Sunrise is considered by many to be one of the greatest silent films of all time. Take out the word “silent” from that last sentence, and you get a more accurate picture of my own feeling on the matter. The story is simple, almost fable-like, as we see a farmer tempted to leave his wife for a “more exciting” woman from the city. An American film, directed by the German F.W. Murnau, Sunrise takes us on this journey with the help of Murnau’s expertise as one of the leading filmmakers of his day. There are three formal elements that stand out for me in Sunrise.
Murnau carefully frames each shot in the film to communicate a maximum of information visually. The economy of each scene is remarkable. The early scenes in Sunrise illustrate this best, both in editing and camera movement. After the travel montage that opens the film, Murnau settles on a boatload of people traveling to a vacation community. It is a sunny day, and the people act as if they know it. Crowds gather to meet the incoming boat, people chatter with excitement, a man climbs the fence to greet friends, and Murnau caps the joyous moment with a sweeping crane shot that captures the charming village at its height – filled with people and hope.
After a brief title card, Murnau introduces us to The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), who, in contrast to the other vacationers, dwells in a dark room, by candlelight, and most importantly, alone. Other cues signal our suspicion of her – the way she lights her cigarette at the candle, her half-open robe, her stockings (which Murnau shoots at leg level, making sure we notice them), and the way she makes the old woman polish her shoes.
It is in this scene, when The Woman enters the dining room, that Murnau includes the strangest shot of the entire film. He tilts the camera slightly to the right, with a lamp in the extreme foreground. The old couple eats their soup together at what appears to be a crooked table in the middle of the shot. Finally, the background hides a doorway though which The Woman eventually enters the dining room. The lamp and the crooked table get our attention here, as if to say “Do you see what’s going on here? All is not well.” And after we have had a moment to take in those more obvious elements, the shot answers its own question by producing The Woman through the doorway. She is on her way out, alone of course, in striking contrast to the old couple at the table.
Once outside, Murnau follows her down the village lane with a long tracking shot, beginning at the doorway, with another couple in the extreme foreground. She walks past a second doorway, this time filled with three women, as well as a window filled with smiling people inside a warm home. And in a laugh inducing moment, she even passes a man with his horse. Everyone has someone, it seems. Yet The Woman doesn’t seem to be bothered, either with the scorn of the people she passes or in the fact that she’s alone, and we soon find out why. She knows lonely soul – The Man (George O’Brien). Murnau shoots him almost entirely alone, and for the brief moment his Wife (Janet Gaynor) enters the room, they are faced away from one another. The loneliness in these early scenes is overwhelming, particularly in contrast to the chipper opening.
Murnau also communicates a great deal through his sets. In those early scenes, the stark distinctions between light and darkness, the placement of fences, walls, and doorways all seem to be significant. Note the doorway mentioned above. Also, when The Woman approaches The Man’s house, she encounters a fence and a curtained window, the final battlements to scale before she wins her prize. She has already borne the scorn of the onlooking neighbors as she stalked through the village. She simply whistles, allowing the wind to carry her message to her waiting lover. The Woman simply then need wait a few short moments to receive the object of her affection. At this moment, Murnau uses the curtained window to great effect, showing The Man’s shadow pointing The Woman to their regular meeting place. There’s a foreboding in the image that signals the dark conversation to come.
Likewise, the lamp in the home of The Man and Wife seems almost as if it is fighting off the darkness, much like the candle in The Woman’s room. The darkness in these places points to the moral treachery that is about to take place, as well as the loneliness of these people and the oppression they must all feel as no one seems to have what they want. Contrast that with the great dining/dancing hall later in the film, filled with lights, giant glass walls, and crowds of people everywhere. At that point, the Man and Wife are a part of this world, a world we caught a glimpse of at the beginning of the film with the sunny vacationers. The couple has moved from loneliness, treachery, and despair to joy, peace, and happiness.
Finally, Murnau’s evocative use of sound presents the ringing church bells in varied ways from one scene to the next. When the couple leaves on the boat, the bells ring a sort of warning, maybe of an impending judgment. This happens right on the heels of the dog’s incessant barking and swim toward the boat which adds to the foreboding sense. During the boat ride, just as The Man is going to commit an act of violence, those bells ring again, this time evoking a kind of conviction – he has done wrong and he knows it. He can’t get away from the sound of those bells fast enough. Finally, the bells ring at the city wedding, just as the Man and Wife are repairing their relationship. In this case, the bells become a symbol of joy and hope. They call the couple into the church, where they watch the wedding from afar and no doubt recall their own vows. They are transformed, a new couple, rebuilding a broken trust and recommitted to loving one another. Murnau, then finally shows us the bells that so often ring in our ears, calling out just as this important act of forgiveness and reconciliation takes place.
Sunrise is a beautiful film for a number of reasons, not the least of which are these (and other) formal elements that provide a richness for the presentation too often lacking in other films of its kind or genre. Sunrise has these in abundance, a testament to the genius of such an important filmmaker.