directed by F.W. Murnau

commentary by Tony McRae

I've seen "Sunrise" many times, but not until I watched in on DVD and was able to examine it piecemeal did I notice something that brought me up short, one of those small discoveries that sometimes gets you to rethink your earlier conclusions.   After a harrowing trip across the lake during which the man came close to drowning his wife, the couple arrive in the city.  During the ensuing trolley ride into the city the man had tried to tell her he was truly sorrow, that she should not fear him.  But she is too overwhelmed by the experience and cringes from him, tries in fact to escape him by running across a busy street, nearly getting hit.  The man reaches her and gets her safely to the sidewalk.  Now the man has his arms around her, shielding her from the alien commotion and noise.  The wife, still in shock, refuses to look at him.

Now here's the shot I hadn't noticed before:  while on the sidewalk amid the pedestrians a lone woman passes.  She is on screen for only a blurry instant, but it is enough to remind the man (and the viewer) that he had planned to escape to the city with such a woman.  He looks after her with bitterness, a gaze not unlike his demeanor with the woman from the city earlier, when he seemed tortured, almost malevolent in his attitude toward her.     

At first I thought the man was simply protecting his wife, hoping she would feel his remorse.  But as I studied the short scene I realized there was more to it.  The passing woman bears enough resemblance to the woman from the city who had seduced him into nearly killing his wife that he sees her, if only for an instant, as the whore who nearly destroyed him and his family.  The man is truly terrified, afraid of himself, fearful of his desires.  He clings to his wife for his own protection.  No woman would get to him again.

(click on the hyperlink for the accompanying image)
The last time I screened Sunrise for college students they applauded when it was over, a rarity in this age of car chases and MTV editing.  How is it that a silent poetic melodrama can stir young people today?  Part of the answer lies in the film's structure which, on the surface at least, has a storybook flavor that subverts reality while, paradoxically,  getting to the essence of human emotion, much as Cocteau achieved with La Belle et la Bete.  

The central thrust of the movie is encompassed in the trip to the city, with The Man's intention to kill his Wife while on the lake, his abandonment of his plan, his genuine contrition, and his wife's final and complete forgiveness.  The story is told primarily in the faces and movements of the two principle characters.  For the first thirty minutes of the movie The Man never smiles, even when he is with The Woman from the City.  She can shimmy and cajole all she wants but his tortured and bewildered expression never leaves his face.  The wife, on the other hand, wears her feelings on her sleeve:  her sorrow, love, and fright are never far from the surface.  Once they are reconciled in the church, a great weight is lifted from them both as they rediscover each other.  

is the story of a farmer and his long-suffering wife  whose marriage is about to come apart.  The Man (George O'Brien) is being seduced by a vacationing Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) who convinces him that he must free himself from his Wife (Janet Gaynor) by drowning her in the lake.  With this in mind, The Man suggests to his wife that they take a trip from their small farm across the water to the city.   While the trip itself does not take up much screen time (approximately 7 minutes each way), Murnau infuses it with all the qualities of a epic, transformative journey.  

  • The preparation:  While the wife frolics with her baby and gets out her best dress for the trip, the husband recalls his murderous plans and pictures how he will toss her into the water.

  • The start:  After they pull out from shore their dog breaks his chain and jumps into the lake to follow them, as if warning the wife of the peril that awaits her.  The husband must bring him back to land.

  • The trip:  Returning to the boat he rows with head down, shoulders hunched, never making eye contact with his wife who does everything she can to coax him out of his mood.  About half-way across the lake the husband puts up the oars and stands, his arms at his side in the manner of Frankenstein's monster.  The look on his face is unmistakably threatening.  The woman soon realizes his intent as he moves toward her.  She pulls back, the clasps her hands in a pleading gesture.  Cut to a close-up of his hands now in front of him, his fingers curled.  The camera pans upward along his body as he raises those hands, and instead of seizing her he throws his arms over his face.  At that moment a church bell tolls.  Abruptly he sits, grabs the oars and with all the force in his body rows them to shore.

  • The landing:  As soon as he ties up the boat and turns to help her, she bolts past him and runs up the hill toward the trolley station that will take her to the city and away from her husband.  But he catches up and boards the trolley as it's pulling away.  

  • The trolley ride:  She huddles against the window, head averted from him and he stands over her, clearly not able to do anything.  The trolley's journey is uneventful, the only action is the conductor asking the man for the fares.  While the woman stares down and the man looks dumbly at her, we see the passing scenery:  the lake they had just crossed, the woodlands and hills, the outskirts of the city, a lone cyclist, factories and other building of any big city, and finally the city center with its frenetic pace.  At any other time the wife and husband would have looked on these sights with eager anticipation, but now she sees nothing and he sees only her.

  • The arrival:  he steps down and waits for her, holds in hand out to assist her down the steps.  As she gets to the top of the steps he says, "Don't be afraid of Me!"  But she brushes past him and rushes out into the traffic, nearly getting hit any number of times.  He reaches her in the middle of the busy street, manages to get them both to the other side.  She is still dazed; he holds her protectively and looks about as though they are under siege. The great irony of course is that now his one concern is her safety, and he will protect her at any cost.

We might think the husband's change of heart and subsequently the wife's forgiveness occur too quickly, but Murnau handles the scenes in the restaurant, in the hallway, and especially in the church during a wedding ceremony, with such delicacy and subtly that we readily accept the couple's transformation.  The husband's reaction to the minister's words might be called stock silent film acting, except that George O'Brian's face is so deeply and plainly sorrowful.  As he throws himself onto his wife's lap he earns her ultimate forgiveness.   It helps to have Janet Gaynor's luminous and expressive face which seemed to have been created especially for the silent cinema.  

The journey is the film's central metaphor and links country and city.  The apparent contrariety of farm life and city life (poverty/riches, stasis/movement, boredom/excitement, safety/danger) is turned on its head once the husband and wife rediscover one another.  More often than not it is The Wife who initiates their adventures; after seeing wedding pictures in a photographer's window, for example, she insists they have their picture taken.  She co-opts the city, if you will, uses it to strengthen her ties with The Husband.  

Murnau's fluid camera and complex filmic devices (arresting dissolves, expressive lighting, innovative superimpositions, etc.) not only play on our emotions but demonstrate, perhaps more than any other film, the continually complex rhythms of human relations, just as the film's subtitle "A Song of Two Humans" suggests.  

I have asked my students why this film doesn't seem dated, why they "buy into" Murnau's seemingly corny melodrama.  Is it the triumph perhaps of good over evil?  Their answers tend to ignore my questions' implications:  "I didn't want to ask ask questions, only watch what was happening."  "The movie just grabbed me and took me along with it."  "After a few minutes I didn't even realize they weren't speaking."


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