Following the commercial and critical success of The Last Laugh on its US release, German wunderkind FW Murnau was invited to Hollywood and given carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted. The result was Sunrise, subtitled A Tale Of Two Humans, that combined some of the most sophisticated technique and mise-en-scene ever seen, along with a deceptively simple story of love and redemption.

In adapting Hermann Sudermann's novella, Die Reise Nach Tilsit, Murnau and his regular screenwriter Carl Mayer dropped all references to specific people and places, seeking to transform them into universal archetypes.

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The Plot - this is an initial caps sort of fable - sees the fatale Woman From The City (Margaret Livingston) seduce The Man (George O'Brien), a guileless country type, and convince him to arrange for his wife's (Janet Gaynor) death in "an accident" crossing the lake - an obvious "threshold to adventure" zone, if one wants to think about the film in formalist terms - that separates town and country.

The Man, however, finds he cannot go through with the scheme and, amidst the marvels of The City, rediscovers the greatest miracle of all - love.

Thus reconciled, he and his wife return home, just as a ferocious storm blows up and overturns their boat. He makes it to shore, but where is she? Has an amoral nature committed the crime The Man could not?

Ironically, the filmmakers' attempt to give Sunrise a mythic quality only serves to highlight the sense of time and place, such as in a comedy drunk scene which acts as a reminder that prohibition was in force in the US and a "peasant dance" that recalls the very absence of the peasantry from the new world, as compared to the old, dragging us back into the realm of mundane.

The moralities of the piece are, however, surprisingly complicated - especially when we consider that everything is conveyed without speech through Mayer's characteristically stripped down intertitles. While the creators abide by, rather than deconstruct, the binary oppositions around which their film revolves - good and evil, male and female, rural and urban, the Madonna and the whore, etc - the eschatology of the film unusually avoids directly and unambiguously punishing either The Man or The Woman From The City, who is permitted to quietly slink away, after her plan has failed, presumably to target the next sucker.

It's a remarkable fate, especially when compared with the character's spiritual descendants in Forties film noir, and makes one wonder if, just perhaps, she isn't so much a woman as a supernatural manifestation, a notion that isn't entirely impossible, given the strong religious symbolism present elsewhere.

Whether or not a contemporary audience gets Surnrise as a dramatic tale, or in terms of acting, there should be no question about the direction and cinematography. Filmmakers today could still learn from the way Murnau tells his story via the camera, while the sheer beauty and technical accomplishment of the piece - stand out moments include the dolly shots as The Man goes to his illicit tryst with The Woman From The City and the multiple exposure process shots, as her ghostly form tries to seduce away his doubts - is apparent even to the empTV generation.

Perhaps, not truly timeless, then, but as close as not to matter.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2004
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A man is seduced by a flapper who wants him to murder his wife.
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Anton Bitel ****

Director: FW Murnau

Writer: Carl Mayer, based on the novel by Hermann Sudermann

Starring: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

Year: 1927

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US


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