Friday, December 24, 2010

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Year: 1927
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 82
Writer: Hermann Sudermann, Carl Mayer
Director: F.W. Murnau
Star: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” identifies itself as a fable in the main titles, and in doing so allows itself to fully embrace melodrama and otherwise-ludicrous character beats. Its characters are purposely not well-defined, and the worlds presented here are as specific as they are vague. You embrace the film as you would embrace a well-written poem, the beats of beauty lingering long after it ends.

The story centers on two unnamed characters, a Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor), who were happy long ago. A Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston) has drifted into their small town for a vacation, staying for weeks longer than she should in order to seduce the Man, which she does. One night as they hold one another next to a lake, she asks him to drown his Wife and run off with her to the city. The next day he takes his Wife out on the boat with the full intention of murdering her…but cannot. Across the lake they go into the city and rediscover their love for one another through a series of vignettes, but then as they make their return a storm begins that overturns their boat…

As I wrote earlier, all of this is hugely melodramatic. I write this being a fan of a good melodrama, and loathing that film critics have begun using the word as an all-encompassing criticism of any movie with elevated emotions. Look at much of the work of Douglas Sirk, William Friedkin or Brian DePalma for examples of melodrama done right, and if those names make you cringe, then melodrama isn’t for you. The melodrama in “Sunrise” is different and more shallow than the work of the above directors but, again, since the movie is more a fable than a coherent narrative, this is forgivable. And despite being so simply told with broad, melodramatic strokes, that does not mean it is not elegant. Early in the film, the man takes reeds from the lake shore to use as a floatation device after he drowns his wife and sinks his boat. I was struck by the power of a later moment, during the storm, when the Man desperately uses the reeds to save his Wife.

The one beat I still find suspect comes in the aftermath of the couple’s first boating incident. The Man has come very close to throwing his wife overboard and murdering her, but has had a change of heart. The Wife runs away from him once the boat reaches shore, but he catches up to her and apologizes profusely for an eternity (five minutes) while she bawls. After she finishes crying, all seems to be forgiven and the two begin touring the city without a thought that he almost pushed her overboard less than an hour before. The moment is reminiscent (in a bad way) of Maria immediately forgiving Tony for murdering her brother in “West Side Story,” but at least here we get a bit of breathing room before she gets over it.

The couple doesn’t reach the city until half-way through the film, but these passages are the most important and, ultimately, become the heart “Sunrise.” They surprise us because they manage to convince us that this couple that we thought were beyond repair still deeply love one another. While there are broad moments of slapstick, it is the beautifully realized quiet moments that resonate most. There is a scene where they enter a church, watch another couple wed and, in their own way, renew their vows and re-commit themselves to one another. Later, they exit the church and walk into traffic, too busy gazing into each other’s eyes to notice the cars and trucks piling up around them. Even later, they dance the “Peasant’s Dance” together, at first begrudgingly but soon find themselves completely engaged with it.

The scenes that aim more for slapstick are less successful. I’m thinking here of the beautician scene where they both become playfully jealous of each other, and especially the scene in the restaurant at an amusement park. The Man ends up chasing a pig (!?) through the restaurant, the pig gets drunk on a spilled bottle of wine (I’m guessing the filmmakers greased the floor to make the pig slip and slide) and then the Man finds him. There are genuinely funny bits here, like where a bystander continues to fix a woman’s falling shoulder straps, but they take the focus off the couple and are unnecessary.

Visually, the film is endlessly inventive. My favorite image comes early, when the man tries to forget the Woman From the City. He sits on his bed and the image of the Woman appears behind him, holding him. He jerks away, only to meet another image of the Woman. Then a third appears. It’s an unforgettable moment, one of the finest in all of cinema. The sequence out on the lake where the Man contemplates murder is still unnerving thanks to the camera’s placement. We never see his face. It’s much superior to a similar sequence in the overrated “A Place In the Sun.” When the Woman and Man talk of the City, we are treated to quick swipes and lots of imaginative miniatures that just beg for rewinding and pausing. You know that Murnau is using a lot of tricks and visual gags throughout, but the movie is strong enough that they don’t matter. The viewer stops caring about how the visuals were created and instead just becomes lost in the splendor.

Murnau even surprises us with his dialogue titles. They are hardly necessary in the film, but when he uses them, he makes them count. When the word “DROWN” appears in one of the titles, it seems to become wet and warp.
And yet despite the visual splendor and inventiveness, the movie would not work if we didn’t believe the performances of O’Brien and Gaynor. Though they both overact (as all silent film stars were wont to do), there is a subtlety to their relationship that surprises. They have an easy chemistry with one another and make us fall in love with them in the second act. When Gaynor is lost on the lake and assumed dead, the viewer is devastated because we care just as much for their relationship as they do, and when she is found and weakly smiles at O’Brien, we are overjoyed. In a time when film emotions and romances are more spoken than felt, “Sunrise” is all about feeling. It still has the power to steal your heart, and how many movies that begin with a husband plotting the death of his wife can you say that about?

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

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