Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Nothing like attempted murder to give the ol’ marriage a jump start, eh?
But apparently in the expressionistic world of F.W. Murnau, that’s the case, because that thought of murder turned the lowest of the low to the highest of the high for a humble farm couple. What emotion, what sheer joy, what carefree euphoria the Man and the Wife experience on their excursion! This movie is everything that was right about expressionism in silent film. When the Man and the Woman from the City plan the Wife’s murder, and then the Man tries to go through with it, his clunky movements, hunched over, practically turn him into Frankenstein’s monster – but the look on his poor wife’s face evokes sheer terror – no words need describe it, it just is. The wife running from her husband in fear, hiding her face like a puppy, she’s like a traumatized little girl – all the more reason for us to pity and fear for her. And their reconciliation, every embrace, every moment they spend in a big and scary and unfamiliar metropolis, observing a wedding, chasing a pig, visiting the barber, a passionate kiss before the photographer’s camera – these two stick out like a sore thumb in the bustling city, but their innocence and happiness, not long after sheer terror, affected me like few other on-screen relationships ever have. This is how body language and facial expression trump dialogue to deliver the purest of emotions, despite over-the-top expressionism. Yeah, “Sunrise” has all the technical innovations the historians tell you about, from the moving camera to the graphic match cuts to using tricks and effects to have a ghostly visage of the vicious Woman from the City embrace an hunched-over and emotionally-neutered Man, but frankly I didn’t even notice the technical qualities. All that mattered to me was the performances, how disgusted the Man is when the Woman from the City – the snake of Eden – tempts him with thoughts of murder, how in the beginning Man and Wife and their baby inhabit the same room, but can’t even muster the strength to look at each other, and how they reconcile and are all of a sudden inseparable and couldn’t be more passionate for each other and excited about their new surroundings. “Sunrise” is suspenseful, endearing, funny (the Venus De Milo visual gag is hysterical), tragic, and above all, life-affirming. This could’ve been a simple story of how the big bad city (through the insipid Woman) can be the undoing of innocence and pure love (through the Man and Wife and their rural sensibilities), but it’s deeper than that – look no further than how much god damn fun the couple has in that supposedly big, bad city after all. As sappy as it sounds, love conquers all, and these two people become unconditionally entwined as one entity – “A Song of Two Humans” becomes a song of one.
And is this not, like, the greatest, most atmospheric and evocative, entrance in all of cinema? (1st minute of clip):