Directed By F.W. Murnau
Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell MacDonald, Ralph Sipperly, Jane Winton, Arthur Housman and Eddie Boland
Temptation is one of the seven deadly sins; it intoxicates our society and clouds the hearts and minds of one’s judgment, causing mixed emotions when it comes to making a simple choice. The Man (Brein) falls into the arms of another woman (Livingston), who gives him the idea to leave his life and wife behind in F.W. Murnau’s classic tale of betrayal and redemption.
The story begins with the Man, a farmer, sneaking out of his house and running off to a secluded location to meet the cold and seductive Woman From the City. As the two meet and share a passionate kiss, the Woman From the City convinces him to sell his property and drown his wife so the two can be together. While trying to carry out this murderous plot, the Man embarks on a spiritual awakening that will take him back to the time when he and his wife (Gaynor) first fell in love.
“Sunrise,” a silent film, is one of those rare films that captures human beings at their most vulnerable and exposes personal moments without boring the audience with excruciating dialogue. Its real-life portrayal of human interaction, emotion and use of facial expression is noteworthy and perhaps presents one of the greatest performances of all time.
For instance, in the chapel scene in which our two leads come face to face (after going through with the main conflict that drives the soul of the story), both characters lock eyes without speaking a single word. Even though they stare at each other for just a small amount of time, you can feel their strong, shared passion.
Today, that scene would have been done with a few lines of dialogue that could distract from the connection between the audience and the relationship of the characters. Sometimes too much dialogue can turn a charged atmosphere into a stale scene instead of having an emotional impact on its viewers.
My only issue with the film comes after the Man’s attempt on the Wife’s life. The Man comes face to face with his significant other after he tries to drown her in the lake. In this moment, the Wife doesn’t push her husband away after he tries to mend the situation. She simply stands there and cries while he pleads for her forgiveness. Today, a woman would easily tell an aggressive male to “Get lost!” rather than forgive and forget without hesitation.
This film provides a very thoughtful look at the importance and fragile nature of human relationships. Gaynor is wonderful as the Wife; she is always believable, endearing and completely sympathetic. O’Brien is also good as the Man, and both of their performances are enhanced by director Murnau’s use of facial expression and body language.
There are also many minor touches in the settings and action that help complement the story and the mood. The first time one watches the film, the attention is fixed on the leading couple, as one hopes against hope that things will work out all right for them. From all the films I’ve seen of the silent genre, “Sunrise” would be my choice as the greatest and most personal portrayal of all.
Four Out of Four Stars