Silent movies may be better than sound ones because they are closer to dreams. They are thought to be limiting, but the silent movie director has more tools at his disposal because he can create without the burden of realism. Movie cameras are the most perfect invention for capturing real life, but they aren’t improvements over the human eye, so why fight the medium’s deficiencies? A silent movie is already impressionistic because it has no sound; you are free to create only what your mind can imagine. Perhaps no silent movie director understood this better than F.W. Murnau, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is his finest film.
The Man agrees to drown his wife, but when the moment comes he can’t bear to do it. Instead, he takes her to the city and they fall back in love. If that seems like a sudden change of heart, keep in mind this is a dream; everything is overdone, from the sets to the behavior. The impossible landscape of the farm with its dry prairies and sticky marshes gives way to a futuristic city of competing vehicles of mass transit and towering jagged buildings. When The Man is at the farm and miserable, he moves like a zombie; when he is reconnected with The Wife, he glides, oblivious to his surroundings, even causing a traffic jam because he can see only her.
The story is powerful and elemental, especially with its O. Henry-esque final turn. Murnau’s films are all informed by a dark side, usually stemming from temptation. This is certainly the case in his German movies like Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926), and that can be seen in the early scenes when The Woman from the City prowls The Man’s village in little more than lingerie, like something out of a Nosferatu-type vampire story, whistling to the tempted torment of The Man inside his cottage, powerless to the siren’s call. She isn’t a real person, she might as well be a mythical creature, and Murnau underlines that point by juxtaposing a shot of The Man being embraced by the adultress with a shot of The Wife holding their child. In The Man’s mind, he has been made redundant by the child and he must go elsewhere for that type of affection.
Of course, there’s the devious ending, in which the renewed couple returns to the village by boat only to discover a terrible storm that seemingly drowns The Wife, making it seem that The Man’s original plan was carried out. The movie has a finally happy ending which harkens back to Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) in which a hotel doorman keeps getting demoted and humiliated until he’s at the bottom of his despair until an intertitle, the only one in the film, reveals that the filmmaker has taken pity on him and gives him a good end. The final moments of Sunrise seem too good to be true, but in a dream that’s sometimes how it works out.
While working on The Last Laugh, Murnau concocted what he called the “unchained camera technique,” an innovation he certainly perfected on Sunrise. Silent pictures are usually so staid because the technology of the camera was such that movement was very difficult. Cameras had to be cranked by hand, so only rudimentary motions were ever attempted. In Sunrise, Murnau has at his disposal the height of the movable silent camera, and he and his cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, whom some feel are as responsible for the success of the movie as anyone else, paint the movie with endless and endlessly effective pans and tracks, all of which are commonplace now but would not be seen again for a decade or more as sound pictures and their cumbersome recording equipment once again shackled the camera. In Sunrise, the camera pushes through the marshes; it rolls through the city; tricks done inside the camera give the impression of overlapping images. These are special effects that have been outdone in sophistication but not in effectiveness. The subtitle of the movie is A Song of Two Humans, and so it is, a lyrical fantasy that somehow transcends melodrama and becomes something like music.
When the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, the most respected all-time top ten list in the world, was released, three silent movies finished on it, with Sunrise the highest. Interestingly, all three were made in subsequent years (Sunrise in 1927, The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928 and Man with a Movie Camera in 1929), and the technical capabilities of all three were unheard of earlier in the decade. All three were released after the advent of sound that would quickly eradicate silent movies from the world. When the silent camera was allowed to be free, it produced 30 percent of the world’s greatest movies in the only five years or so of freedom. Who knows how many great dreamlike masterpieces we were denied because sound had to come along and ruin everything?