds life to each frame. To create mood and a sense of environment, Murnau arranges each frame with near-tangible foregrounds and various details such as fog, shadows, lighting and ominous sky backdrops.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
We are fortunate that the destruction of the original print in 1937 was replaced by a new negative created from a surviving print. Mr. Ebert, I consider myself indebted to you for making me aware of this film and to William Fox for having the good sense for recognizing Murnau’s talents and making possible this classic Hollywood film. This is a film to be praised on many levels, and your review is rightfully one of the most extensive among all your reviews. You provide great insight by pointing out that “the camera’s freedom to move is taken for granted in these days of the Steadicam, the lightweight digital camera, and even special effects that reproduce camera movement.” To provide historical perspective, you remind us that when the first Academy Awards were held, the top prize was shared: Wings won for “best production,” and Sunrise won for “best unique and artistic picture.” Made almost 90 years ago, Sunrise is timeless. For the rest of mankind’s existence, and as long as storytelling remains something that we value, it will remain great.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Sunrise? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Long Goodbye
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise this week, he now has 299 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.