Director: F.W. Murnau
Writer: Carl Mayer
DP: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss
Editor: Harold D. Schuster
Score: Hugo Riesenfeld
Producer: William Fox
Starring: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Distribution: Fox Film Corporation
Length: 1 hr. 35 min.
There are anecdotes that suggest F.W. Murnau exercised almost unreasonably meticulous control over Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. While these anecdotes possibly misrepresent the process behind the film's making, and don't necessarily refer to anything that would have caused the film to be significantly different, they do reflect the level of thought that went into its imagery. The filmmakers went to great expense to achieve certain visual effects, constructing sets that were elaborate both in their scale and in their strange shapes used to create an increased sense of depth.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is not a realistic film. If you were to look only at its plot, you'd see something meandering, psychologically inconsistent, and reliant on dated and troubling relationship dynamics. But a film is more than just its plot; a film is images that constantly change and oppose other images. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans exists in such images; almost all of the film's emotional power and thematic thrust comes from the images themselves. This is more than visual storytelling: the images take precedence over the narrative, embodying thoughts and feelings without commenting on or even taking context from the story.
The script does not engage with any kind of psychology, but Murnau was a director of expressionistic horror films. Where the narrative alone fails to represent any kind of interiority, his visual realization of the film suggests deep-seated cognitive turbulence and existential fear. He does not shy away from the darkness in his characters: the slight acceleration and exaggerated performances of silent film make them look as if they contain more energy than their bodies can handle, and Murnau builds on this energy with hallucinatory dissolves and overlays. We see individuals contorting their faces and bodies in ways that speak to severe emotional unrest, and it translates to literal upheaval in their surroundings, displacing them into impossible visual constructions.
Displacement is a major concern of the film; it unfolds in a series of segments, each one taking place in a different location. The first act sets us among nightmarish shadows and truly bizarre angles formed by the lopsided sets and props; the second act moves us to a much brighter place, a city with well-ordered lines, where the characters try to reach a state of peace after the first act's chaos. The film's visual design informs the tone of each location, giving each a measure of symbolic weight; instead of developing the characters between mental states, the film constructs an arc around them literally moving between locations. The tonal differences also allow it to shift from melancholy to comedy to tragedy to celebration. When it brightens, it never does so in a way that prevents it from preserving the human darkness present from the beginning.
The film also places emphasis on transportation. Trains and ships dominate the opening scene, and later scenes that build to climactic moments take place aboard a trolley car and a rowboat. An early scene has the camera reach the characters after tracking their footprints through a swamp, showing not just where the characters are, but how they got there.
The focus on location and transportation provides us with context with which to view the displacement caused by the overlays. They are themselves a form of instantaneous transportation; when Murnau shows us overwhelming emotion carrying the characters to new surroundings, he suggests that extreme emotion has a kind of transportive power. This power, like the symbolic locations, is not portrayed in a strictly positive or negative light; it's just pure intensity, and it could give rise to anything.
So, the film is built on the relationship between the ideas that extreme emotion has transportive power, that change in location equals metaphysical change, and that the potential for chaos and violence is present beneath every situation. On top of this, it's concerned with the act of watching itself, constantly turning its focus to characters on the periphery, treating them like a sort of chorus, while the main characters' stability becomes directly related to whether or not they're visually exposed.
Because of this focus on watching and exposure, and because of the film's juggling of horror and triumph, the aforementioned transportive power of emotion is ultimately the most important part of this movie. Murnau hopes for his audience to consider their position and direct the power of emotion to transport themselves from a place of chaos - from the foggy, shadowy night of the film's beginning - to the titular sunrise.
Realism is a dramatic device, one that Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans does not decide to use. The film speaks hyperbolically, conveying a sense of urgency and passion. It may be a little difficult for some people to watch because of the distance created by an unrealistic plot, but everything else in the film tells us that it's important to be able to make up that distance ourselves. Maybe the actual issues at the center of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans are less epic in scale than the film's resplendent imagery and tumultuous plot might suggest, but the film's style suggests that someone believes they are, and makes the case that that's all that matters.