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Sunrise (1927)
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by Jay Seaver

"A classic that's even more impressive than it first appears."
5 stars

F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" has an odd-sounding subtitle ("A Song of Two Humans") which marks it as being decidedly from another era, and watching it confirms that feeling. It's from early enough in the history of cinema that its story is iconic rather than generic, but also comes from late enough in the silent era that its technique has been impressively refined. List-makers often call it "great" or "essential", and it's hard to argue with those categorizations.

During the summer, city folk often come down to the country for a vacation, and one woman (Margaret Livingston) has stayed longer than most. It's not so much for the fresh air, though; she's carrying on an affair with a handsome farmer (George O'Brien), who has sold much of his stock and put himself in hock to money-lenders for her. She wants him to come back to the city, but what, he asks, of his wife (Janet Gaynor)? Well, the woman asks, couldn't she possibly drown? A plan is hatched, but the man is not the murderous type, and soon finds himself literally and figuratively pursuing his wife anew.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Sunrise is that the story arguably reaches its emotional climax right around the midway point: Once the man and his wife have observed the young couple's wedding, it is clear that the most important journeys have ended and questions resolved, and it's not long until a perfect fade-to-credits scene appears; you could end the movie right there and it would be perfect, if short. And yet, Murnau and company keep going - in fact, most of the film's most memorable scenes happen after that scene, in complete defiance of conventional structure. It's a testament to the work of all involved that the second half of the film is not just an extended bit of wheel-spinning, but a frequently-delightful portrait of young love rediscovered that is beautiful in its own right. The movie is almost inside-out, and yet it works well enough that the audience either doesn't notice its unorthodox shape at all or wonders why movies have become so formalized.

Or, I suppose, they chalk it up to Murnau being a genius, which is fair as well. This was his first film in Hollywood after much success in Germany (perhaps most notably for unauthorized-but-still-best-ever Dracula adaptation Nosferatu), and it's a fairly intriguing blend of the two styles. The opening rural scenes seem old-world with more than a hint of German Expressionist style - including some frankly amazing multiple-exposure effects shots - while the second half of the movie is fast-paced and realistic in appearance even while being quite busy; very American. The connection between them seems odd in the twenty-first century - did city streetcars really go that far out into the suburbs in the 1920s? - but if anything, that only helps the movie; it makes the characters' journey out of their regular lives a little more metaphorical as well as literal.

The cast is pretty good, for characters meant to be somewhat non-specific (silent characters often aren't given names, but this one goes out of the way to refer to "The Man" and "The Wife"). It's especially impressive how O'Brien and Gaynor seem to blossom as the movie goes on; they initially seem melodramatic, especially since they're frequently in scenes either alone or with secondary characters, but when they get to spend a fair amount of time playing against each other, legitimate chemistry quickly develops between them. Margaret Livingston gets the job done as the interloper, self-centered without becoming a cartoon villain.

The soundtrack on this particular print (which ran about 95 minutes) was a bit odd, with a fairly nondescript score as well as occasional sound effects, including voices at one point. The print itself looked fairly nice, a relatively recent restoration that does not show many signs of having lived inside a computer aside from a little bit of text tacked onto the beginning.

"Sunrise' is one of the great and memorable silent movies first and foremost because it's simply a well-done romance; it certainly doesn't take any special knowledge to watch and enjoy. Looking at its combination of German and Hollywood DNA and unusual story structure just makes it more interesting.

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originally posted: 05/26/12 11:24:07
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User Comments

7/21/12 Sean Harrison This movie is a classic of the era with great camera work. 5 stars
5/28/12 Thank you TCM Oh George O' beautiful. 4 stars
11/18/09 Charles Tatum Odd tone, but so entertaining; Murnau gone too soon 4 stars
10/15/08 The Talking Elbow The melodrama works because the story is really touching 5 stars
1/26/08 proper amateur film critic Textbook of silent film techniques and brilliant B&W cinematography 5 stars
3/30/07 fools♫gold O, that infinitely old marriage drama. 5 stars
10/14/04 Andrew Schied 1920s melodrama, but magical camera effects make it special 4 stars
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  23-Sep-1927 (PG)


  23-Sep-1927 (PG)

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