Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans came out in 1927 a couple of weeks before The Jazz Singer ushered in the sound era (based on the release dates in IMDb). In fact, Sunrise was released in big cities with a soundtrack with music and sound effects using the Movietone system, while smaller towns that did not yet have the sound equipment would have used live music. Either way there was no recorded dialog and only a small number of intertitle cards, so the story is told primarily visually.

Despite the title, the story is really about three people in a classic love triangle. They do not have names, but in the credits are simply called The Man, The Wife, and The Woman from the City. But to me, the story isn’t what sets this film apart.

What does stand out is the visual style that director F.W. Murnau uses. The camera moves fluidly. The sets are impressive (especially the city). The mood is like a dream. It is definitely worth seeing if you have any interest in silent films.

I saw the film at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell, CA. Stephen Salmons (the founder of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival) was there for the question and answer session after the movie. Here are a few things I wrote down:

  • The film was made in both sound and silent versions. What we saw (and heard) was with the original Movietone soundtrack, on a print straight from Fox.
  • The negative does not exist so the image is not as sharp as it was originally.
  • Some of the original frame was lost due to differences in film shapes. [I didn’t entirely follow this or 100% believe him. The bottom of some title cards was cut off.]
  • The style is German impressionistic, with a moving camera. Salmons compared it to opera.
  • Murnau didn’t like intertitle cards (his The Last Laugh didn’t have any at all), so there are not many here, and some of those were probably added by the studio.
  • Children and dwarfs were used on the city set because it was made in perspective, so it was much smaller than it looks.
  • They probably did not really get the pig drunk.
  • Murnau said to actors: “don’t act; think.”
  • Sunrise was made in the U.S.
  • Murnau went back to Germany briefly, then returned to make a couple of Hollywood films. He died shortly after making Tabu in Polynesia.
  • The film was a flop at the box office, though it did win 3 Oscars.
  • Murnau intended it as a fable and not to be realistic. Gaynor‘s blond wig was meant to show purity.
  • 80-90% of silent movies are lost.

Seen 6/10/2007. I will not attempt to assign a rating to it.

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