Active Ingredients: Emotional story; Exciting visual style; Janet Gaynor
Side Effects: Chase scene
F.W. Murnau’s great romantic masterpiece Sunrise exhibits a humble and gentle understanding of the agony and ecstasy of life rare for a film of its era or any era. The film achieves its goal of creating a moving and unflinching parable of life and uses an equally beautiful and ambitious visual style to tell its story. In fact, the film won an Oscar for Most Unique and Artistic Production, an award given only once, at the Academy’s first ceremony.
Murnau, known for the ornate visual style of his German Expressionist works such as Nosferatu, brought his artistic eye to Hollywood for Sunrise. Through startlingly-advanced and fluid camera movements and evocative superimposed images, he creates a lyrical, graceful world that’s the equal of the film’s allegorical scope.
The story concerns a simple farmer and his wife, prototypes of man and woman. The farmer is bewitched by a conniving city woman, who convinces him to murder his wife. As the moment approaches, however, he discovers himself unable to commit the deed. Over the course of a day he rediscovers his love for his wife, but he must pay for his betrayal.
The emotions on display (broad, as they often are in silent film) are always believable and represented with great nuance and understanding by Murnau and his actors, especially Janet Gaynor. Time has eroded none of Sunrise’s power. It’s a rare work of art that’s poignant, vital and sublime, both in conception and execution.