BFI Film Classics: Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans

Author: Lucy Fischer


For film fans the year 1927 is synonymous with the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer. But this film is not in itself a great film and is at best schmaltzy light entertainment. By contrast released just a few weeks before The Jazz Singer one of the great silent films, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (sometimes known as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was released). For many this film represents the height of silent cinema and for this reason Murnau’s classic is included in the BFI Film Classics series.


German director F.W. Murnau was invited over to Hollywood by William Fox (founder of 20th Century Fox) to make a film in 1927 and was given absolute autonomy to make his film without studio interference; Fox was absolutely aware that he was not looking at great returns for this film. Murnau had already made some of the classics of German Expressionist silent cinema with the likes of Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann) (1924) and Faust (1926). He enlisted scriptwriter Carl Mayer from Germany who had co-written the script for the groundbreaking Das Cabinet der Dr. Caligari in 1919 and no less than two cinematographers were used, Karl Struss and Charles Rosher. The story is a melodrama (based off a German book that was not published in the US until 1930) and is about a married country man (none of the characters have names) who is having an affair with a woman from the City. The pair then plot to kill the man’s wife in a boating accident. In the boat on the way to the City he changes his mind and while in the City sampling its delights the Man falls in love with his Wife all over again. But this is a melodrama and the real artistry from the film lies less in the script (even though it was written by Mayer) than it does in the director and cameraman’s artistic vision.


Fischer’s approach to the book and her own arguments she uses are backed up by the many references she makes to previous texts and theoreticians discussions on Sunrise including Mary Ann Doane and Erwin Panofsky. There is some background to Murnau’s previous career but where she falls short is giving much in the way of flavour of the period and only briefly mentions the impact that the talkies and the release of The Jazz Singer had on this film and silent cinema at large. She does discuss the use of sound in a silent film such as this one but doesn’t really go into the depth that is warranted; for example discussing about the Movietone process Fox used and how synchronized sound impacted on silent film. Given this she comments on the technical accomplishments achieved but fails to go into how those accomplishments were achieved. Where there is strong consistency is comparing the country to the City dichotomy: the pastoral bucolic setting in a nameless place (but looks distinctly northern German) with the City (which seems to resemble Berlin, although the shop fronts are in English and there is also a Luna amusement park) and these contrasts and differences are studied in great depth throughout. To me, however, little is made of the Modernity of the City and the romanticism of the countryside. The Man’s (played by George O’Brien) performance is Expressionist as he plots his murder (ie. Modernist) in the countryside but becomes naturalistic in the City where the Man and Wife seem like fishes out of water in this setting. Therefore, Fischer’s writing alludes to these differences but is not explicit enough in saying them.


Recently there has been much written about and recent releases of Murnau’s Hollywood films (for Fox) alongside the works of contemporary Frank Borzage with many of these films starring Sunrise star Janet Gaynor (who was awarded the first Oscar for Best Actress for several films by Murnau and Borzage including this one) and there is one sub-chapter in which this books author compares the melodrama of Sunrise to that of another film made with Gaynor released the same year, Borzage’s Seventh Heaven. The text, as can be expected comes very much from a feminist perspective and as good as her writing is, this is sometimes at the expense of other wider aspects of the film and this sub-chapter is a good example of that.


The Jazz Singer changed everything for cinema history in many different ways. Following this the camera was forced to become very static and would remain so for many years. It would not be until the late thirties and early forties when artistry would return to Hollywood with the likes of Citizen Kane and that is the reason this film is rightfully included in the BFI series. However, it is unfortunate that Fischer has not made capital on this and writes little about this films legacy or what might have been had films remained silent for a few more years. Then again maybe it was more about Fox taking chances on a director and giving him total artistic control rather than the artist being controlled by the money men and the studio.

Chris Hick



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