A nameless woman of the city vacations in the countryside, seducing a man, a simple farmer with a wife and a child. She convinces him to drown his wife, but at the last moment, he cannot bring himself to do it. After the wife escapes to the city and the man follows her, they witness a wedding, which makes them reconcile and enjoy the city. They return to the farm, but a thunderstorm capsizes their boat and the wife barely survives. After this final ordeal, the couple is back together while the woman leaves.
William Fox’s production of Sunrise, directed by German émigré Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, was a bid for status and power. In the mid-twenties, Fox’s studio was not as prestigious as Paramount or MGM. Fox therefore launched an expansion plan that included issuing common stock; the acquisition of the Roxy, the most famous picture palace on New York City’s Broadway; an interest in sound technology; and the hiring of Murnau whose German film, The Last Laugh (1924), had been a great critical success. Fox granted Murnau great ‘financial and artistic freedom’ to make a ‘highly artistic picture’ (Allen 1977: 335). Such a bid for artistry was not only in Fox’s but also in the industry’s interest, not least because it had been rocked by a number of moral scandals (such as the murder of Thomas Ince and the indictment of ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle). Even though Fox made a number of ‘strategic errors’ (Lipkin 1977: 339) in marketing the film, even though it did not do that well at the box office and got mixed reactions, it received the Academy Award for ‘Unique and Artistic Picture’ during the first year of the Academy Awards’ existence (the first and only time this category existed as distinct from ‘Outstanding Picture’).
Because Sunrise was a product of the influx of foreign talent into Hollywood, the film remains hybrid – suspended among a variety of influences. One might easily call it a ‘Euro-American art film’, a term coined by Peter Lev for much later films (such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) or Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984)).1 Part of this hybridity is stylistic. Critics have commented on the film’s borrowing from German expressionism – a cinematic style maybe most famously associated with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), where, for instance, characters’ inner feelings are projected onto the set, so that the distorted landscape comes to reflect the characters’ inner turmoil. In Sunrise it may be above all the figure of the husband who expresses expressionism’s inner conflict. Not exclusively, but especially during the marsh sequence, George O’Brien’s acting expresses his tormented psychology, a feat aided by the lead weights that the director asked him to carry in his shoes, and enhanced by eerie lighting, the tracking camera and the sinister music. As Dudley Andrew has put it, the illicit encounter with the city woman in the marsh as well as the two trips across the lake simultaneously borrow from the ‘aesthetic of the horror tale, the mystery novel, the gothic romance’ (1984: 33).
Another way of describing these competing aesthetic influences has been to point out the film’s borrowing from both the cinema of Georges Méliès, the early French film pioneer famous for his investment in cinematic tricks and magic, and of the Lumière brothers, better known for their investment in recording external reality. In this context, the scene in the marsh and the visions of the city can be understood as being invested in the fantastic, while moments like the couple’s exiting the church derive from an aesthetic of realism. This conflict between the fantastic and the realistic can also be understood as a conflict between transgressive desire and social order. Robin Wood, who first pointed out this tension within the film, argues that the magic is being connected with an ‘untrammelled libido’ while realism stands for ‘order’ (1976: 11).
In this sense, the film’s conflicting visual styles also stand for conflicting thematic and contextual issues, and the most prominent among those must be that of the tension between the country and the city. Film has often been aligned with the urban experience, as editing and superimpositions so easily turn urban dwellers into ‘kaleidoscope[s] gifted with consciousness,’ as poets like Charles Baudelaire and writers like Walter Benjamin wrote.2 Especially in the 1920s, so-called ‘city symphonies’ – films like Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) and Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (Walter Ruttmann, 1927) – used cinematic techniques to create varied, but dazzling concepts of urban consciousness. The woman’s vision of the city, characterised by lights, rapid traffic, jazz, and a body consumed in out-ofcontrol dance movements, which are created by camera movement, editing, and superimpositions, exemplifies the erotic allure of the city.
The division between the country and the city is thus deeply gendered: the city woman is a vamp – a pleasure-loving ‘vampire’ bent on exploiting and destroying men – while the country girl is Madonna-like, connected to child-rearing and domesticity. The city woman enjoys being in public, and evokes not only the vamp, but also the ‘flapper’, a female urban type of the Jazz Age. Flappers – most famously embodied by Clara Bow in It (1927) – cut their hair into bobs, wore short, boxy dresses and often smoked or drank alcohol. They tapped into the revolution in leisure in the early twentieth century, in which the movies participated. While in the nineteenth century a woman alone in the streets was easily understood as a ‘streetwalker’, women now had increasing access to public space. The years after the First World War also saw a sexual revolution and new styles of dancing – in short, new ways of understanding and relating to one’s body. Despite the film’s demonisation of the city woman, in the end the country girl also enjoys a good time in the city.
The film thus chronicles how the frequently gendered difference between country and city is increasingly difficult to sustain. The montage about summer vacations, which brings urban dwellers to the countryside, the easy transportation to the city, and the city’s infatuation with the peasant dance and the pig suggest a traffic between country and the city that has the potential the erode the presumed differences between these locations. Even the rural couple needs the city and its pleasures to find happiness. At the photographer’s studio, for instance, modern technology allows them to be pictured before the background that they dreamed about. This easy traffic between city and country is in tension with the film’s argument about the ‘carefree and happy’ country life, as suggested in an intertitle.
It is one of Sunrise’s distinguishing marks that these thematic tensions are always elaborated in terms of cinematic aesthetics, for instance in terms of the conflict between silence and sound. To be sure, the film features no synchronous sound. (When it was first exhibited at the Times Square Theatre in New York City, in late September 1927, it was preceded by a Movietone newsreel of Benito Mussolini and the Vatican Choir; just days later, the premiere of The Jazz Singer followed, a film featuring sequences of synchronised sound narrative.) Coming at the cusp of the film industry’s transition into the sound era, the film has been called a ‘technological hybrid’ (Allen, 1977: 327), a silent film that works hard to integrate camera and sound. Noteworthy moments on the soundtrack include ‘the foreboding, repetitive theme (consisting largely of two alternating, ominous notes) that accompanies The Man’s walk through the marshes to meet his lover; the raucous jazz motif … that conjoins the city sequence; the rippling melody (with wind sounds) that marks the episode of the couple’s sail home in a storm; the church bells that ring at the exact moment The Man decides to spare his wife … [the] plaintive series of notes on the French horn that approximate [The Man’s] cry’ (Fischer 1998: 31). Very often, these sound effects help elaborate thematic issues. For instance, after witnessing a wedding ceremony that renews their trust in each other, the couple exit the church. They obliviously walk through city traffic, imagining themselves in a rural, picturesque environment, when they are suddenly awakened by the onslaught of urban traffic. The romantic soundtrack, associated with the rural fantasy, is pushed into the background by an explosion of urban sound effects, though the romantic music never entirely disappears and picks up again once the couple has safely reached the sidewalk. The soundtrack thus aurally stages the complex interaction between the urban and the rural.
Such aural tensions are amplified visually. In the same urban sequence, a simulated tracking shot of the couple walking in front of a projected screen displaying a rural space – a simulation indicating the dreamlike nature of the couple’s projection – is followed by a quick montage of urban shots. Tensions within the story are thus also worked out in terms of camera work and editing. Critics have noted Murnau’s masterful use of the tracking shot – for instance the shot tracking the man through the marsh, or the shot following the trolley – a mastery for which he was well known by the time he made Sunrise, since the same technique already distinguished The Last Laugh (1924), the German film that brought Murnau to Hollywood in the first place. The fluid tracking shot can easily be associated with late silent cinema, which had developed fairly complex camera movements, while the quick montage may be associated with early sound film, if only it provided a way out of the conundrum that early sound cameras were less mobile than late silent models. Nonetheless, the montage had also been very much present in silent cinema, among other things because it was associated with the urban environment, maybe most famously in The Man with a Movie Camera. Quickly edited shots seemed a particularly apt vehicle to convey the intensity of kaleidoscopic urban stimuli and impressions. At the same time, Murnau also uses other methods to convey the frenzy of the city. For instance, at the beginning of the amusement park sequence, a quickly spinning, lit wheel visually represents urban stimulation. Elements of mise en scène – such as the complex movements of the rides in the amusement park – and photographic effects – such as superimpositions – also help stage the city. Importantly, the tracking shot is by no means absent in the city. For instance, in the amusement park sequence, a slow tracking shot brings us inside the space of amusement itself. Urbanity is thus expressed by multiple stylistic means, and a particular use of a stylistic element does not always indicate the same kind of social commentary. As in the case of the soundtrack, the interpenetration of the tracking shot and the montage in the city helps complicate – on the stylistic level – any simple opposition between the rural and the urban.
Sunrise gives us insight into such topics as individualised psychology and desire, the lure of the new (urban) leisure economy, gender regimes, the conflict between the rural and the urban, and the transition to sound cinema. In the end, the film does not merely stage conflicting views, but also complicates any simple opposition between European and American cinema, expressionism and realism, silence and sound, the country and the city, etc. Maybe most importantly, it explores a number of cinematic devices for social commentary while never assuming that a stylistic element always has the same social or cultural significance.
1. Peter Lev, The Euro-American Cinema, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1993.
2. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne, New York, Phaidon, 1964, p. 9; Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century’, in Reflections, ed. and intro. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott, New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 146–62.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Fox Film Corporation. Director: F. W. Murnau. Scenario: Carl Mayer (based on the story ‘Die Reise nach Tilsit’ by Hermann Sudermann). Producer: William Fox. Titles: Katherine Hilliker, H. H. Caldwell. Cinematographer: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss. Special Effects: Frank D. Williams. Editor: Harold Schuster. Art Director: Rochus Gliese. Art Department: Gordon Wiles. Musical Score: Hugo Riesenfeld. Cast: George O’Brien (the man), Janet Gaynor (the wife), Margaret Livingstone (the woman from the city).]
Robert C. Allen, ‘William Fox Presents “Sunrise”’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, August 1977, pp. 327–38.
Dudley Andrew, ‘The Turn and Return of Sunrise’, Film in the Aura of Art, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984.
Lucy Fischer, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, London, BFI, 1998.
Sumiko Higashi, Virgins, Vamps, and Flappers: The American Silent Movie Heroine, Albans, Eden Press Womens’ Publications, 1978.
Steven N. Lipkin, ‘“Sunrise”: A Film Meets Its Public’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, August 1977, pp. 339–55.
Robin Wood, ‘Murnau’s Midnight and Sunrise’, Film Comment, Vol. 12, No. 3, May–June, 1976, pp. 4–19.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.