SUNRISE: A Familiar Story
During a summer holiday, a modern young woman from the city visits the countryside. While there, she strikes up an affair with a once happily married farmer. It’s a destructive affair, leading the farmer almost to the edge of personal and financial ruin. Not to mention the breaking of his wife’s heart.
As the end of summer nears, the home-wrecking mistress begs the farmer to follow her back to the city. When he mentions his wife, she darkly suggests it would be great if she could “get drowned.” Under her spell, the farmer agrees to take his wife out on the lake. Suspecting nothing, his wife’s happy to have a day out to herself with her husband. Until she sees the look in his eye. But, when it comes time to follow through, the husband’s tormented by the memories of his wife’s goodness and their happiness together.
Watching Sunrise actually brought to mind Proverbs’ warnings to a young man about the dangers of an evil woman. Although I’m sure Sunrise had different inspiration, in some ways, I felt like I was watching those biblical admonishments come to life.
Sunrise is a film which has been on my radar for a while. I’ve heard nothing but praise for this silent film from fellow fans. And the praise is well deserved. This film’s a work of art.
Directed by the highly respected F.W. Murnau, the imagery and the way the camera frames each scene is like watching a highlight reel of black and white paintings flicker across the screen. The scenes from the country and the city could not be more different and yet both hold their own beauty. The city scenes are idealized so that though they feel familiar, there is still a bit of fantasy about them. They hold so much detail and energy, that they become a feast for the eyes.
The initial part of the story introducing the characters and their twisted relationships is edgy and dark. It almost feels a bit like a horror film as the innocent blond wife (Janet Gaynor), is plotted against by her husband (George O’Brien) and his mistress. The husband’s demeanor and appearance is disheveled and wild, which adds to the viewer’s feeling of revulsion as he plots against a woman who has done nothing but love him.
(Spoiler Alert) However, as the film progresses, we begin to see the husband break free of the hypnotic spell of his girlfriend. He becomes more human. George O’Brien does a fabulous job showing the transition from a reckless, dangerous man to one who has awakened again to the love he feels for his wife and child. I went from being repulsed by his character to being amazed at the compassion, affinity, and relief I felt for him by the end.
Can I just take a moment now to talk about Janet Gaynor? She’s what my family would call a sleeper. A sleeper is someone that you think you know or someone you may look at who surprises you when you take the time to look deeper. Gaynor has never been on my list of favorite actresses, but that needs to change. With each film of hers I watch, I grow in my admiration of her talent. She’s not showy, gorgeous or extremely memorable. Instead, she disappears into her roles. She gives her characters’ humanity and warmth. Those doe eyes of hers display tenderness, understanding and a soul worth knowing.
As the wife in Sunrise, she not only uses her eyes but her body language to express fear, heartbreak and hope. It’s her reactions to her husband that gives the audience permission to run the gamut of feelings about a man who seems completely irredeemable. Gaynor’s the first Oscar winner for best actress and this film’s one of the reasons why.
Some films focus on portraying a story, while others feature more artistic values. Sunrise is a film which combines both in a complementary and exceptional manner. The artistic production advances the story and the story enhances the artistry.
If you’ve never seen a silent film before and are intimidated by the idea, Sunrise is the perfect introduction. The artistic quality of the film is stunning. The story, acting, and settings are so engrossing that you can’t help but transport to a different world. Its visual impact makes Sunrise a picture you deserve to see.
Content Note: Aside from the attempted murder plot and the implied affair, this film shows nothing offensive onscreen.
Where to Watch: Sunrise is available to watch for free on Youtube as the film’s in the public domain. You can also rent it from iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, or Google Play and purchase it on DVD.
Have you ever watched a silent film? If not, why not? Have you seen this classic movie? Leave a comment and let me know!
Photo Credits: Fox Film Corporation
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
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