82. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) - F.W. Murnau
Something on his mind? Great visual effects for 1927
What’s it all about?
“This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets, in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet,” read the opening titles, and so the theme is set. Sunrise is a visual poem portraying the rise and fall, rise and fall of what may be any relationship that ever was. The film is less about the actual conflict, and more about the ebb and flow, constriction and release of two humans in and out of love.
Editing - Juxtaposition
As in the example I wrote about in Bogdanovich’s ‘The Last Picture Show’, Murnau takes great advantage of ‘cutting to’ in order to highlight emotional contrast to strengthen the conflict of the main character’s decisions. The most striking example of this technique in Sunrise is the moment when the Man and the Woman from the City embrace each other under the moonlight. We, the audience, obviously understand the conflict of the situation - married man having an affair. Murnau underscores this conflict by ‘cutting to’, mid embrace, a shot of the Wife sobbing while taking care of her and the Man’s young child. This juxtaposition not only heightens the emotional value of the scene, but also raises the stakes for the Man, as we are made well aware of what he has to lose. I should also note that Murnau takes the visual element a step further by having both sets of characters embracing each other, but in highly different contexts.
Part of what makes Sunrise an amazing film is the minor conflicts that are sprinkled throughout the main plot. I really expected something darker for Murnau’s first Hollywood picture, but I was pleasantly surprised at the extent of solid comical content. The most standout example to me is the ‘dress strap’ gag while the Man and his Wife are performing their traditional dance at the fair. Rather than place the attention on the dance number or turn it into spectacle, which would become the standard over the next decade, Murnau instead adds in a minor conflict gag. I choose this example because it is possibly the lightest conflict I could ever imagine - a female patron’s shoulder straps keep sliding down, while an older gentleman keeps kindly fixing them for her. As the dance continues, the woman’s straps keep falling at an increasingly rapid rate, until finally, the older gentleman has had enough and just pulls both down to a fallen position. The woman takes this as an outwardly forward advance and slaps the older gentleman across the face. Murnau creates an extremely simple, hilarious, and elegant moment between two strangers to provide the audience with minor conflict/entertainment while the Man and his Wife dance.
Changing the Meaning
Murnau absolutely blows me away with his ability to come full circle with gags, within and across scenes, and even the entirety of the film. By coming full circle, this typically means that what is being referenced from before now has a new meaning - as in my breakdown of the scene where the Wife takes the physical and emotional place of the Man by the end of their introduction. A great example of this is the ‘stopping the traffic’ gag when the Man and his Wife are in the City. It’s first used when the pair arrive and showcases the lividity of the Wife - she is so angry that she storms in front of moving traffic. Later on, once the Man and his Wife have reconciled and emerge from the cathedral, the gag is reused, but this time to showcase the renewed love between the Man and his Wife - they are in such a deep embrace that they are unknowingly stopping traffic.
Obviously, the greatest example of this is how Murnau takes the entirety of the ‘drowning plot’ hatched by the Woman from the City, the meat and potatoes of the story’s conflict, and completely reverses it at the end of the film. The Man is to take his Wife boating, with the intention of murder, throw her overboard, and float to safety. However, when the pair go boating at the end of the film and embrace in the moonlight, the previously seen ‘drowning attempt’ is completely reworked within a different context. As a storm threatens to capsize the boat, the Man uses the floatation bundle he prepared earlier for his own safety to ensure that his Wife will survive. Instead of the Man throwing his wife into the water, it is in fact a storm that capsizes the pair into the water. This not only changes the meaning, details, and intent of the ‘boat trip’, but takes the original catalyst for conflict of the film, and creates an entirely new, and re-imagined climactic conflict from existing story and character. The conflict no longer revolves around disposing of the Wife, but whether or not she has survived.
Imagery - Weather
One last detail I want to mention is how the storm that capsizes the Man and his Wife is introduced. What’s interesting to note is that the storm is first visually portrayed in the City, and not entirely exclusive to the pond where the Man and his Wife are boating. What the storm is doing to the city has absolutely no bearing on the plot, but by first showing it ‘brewing in the city’, I got a real thematic sense of the Woman from the City haunting the Man as he and his Wife boat together. The ‘storm brewing in the city’ that eventually capsizes the boat couldn’t be anymore more literal/visually poetic.