F. W. Murnau's masterpiece Sunrise (1927) is subtitled, "A Song of Two Humans" and begins with an prefacing announcement about this being a song that can be heard anywhere at anytime. With its deliberately vague setting and nameless characters, Sunrise does have a timeless feel. Yet, it is any thing but common place. How many boy meets girl stories do you know that have three attempted strangulations and a drunken pig for comic relief?
The plot surrounds the Man (George O'Brien) his Wife (Janet Gaynor) and the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). After a particularly steamy tryst in a swamp with his lover, the Man decides to try to murder his Wife, A Place in the Sun style, by pushing her out of a boat. O'Brien moves like Frankenstein's monster, as he sets about trapping his trusting wife. In an excrutiating sequence the family dog catches on that something is wrong and attempts to foil the plot. The suspense and sense of doom build as O'Brien trudges slowly about his evil business. The Wife for her part is not only the victim of the worst wig in history but she isn't that bright either. It takes her a really long time to suspect that her husband is up to no good at which point her only defense is to plead for her life, pathetically. Luckily, it works and The Man breaks the spell of the Woman from the City, which is represented visually by her figure being superimposed over his at various time.
The Wife flees from her husband but finds herself stranded in the big evil city and slowly begins to forgive him. The couple wander into a random wedding and the husband has an extremely poignant realization of his own failure to live up to his vows. He drops to his knees sobbing begging his wife to forgive him. While the sequence is visually stunning and moving, I couldn't help but feel a little bad for the couple who are actually supposed to be getting married in the church. Who are these people to suddenly show up and have their massive melodrama? Well, they are the stars in a German Expressionist Silent Film Masterpiece so you're just gonna have to cut 'em some slack.
After their reconciliation the next half hour plays like a slightly surreal romantic comedy, with the couple enjoying the pleasures of the city, Ferris Beuller's Day Off style, including their adventure with the afore-mentioned pig. It's amazing that Murnau pulls off this childlike and light-hearted feeling for so long given the darkness of what comes before and after. The film ends after a spectacular reversal with the couple nearly drowning in a storm. When the sun rises again, they are reunited and the Woman from the City is high-tailing it home.
Sunrise was released at the same time as The Jazz Singer, and was largely over-shadowed by the first "talkie." Sunrise also represents a technical breakthrough, as it was the first film that had a synchronized sound track, recorded to play along with the film. Instead of dialog, the story is told through images with very few intertitles. The soundtrack is comepletely unlike anything I've ever heard. The music is orchestral, but varied and uses overlapping tracks and "effects" such as a french horn that sounds like a human voice crying out. It is too bad that The Jazz Singer could not have waited a few more months to come out. Sunrise represents the end and in many ways, the high-water mark of the silent era.
Author of three books about classic film stars published under the name "Jenny Curtis," Jenny is equally well-known in the world of classic movie geekdom as "Nipper." If you've ever seen Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth, you may remember "Jerry the Nipper" on which the nom de blog is an obvious pun. If you haven't seen those movies quit reading this dang blog already and start watching some movies.
Deborah has graciously agreed to assist with copy editing at Cinema OCD. No longer will my readers have to suffer with incorrect use of the word "its." Deborah is a freelance writer and author of Other People's Children.