Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans


I was looking at the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films, and this was the only one I had never seen. It was made in Hollywood by F.W. Murnau at the tail end of the silent era. Murnau is most famous for Nosferatu, but I personally prefer another film from his German period, The Last Laugh. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it is artfully and lovingly done. Technically, it’s a knockout, with some very interesting lap dissolves, great lighting, and wonderful design. There are some simply enormous sets, including a city street that I wouldn’t have believed was a set except that all the literature says it was. They even used forced perspective to make it look larger still, putting large people in the foreground and small ones in the back. (Did you know they did that in Casablanca, in the final scene at the airport? When Bogie and Bergman are in the foreground there are mechanics working on a DC-3 in the background. That was a cardboard cut-out DC-3, and the men were midgets. Saves on studio space.)

The story is pretty basic. A Man (none of the characters have names) is madly in love with an Evil Woman From the City. They come up with a plan to drown the Wife. He takes her out on the water, but can’t go through with it. She flees him and they end up in the City, where they rekindle their love, get their picture taken, go to a gigantic amusement park, then head back across the water. A storm comes up, the boat sinks, and he tries to save her, but thinks she has drowned. But she hasn’t. The Evil Girl goes back to the City. The sun comes up. That’s it.

The problem? I’m usually able to make allowances for the overacting in silent films. I know they had to indicate wildly to get the emotion across. Yeah, I’m down with that. But this guy … oh, brother. During half the picture—when he is emotionally conflicted, when he is despairing, when he’s just about anything but happy (then he behaves like a hophead from Reefer Madness)—he stumbles around like Frankenstein’s Monster in slow motion—very slow motion; it takes him five minutes to cross a small room—bent over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of silent movies. Frankly, it almost ruined the whole picture for me. Contrast him to Janet Gaynor (who won the first Academy Award for her performance), who cringes and waves her arms, but still manages to seem convincing.