Some films become instant classics. Others are not so lucky. 'As cold as the marble a sculptor uses', 'the sort of picture that fools highbrows into hollering Art', 'there is a not a heart-throb in Sunrise,' 'Mr Murnau's film is more than technically competent but woefully ignorant of matters of the heart.' There were good reviews too, more for it's ambitious technique than it's other merits, but Sunrise was generally regarded as a disappointment on its first release. It was quickly overshadowed at the box-office by Janet Gaynor's following film for Frank Borzage, Seventh Heaven and left a shadow over F.W. Murnau's Hollywood career, only finding an audience many years after his death and assuming its position as one of the great achievements of silent cinema many years after his death.
In many ways, Sunrise is the last great masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema. The cast and the studio may have been American, but those behind the camera were almost exclusively German (cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, who many years later would delve deeper into film noir with Detour, was one of the assistant art directors), having a notable effect on the look and feel of the film. There is little in contemporary American cinema to compare with it save King Vidor's less experimental but emotionally similar The Crowd.
At the time, Murnau was the hottest of the German Expressionist filmmakers, due to the international success of Nosferatu and, in particular, The Last Laugh. He was eventually wooed to Hollywood by William Fox, who put all the resources of his studio at his disposal. Surrounding himself with his favourite collaborators, most notably cinematographer Karl Struss and screenwriter Carl Mayer, he built massive sets and constantly reshot scenes in his quest for perfection. Expectations were high, and were bound to be disappointed.
Many felt the story, based on Herman Sudermann's novel The Journey to Tilsit, too slight: a farmer (George O'Brien) is persuaded by a woman from the city to drown his wife and run off to the city with her, but finds himself unable to do it and falls back in love with his wife (Janet Gaynor), only for her to fall overboard in a storm. Indeed, it has often been argued - especially by some the films admirers - that the plot is merely an excuse for Murnau's visual experimentation, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Both characters and narrative have an unpatronising simplicity that is completely involving. Set against the contrasting worlds of the country and the city, the design is striking only in that the film is almost entirely studio shot: both the city and the funfair were in fact false forced perspective sets, as was the swamp. There is certainly a real sense of a world existing beyond the requirements of the plot, but Murnau uses them to ensure his total control of all the elements and does not linger on them unduly, keeping the focus firmly on the characters throughout, never giving in to spectacle purely for spectacle's sake.
Murnau's use of the camera is truly remarkable, with a look and composition that remains unique to this day, but his visual approach is in the service of the emotions, building a cumulative effect that has few parallels. The husband's shadow appearing at the window to signal to his mistress or the camera following the woman's footprints in the mud, even the shadows of the trees against the white farmhouse wall in daylight create an oppressive atmosphere in the first third that adds to the joy and despair that follow. Yet, where one of the key criticisms of the expressionists has always been their relentless pessimism, Murnau belies this with the sheer fun of the central city sequence. There's a lot of humour in the film, be it George O'Brien chasing a drunken piglet in a ballroom, Arthur Housman's lech putting moves on Gaynor in the barbershop or Eddie Boland repeatedly rearranging the strap's of a woman's dress.
As what was intended as a murder becomes a second honeymoon, the film does not give in to cheap sentiment but instead has a real feeling for the everyday, simple pleasures. When the couple respond to the barbershop manager's entreaty to 'Come again soon' by inviting him to visit them someday, the film does not condescend to either party. He takes it as much of a compliment as they intended it. Indeed, considering its early appearance as a motive for murder, everyone they meet in the city is remarkably benign as if the city were bringing them back together to make a liar of the woman of the city and her motives.
The film is filled with ambitious visual effects: images of a bright shining city of light and motion are conjured up out of a swamp in stark contrast to the funereal atmosphere of his farm; a ghostly image of the woman is superimposed over the tormented farmer as he makes up his mind to kill his wife; and when crossing a city street with his wife, it fades away to reveal an idyllic countryside that is only shattered when they realise that their passionate embrace is literally stopping the traffic. Yet the most powerful effects are the emotional ones.
The primary problem with any romance has always been the language. How to convey the growing closeness between two people which transcends the limitations of the dialogue? Murnau simply dispenses with it altogether and just gives us pure, undiluted emotions in action.
There are surprisingly few titles, those there are resonating throughout the film, often being repeated to bracket key shots. The film is a fundamentally visual experience. We don't need to hear or know what O'Brien and Gaynor are saying - we feel it through the way they respond to each other, the way the distance and mistrust is gradually, painfully lessened as they move back together. Even in their cathartic moments in their reconciliation - his inability to kill her and his breakdown in the church when they watch a wedding - more than just the mere essentials are expressed through body language. Their actions and reactions speak far more eloquently than any dialogue ever could.
O'Brien's performance is predominately insular for much of the film, a man withdrawn into himself both physically and mentally, his reactions veering towards (but only at the end giving way to) violence, his posture almost simian as his humanity has been sapped away. With Gaynor the transformation is one from hope to realisation, but with O'Brien it is much more dramatic, almost a complete rebirth as he rediscovers his passion for his wife and for life itself. There's a real sense of, almost childlike, joy to him in the funfair sequence that makes you understand why Gaynor held on to him so long after the bad times came.
But the film belongs to Gaynor in a stunning performance that is one of the miracles of the silent cinema, indeed is one of the most remarkable pieces of screen acting in film history. She understands how to work to the camera, but is never 'working' it. It isn't a display of technique but an embodiment of the heart, remarkably natural and unaffected but very affecting: you don't merely observe her feelings, you share them.
Witness the expectation and disappointment in her face as O'Brien ties up the dog that has followed them into the boat. Her look conveys the memories, joys and disappointments of an entire marriage in a few seconds. Or the way that while he cannot stand to look at her, avoiding all eye contact, she tries to playfully move into his line of vision, only for the smile to fade tragically from her face. Later, when they are reconciled, as she watches him in the barbershop, the way she worries what his response will be to an attractive young manicurist is a delight to watch.
At first, their performances are stylistically at odds, as with the early scene crosscutting his wife's joy at what she thinks is reconciliation with his torment over her forthcoming murder, but it's not a selfish performance on Gaynor's part. As the film progresses, she seems to be willing the life back into him, so that when she is lost in the storm there is a real feeling that it is not only her life that has been lost but his as well.
Much has been made of the almost musical construction of his films, and it is very much a symphony in three movements: the opening section on the farm, the idyllic episode in the city, and the storm sequence and it's aftermath. But, if anything, Sunrise is ultimately a journey towards the light. The narrative begins in darkness and an oppressive mood of emotional frustration and, while the director had reputedly at one time planned a darker ending, it ends with a resurrection and the birth of a new day sweeping away the shadows of the old. In most films this would seem a cliche. Here it provides a fitting end to one of the most profoundly emotional experiences in all cinema.
Eureka's all-region BluRay offers a fine selection of extras to compliment the film too - not only all the extras from Fox's Region 1 DVD (outtakes from the film, choice of alternate soundtracks, audio commentary by cinematographer John Bailey and a documentary on Murnau's lost followup, Four Devils) but also the fairly recently rediscovered shorter alternate Czech version of the film!