The exquisitely made “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” the 1927 silent movie masterpiece, not only hits every visual superlative, but also provides a resounding emotional impact that stays with the viewer forever. It’s a dark and richly conceived melodrama with superb acting by George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, spectacular outdoor photography and magnificent sets that evoke a dream effect with their expressionistic plainness and dramatic lighting. Director F. W. Murnau brings a simple story into high relief with sparkling visual effects, effective pacing and ingenious editing. Sunrise is one of those films that artistically and technologically advances cinema.
The characters don’t have names in this film, which adds to their iconic quality. Janet Gaynor plays “The Wife,” a trusting woman who suffers quietly about her husband’s indiscretions with “The Woman From the City,” played by Margaret Livingston. “The Man,” (O’Brien) hardly conceals his obvious affair with the city woman and the everyone in the lake vacation village where he lives gossips about their arrangement. The city woman wants The Man to come with her to the city, and proposes that he murder his wife. She plots with The Man to take The Wife on a boat trip to the city and drown her in the lake before they arrive. The Man agrees with the plan but immediately feels the guilt and shame of his decision.
We see The Man trudging deliberately back to his wife, his mind heavy with his homicidal thoughts. He invites The Wife to take the boat trip and the pair make preparations to depart. Gaynor’s character of The Wife seems fragile, trusting and hopeful for a true reconciliation with a husband she obviously loves but also fears his brutish and uncontrollable nature. They take off in their boat, but as if sensing danger, the family dog breaks away from his chains and swims out to join them. The Man takes the dog back without saying a word. The film uses only a few title cards in the second act, which highlights its dreamy and surreal visual quality.
An incident on the boat forces a new situation that resolves itself in the fantastic city scenes. The expensive and elaborate set built on the lot at Fox Film Corporation includes a tram, heavy city traffic and an amusement park with a giant dance floor and a restaurant. The high production values of Sunrise adds to its incredible effect on the viewer, and we can feel the startling contrast between the city and country and the parallel emotional consequences playing on The Man and The Wife.
As the couple returns to their village on the boat, a storm whips up that ends in a heartbreaking conclusion. It’s hard to say whether The Man achieves total redemption despite the idealistic ending of the movie. Murnau leaves it up to the viewer to determine if a man so capable of homicidal rage could change into a faithful husband.