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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

CRUMBLIES… 5 crumblies

From The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912) to Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans.

Oh yes.

Silent Steve and I battled wills over silent movie excellence. I wanted laughs and sexiness; he wanted to show me the other performance to win best acting in the first Academy Awards, German director F.W. Murnau‘s American output, and a movie so good it shows you how unnecessary was the clunky stillness of the early talkies (starting that same year with The Jazz Singer).

So here we go. A film about a marriage charging towards middle-age staleness. A tiny child, a borderline frumpy wife, a total-dick of a husband falling into temptation of the sexy-murderous kind…

I was nervous, to be honest. Murnau’s The Last Laugh / Der Letzte Mann (1924) was brilliant, inventive and kind of hard work. I needn’t have been: these ninety minutes zoom by. Away from home, Murnau was still on a long creative leash, but somehow more American. Sunrise is a story of redemption and hope, not misery, more misery and an instruction from the studio to be happy getting a sarcastic reception. Murnau gets in the horrible straight away, mind.

We’re in the countryside. The Man is in the farmhouse, The Wife is prepping a light meal, The Child is being a child. Outside stands The Woman from The City (boo, hiss, Margaret Livingston), whistling to call her pet, the tempted Man. And out he goes, to no small amount of camera-driven inventiveness. They scoot through mud, shot with floaty skill, and make love in the bullrushes. And by make love I mean The Woman from The City snogs her way up and down his face and neck and he occasionally tries to strangle her. Silent Steve and I swapped surprised pre-Code glances – and again an hour later when she gets changed and there’s a brief flash of naked lady back. Indeed!

And then they hatch a plan. Well, she does, insisting he takes The Wife out on a boat, drowns her, overturns the boat and floats home on a bundle of said bullrushes. And then they can fuck off to the city and, well, fuck on. Now, The Wife has been miserable about her wretched marriage and gets all flighty and chirpy at the invitation to a day on a boat. She cottons on to the plan fairly quickly, though, as The Man goes all monstrous. George O’Brien is floppy-haired, unkempt and unshaven. He now gets scowly, hunchbacked and tangibly murderous. Out they go, Murnau signalling her fate through birds getting the fuck away from them and the family dog swimming out to just be close…and getting taken back by hunchbacked monster-man…

The Academy Award winner, by the way, was Janet Gaynor as The Wife. She has oddly clamped-to-my-skull light hair throughout, is loved by the camera, and earns herself the first Academy Award (alongside Emil Jannings) for this and a couple of other films. She is terrified and terrific, descending from joy at the trip, to concern at the dog and the birds, to horror at her hulking, monstrous husband. They get to shore and she runs off, getting caught on a trolleybus that take the pair on an agonising journey to The City.

This stuff is great fun, but left old Jack wondering where the film could go next. Murnau then lets rip. The Wife keeps running through scarily busy streets, gets caught with The Man in a café (which is mesmerisingly 1920s-ish – loved it), then into a church and…all change. Okay, it’s beyond implausible, but watching a wedding, hearing a priest’s (patronising, so be prepared, women of century 21) words about the value of marriage, and The Man gets back his soul, collapses in guilt that has been building since the bus, and The Wife clutches his head in her lap and forgives him…

sunrisekissHmmmm – okay, let it go. This couple are not so middle-aged that you don’t want their love to come charging back. Which it does, so hurrah! The trouble is, they have nothing left to develop and there’s half an hour of film left.

Murnau’s answer is to get flashy and weirdly comic. There are camp barber scenes (with a dash of city-girl-manicure jealousy and a creep who brings out a flash of The Man’s monster only now in defence of The Wife); there’s a terrific kiss-in-traffic, a very pretty fair, nightclub, and a drunk pig. You read that right. And, to give a Hollywood ending, or possibly create The Hollywood Ending, the film goes all deus ex tornado and the boat home capsizes…

Old Jack loved Sunrise. O’Brien gives good monster, charmer and hero; Gaynor does a ton of subtle stuff (her happiness and fear are anything but pantomime); whilst Murnau creates cinema in front of you, taking full advantage of the new ability to synchronise soundtrack and picture as music and sound effects fill every second. Talkies were indeed on the way, but seem so irrelevant during this throughly entertaining Song to Two Humans – and one’s redemption.

It’s on the YouTube, won three Awards at that inaugural ceremony, and old Jack here heartily recommends a viewing.


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