Sight & Sound List #5: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
I COULDN’T GIVE UP HOPE, I KNOW THE TIDES.
by Chad Perman
It’s so easy to forget that everyone has problems. And not just everyone you know, but every one, every single person who has ever lived, ever. We like to think of ourselves as precious little modern snowflakes, so very unique and novel, our lives as these singular, subjective things. But in doing so, we quickly lose sight of the fact that the essential things about this life—love, desire, suffering, pain—have been with us forever, carved into our hearts from the very beginning of things. And will be with us, no doubt, until the last fading lights and gasping breaths of the human race. Though we might manage to spin some kind of new variation on our current struggles, they are still always and at their root the same kind of problems human beings have been dealing with since we first managed to get ourselves upright and mobile. There is simply nothing new under the sun.
A film like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise reminds us of this, of what it’s like—and has always been like—to be a human being on this planet: to love and to lose something you love; to wander and to return; to mistake a situation for something it’s not; to make a stupid decision for a pretty woman; to find your way home again. In this way, Sunrise truly is a “Song of Two Humans”, a story of two people that could be any two people—even you, even me—living in any place, in any time, as Murnau notes right from the film’s start:
This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.
For wherever the sun rises and sets, in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.
- Prologue to Sunrise
We meet characters that are never given proper names, known instead only by their archetypes—The Man/Farmer, The Wife, The Woman From the City. We are given a plot as simplistic and understandable as a plot ever gets, a tale easily encapsulated in a single sentence: The Man is tempted to leave his plain Wife and domesticated life in order to run off with a seductive mistress.
Or, a bit more precisely: The Woman From the City enchants and intoxicates The Man, encourages him to kill his wife, make it look like an accident, and run away to The City with her to live happily ever after. The Man agrees. Sunrise cuts to the chase too—all of this happens in the film’s first ten minutes.
The Woman From the City: Tell me you are mine.
The Man: (nods)
The Woman From the City: Sell your farm and come with me to the city.
The Woman From the City:
And so The Man invites his wife for a night on the town, intending to drown her on the boat ride over. He feels haunted and guilty before they even leave, though still compelled to carry out the plan his mistress has concocted. The Wife, naive and excited for a night out, arranges for a friend to take care of their baby. The Man and The Wife set out in the boat together. But when the time comes to drown her, he can’t do it.
He gets all crazy-eyed and scary, moving ominously toward her, but loses his will (if he ever even had it to begin with), and instead rows the two of them furiously to shore. The Wife is appropriately spooked, though, and immediately runs away. The Man spends the rest of the film chasing her, trying to convince her he’s not dangerous, expressing his deep remorse, and realizing how much she truly means to him. He falls in love with her—and his life with her—all over again as they dance their way through the City at night, every gorgeous second captured with Murnau’s highly-stylized expressionism and intense artistry.
Even at the time, Sunrise was recognized as a masterpiece—recipient of the first (and only) Academy Award for “Unique and Artistic Production”—and in the ensuing decades since, its stature has only grown. After a thirty year lull in acclaim and recognition, Murnau’s greatest (and last surviving) film began to be championed once again in cinematic cirlcles, beginning in earnest in 1958, when the influential Cahiers du Cinema proclaimed it “the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema.”
These days, Sunrise is widely considered to be the best silent film ever made, as well as the highest of heights ever reached by legendary director F.W. Murnau, a brilliant and visionary German artist whose stylized, expressionistic productions and innovative camerawork brought him enough fame to ultimately cause Hollywood to go chasing after him. After the international and artistic success of his previous films (Nosferatu, Faust, and, most notably, The Last Laugh), Murnau was brought over from Germany by Fox Film Studios “to make an Expressionist film in Hollywood”. When all was said and done—the enormous sets built, the dazzling (at the time) camera work and special effects complete—Sunrise would be one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. And yet, at its core, it’s an overwhelmingly simple and heartfelt fable of a film that ultimately shows up on the screen. For all its expressionist and melodramatic tendencies, it’s actually a rather conservative love story that revolves around falling for your wife all over again.
Silent films, when viewed today, challenge just about every single notion of our current way of being. They seem almost designed to bore us out of our modern minds. In a world where one can sit and watch a movie on one panel of a computer while also drafting an email, talking online to someone in New York, deleting old files, and writing an essay on a very important film at the very last possible moment—all of which I may or may not be doing right this very second—a world where I can decide to read reviews of a film in the very same moment in which I’m watching it and wind up hopelessly lost in the wormhole of Wikipedia and random YouTube videos minutes later, only now half-watching the movie I initially sat down at the computer to see (which, to be fair, is Semi-Pro, and so still mostly understandable with 1/8th of one’s attention), in a world like that, silent films simply cannot flourish, because they demand something that none of us seems to have much of any more. And no, I’m not talking about ‘time’; we all have plenty of time, actually, and are often collectively kidding ourselves that we don’t, creating endless errands and distractions that we then manage to convince ourselves into believing are somehow actual and real demands on our time, which they’re not. So stop it. I’m calling us out on that.
No, what I’m talking about, what we simply don’t seem to have any more, what we’ve lost—and what silent films require—is the ability to pay attention, in a sustained and focused manner. In expanding our attention out into ever more infinite and fractured realms, we’ve lost our tunnel vision, our laser eye. We can’t do just one thing these days, not for more than a few minutes any way—and certainly not for 93.
And silent films, even the greatest among them (and Sunrise certainly sits on that top shelf), require just this type of attention, because they require us to enter into them. To slowly immerse ourselves in their flickering images, their particular cadence and rhythms, their structure; to lose ourselves entirely in this different kind of world, to the point where we don’t even notice the lack of spoken words, and instead find ourselves effortlessly understanding a whole new language of film, of art and entertainment. Make no mistake about it: silent films take work, but they also reward such work a hundred times over. It’s an investment worth making, because paying attention is always worth it. Losing the ability to do so, we run the risk of losing an entire art form, one that ceased to exist just a few short years after Sunrise first appeared. It’s not unimportant that The Jazz Singer, widely known as the first film “talkie”, was released only two weeks after Sunrise hit theaters. And while silent films continued to be made for a short while longer (Chaplin’s City Lights, another of the medium’s high points, was released in 1931), they ultimately gave way, forever, to words. Once we started talking, we couldn’t seem to shut up again, ever.
Thankfully, though, we still have Sunrise. A film made when silent movies were at the very top of their game, when Expressionistic artists like Murnau were actually given free reign—by Hollywood producers!—to follow their visions and paint with light. A reminder that good art is good art is good art, no matter the medium—and that good, true art always reminds us in some way of our simple humanity and our shared struggles through this ancient and infinite life.
Chad Perman is a writer living in Seattle. He is trying to learn to talk less, and pay more attention.
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