An Appreciation – Sunrise
And while all the visual and special effects of the movie work exceptionally well, it doesn’t hinder the fact that what we take away is the love that is shared between The Man and The Wife. The main plot is as simple as can be, with The Woman From the City seducing the man into agreeing to drown his wife and run away with her. A nice touch that Murnau puts in is the title card in which The Woman From the City suggests that The Man drown his wife, with the letters on screen visually drowning away. With the temptation of The Woman From the City bearing on his mind, but the guilt of having to murder his wife torturing his soul, The Man feels such a heaviness that he can barely walk (it’s revealed on the DVD that Murnau had O’Brien put weights in his shoes to achieve such an effect). This all comes to a boiling point at the scene on the water, where The Man stands up in their rowboat and menacingly towers over The Wife. Fortunately, the good person inside of him doesn’t allow The Man to commit the crime, and, as a result, he becomes guilt-ridden for even thinking about such a heinous act. At this point, we can see that The Man truly cares about The Wife; but is it enough for them to stay together? Will she forgive him for what he was attempting to do?
I found it interesting that Murnau would give his characters no names, but descriptions. “The Man,” “The Wife,” “The Woman From the City.” None of the characters in the film are actually given a proper name, and with good reason. I like that with no names, these people are more representations than actual characters. An opening title card tells us that these are people we may see in our own lives—perhaps they mirror a piece of ourselves, as well. They represent everyday people who go through the trials and tribulations of love and marriage. Of course, many of those don’t involve a murder element, but certainly there are many people out there who debate whether or not they should leave their spouse for another person. Maybe they would be happier with someone else than with their own husband or wife. It’s a question that Murnau certainly has an answer for. When The Man decides not to go through with the plan, and instead the two spouses find themselves traveling out to the city, we’re clearly told that marriage and relationships are something worth trying to keep and fight for. The entire middle portion of the film involves them rekindling their love for one another. Throughout this sequence, we see them going out to eat, listen and dance to music, attend a wedding, go to the barbershop, and have their photograph taken. In a way, they are experiencing their second first date, finding what it was that brought them together in the beginning. The wedding scene is the turning point, when they finally remember how much they loved each other, so much so that they walk out hand in hand, staring at each other even while crossing a busy intersection.
Thinking about it, there really isn’t much that ties the events that happen in the city together with the enormous storm that marks the film’s climax. Upon returning home from their trip, The Man and The Wife run into a fierce storm that capsizes their boat and separates the two. It’s a little ironic that they would spend nearly the entirety of their story getting back with one another, only to be torn away not by another person, but by the forces of nature. But that sets up the final scene of the movie, in which everything is brought together in a moment of high sentiment and satisfaction. Some people may not like a happy ending to a film, but if one does it right, then it is just as fulfilling as any other alternative. Devastated that his wife has apparently been killed in the storm, The Man crumbles and weeps. The Woman From the City mistakenly believes that The Wife’s death was due to The Man accomplishing their initial goal, and when she encounters him, The Man is so angered that he almost ends up killing her instead. Luckily, The Wife eventually turns up alive, and with the final moments of the film showcasing their bond highlighted against the sun coming up over the horizon, Murnau completed a film that strongly argues for love and acceptance over temptation, seduction, and infidelity.
Sunrise would eventually be put in a unique place in cinema history. One of the very last silent films to made before the advent of sound, the film would use and perfect all the tools that silent films developed up until that time, only to be surpassed by the demand and popularity of the talkies. That would not take away from its importance, however, and in 1929 it would be awarded with three Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Best Cinematography, and Best Picture for Unique and Artistic Production (Wings (1927) would win Best Picture Production). I hope this is a film that modern audiences will discover—or return to—many times in the future. There are few movies that you can fall in love with upon first viewing, and this was one of them for me. It has everything you could ask for in a well-made love story, told in a creative and inspired way. I find it hard to believe that anyone could watch this old, black and white movie, and not enjoy it.