“silent films had a language of their own; they aimed for the emotions, not the mind, and the best of them wanted to be, not a story, but an experience.”
— Roger Ebert, review of 1928 Best Picture winner Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,
Directed by the German expressionist influenced F.W. Murnau. Starring Janet Gaynor (who won Best Actress) and George O’Brien. Number 5 on the 2012 British Film Institute’s 50 Greatest Films list.
The film may appear at first, too simplistic to modern audiences. To miss Murnau’s Sunrise and it’s contribution to film history is to miss the remarkable technical innovations as well as the horror that can lurk beneath everyday life.
Yes the story is simple:
A newly wed couple. A seductive vacationing city woman seduces the husband.
City woman plots a murder of the wife by drowning. The husband aborts the murder mid-act.
In horror the wife flees to the city. The husband follows.
Slowly he pursues, seeks forgiveness. Love is rekindled. Vows renewed.
On the return home, in a storm the wife is lost and assumed drowned.
A search party is called out.
The conclusion? – see the film
Go ahead, you try doing this film’s shots and multiple montage sequences without contemporary cameras, computers and modern technology.
BFI – 50 Greatest Films Synopsis
When F.W. Murnau left Germany for America in 1926, did cinema foresee what was coming? Did it sense that change was around the corner – that now was the time to fill up on fantasy, delirium and spectacle before talking actors wrenched the artform closer to reality? Many things make this film more than just a morality tale about temptation and lust, a fable about a young husband so crazy with desire for a city girl that he contemplates drowning his wife, an elemental but sweet story of a husband and wife rediscovering their love for each other. Sunrise was an example – perhaps never again repeated on the same scale – of unfettered imagination and the clout of the studio system working together rather than at cross purposes.