A Silent era masterpiece for A&F Nominations.
There is little doubt that Sunrise is one of the greatest films of all-time. In 1929, the first year of the Academy Awards, Murnau's silent drama was awarded for "Unique and Artistic Production," the only time that award has been granted, regardless of the film itself being a box office failure. The National Film Registry of the US Library of Congress has chosen the film for preservation, and both the American and British Film Institutes have placed it on lists that recognize the greatest films in the history of cinema.
A few years back, it was a hard one to track down. I remember purchasing a DVD copy on eBay, for around $30 in 2003, and sending it on tour to my cinephilic friends so they could enjoy it, too. Now, in the age of Instant Viewing and more readily available classics, film geeks find it available through Netflix.
Its plot, based on the story 'The Excursion to Tilsit' by Hermann Sudermann, is simple enough, even generic in its summary: The Man (George O'Brien) has an adulterous affair with a Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston), who convinces him to drown The Wife (Janet Gaynor), sell their farmhouse property, and move to the city to be with her. At the mention of drowning his bride, The Man nearly strangles The Woman at first, but even as he strangles her, his lust regains control -- he falls into her embrace and is soon enough agreeing with her proposition.
Somewhere inside The Man is a decent, faithful husband, who is now struggling between two emotional extremes. Sunrise is surely a film about an abundance of issues, an adulterous affair being its first target, but it is also about a man coming to senses with himself, coming to terms with his own inherent goodness. It is about recognizing your own faults, your own sin, and reconciling with yourself, and hoping to find good standing with the ones you have betrayed and let down.
This was Murnau's first film in America. He was brought to the states in 1926 by William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation in Hollywood. He was widely known before Sunrise as one of the key directors in German Expressionism, with films like Nosferatu and The Last Laugh catching global attention.
Expressionism is well-known for embracing the fantastic, and somewhat a rejection of realism. Think of the cinematography, outrageous acting and over-the-top nature of something like Edward Scissorhands, which is a direct allusion to these German films. But what is fascinating about a film like Sunrise is that while there is melodrama in the acting, and while it's undoubtedly expressionist in its lighting, set design and roving cinematography, even 85 years later the story comes across as a quite realistic, real enough to transcend space and time while being seen.
I think the reason for this is because of the nature of the relationships between The Man, The Wife, and the Woman From the City. This is the never ending stuff of life, these inner impulses and struggles of the heart which will always be present, no matter when a story is told. And what's interesting about a film like Sunrise is that it hails back to an earlier time in cinematic history, sure -- but through the sheer power of its camera's presence from that time we find comfort and mourning in the same elemental struggles.
We are human. We desire to love. We desire to be loved back. We screw it up along the way, and we don't always know how to love right. Even after we screw up, the desire for love remains inside us. And that is a desire that is timeless.
Sunrise is surely a technological achievement, a modern-era wonder, quite recognized as a superior product from silent cinema. But it remains on best-of lists even decades after sound and color because of the heartbeat and the values at its core. There is a pulse that continues to linger, no matter the era in which it is seen, for it is alive, fully human, with a heart made of flesh and not stone.