In 1927, F.W. Murnau released Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a silent film that lives up to its name, makes you question love, and forces giggles at drunken piglets (not in that order). It is the third film by Murnau that I have seen and it is clear to me that he honed his craft through his years. The theme of Sunrise was a pleasant surprise as the two other films, Faust and Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, are both horror films.
In Sunrise, George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor play a couple with love on the rocks. After a joyous prelude of marriage, their relationship hits a snag and O’Brien falls in love with another woman who convinces him to murder his wife and move to the big city to be her husband. Based on that description, it would be clear that Murnau was behind the film. The suspense grows more and more tense as Gaynor and O’Brien leave on a boat ride date with nefarious intentions. Gaynor barely gets away with her life and O’Brien realizes his error and seeks her out to make up for his actions.
Sunrise is an award-winning feature that leaves the viewer with a heart full of redemption, a feeling that is common with many Hollywood films that would follow it. Janet Gaynor took home the first-ever Academy Award for an actress in a leading role; as well, the film won Best Cinematography and Best Unique and Artistic Production (which is a unique award itself, as it was awarded just one time). A note on the cinematography: the film is gorgeous. I know that I have said this several dozen times with these films, and Sunrise does not stand out in comparison – it just continues to amaze me when I watch a film that is eighty-eight years old with a picture quality that could be shot today.
Sunrise, and The General (which I will be watching again soon), really highlight how much time and effort we put into the preservation of early films and how important looking back on the history of a medium can be. Listen to any modern director, especially Martin Scorsese, and you will hear people rattle off the films, and directors, that populate this list as inspirations (including some others that deserve to be listed here, but that’s another story). The ability to revisit these films, and in a sense, the times, is a wonderful mirror into our past.
Oh, and the drunk piglet… At one point, you will laugh yourself silly when George O’Brien has to chase a drunk pig. No other explanation should be required.