"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." - Opening Title Cards for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
Well it wasn’t entirely what I expected, but I can’t be sure if I liked it or not. Actually, given the opportunity to watch it again I probably wouldn’t. I think I have just been too conditioned to look for actual sound, so that the subtly of silent film escapes me and I find myself tapping my toes. There is sound, and actually if the movie hadn’t come out after The Jazz Singer, the public would have been a little more receptive. There are sound effects, and a score of music that runs all the way through. Amusing moments occur, however, like when a woman tries to whistle and all the audience sees is the pursing of her lips. And of course no one has any names in the movie. Why would they need them? No one is talking. It is surprising how little words are needed, though, to get the general point across. But I should backtrack.
This story takes place in a country village, separated from the Big Bad City by some sort of body of water. It is a happy village, until the camera pans to the vampy evil seductress, played by Margaret Livingston, from The City, who is having an affair with (and consummately corrupting with lust) a young farmer, played by George O’Brian. She convinces him to drown his wife and make it look like an accident so they can run away together to The City. His beautiful, sweet faced wife, played by Janet Gaynor, cries herself to sleep while clutching their child. The next day, looking dark and tortured, the man takes his wife on an outing on the water—side note: this man is almost constantly tortured looking. And he stomps a lot. And rends his hair. And chokes people. In case we missed the fact that he is tortured.
His wife, though happy at first at the thought of reconciliation, is horrified when she sees her husband standing over her with grim purpose in his eyes. He, in turn, is horrified at himself. They dock the boat and she runs from him into The City. After he chases her and apologizes, she eventually comes around. They watch a couple being married; the man realizes how far he has fallen and looks tortured in his wife’s arms.
The rest of the movie involves the couple about town as they get to know each other again and play in The City. In the boat ride home she falls asleep in his arms as he steers, the image of idyllic bliss. Until—CRASH! Lightening strikes! No, seriously. There’s a massive storm. The man frantically tries to get them home, but to no avail. He ties the bundle of floating reeds to his wife’s body, ironically the same reeds he was going to use earlier to save himself. They clutch each other in terror.
Once the storm settles, the man washes up on shore, sans wife. He immediately sets up a search, but all he can find is a shawl amongst some reeds. He stomps home rending his hair, not knowing that the evil woman-from-the-city has seen the search. Thinking she has won, she whistles for him outside his home, expecting a joyful assignation. He runs out to meet her, but instead begins to choke her in his rage. Before he can kill her, their housekeeper yells from the house. They’ve found the wife and she is alive. Abandoning the frivolous flapper, he rushes home to his wife’s side, while she lies in bed and looks up angelically at him, her blonde hair spread across her pillow like a halo. As the sun rises on a new day the couple kiss and are reconciled as the seductress leaves the village forever on the back of a cart, taking her lustful corruption with her.
As we know, this film won an Academy Award for best “Artistic Production.” Incidentally, Janet Gaynor, who I believe was the best part of this film, won for “Best Actress.” Sunrise also won “Best Cinematography,” and was nominated for “Best Art Direction.” The director, F. W. Murnau, was German, and a leading light in the German film movement of Expressionism. He was brought in by William Fox, of Fox studios, to make an Expressionist film in America. This means a film that uses art design for symbolic effect. Sunrise was not popular in the box office, in part because Janet Gaynor went blonde for the role, rather than her traditional brown locks. The other part was the advent of talking films in the form of The Jazz Singer only a month earlier; this movie would be the death knell for silent films. This was unfortunate for Murnau, as he had spent a fortune making the move, creating elaborate sets and music. His further attempts at films were greatly curtailed as a result. Since then, however, it is considered one of the best silent films ever made, and is now #82 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies.
While I don’t think I’m going to become a silent movie lover anytime soon, I do think there is something to be gained for watching one. Once. Let’s not overdo it. But without any dialogue, the viewer to forced to focus on the actions of the actors. Janet Gaynor is particularly good at this. She never has to say a word, and in fact, you hardly see her speak at all. Unlike George O’Brian, who conveys his grief by rending his hair and bugging out his eyes, Janet Gaynor conveys her emotions by simply fluttering her eyelashes or turning her head. You immediately connect with her, and can telling that the slow, methodical way she deals with the dishes is indicative of a broken heart. Any dialogue is unnecessary. She conveys emotion by the nuance of movement.
In the time we are in now, a film needs incredible special effects to catch our attention. I will admit myself that I have so many distractions in my life at one time that it takes something truly extraordinary to catch my interest. But I think subtly is valuable and we forget how much can be said with no words at all. We don’t need Janet Gaynor’s character to extrapolate on the effect of her husband’s infidelity; we can see it in the way her shoulders slump as she rests her head in her hands. The people don’t need names. This story is, as the title suggests, the story of two humans, and the trials of everyday life. I can appreciate the basic humanity it represents. Which is something I should keep in mind as I move into my next (and my last) silent film.
Stay tuned for the foodie portion…