#170) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)


#170) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

OR “Cinematic Couples Counseling”

Directed by F.W. Murnau

Written by Carl Mayer. Based on the short story “The Excursion to Tilsit” by Herrmann Sudermann.

Class of 1989

The Plot: A Man and his Wife (George O’Brien & Janet Gaynor) live on a farm in the country with their newborn child. Though they were once happily in love, their marriage has fallen on harder times. The Man has been carrying on an affair with a visiting Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). She convinces the Man that he must kill his wife, sell the farm, and move to the city to be with her. The Man begins to carry out this plan, but cannot bring himself to do it. Their marriage is put to a demanding, yet cinematically beautiful test.

Why It Matters: The NFR salutes Murnau and his penchant for “introducing new technical methods of enhancing the storytelling process.”

But Does It Really?: You don’t make the first round of NFR films without doing something right. “Sunrise” has earned its reputation as possibly the best silent film ever made. It is the apex of what film could achieve before the advent of sound. F.W. Murnau succeeds at the difficult balancing act of strong story and innovative technology. The technical breakthroughs are a revelation, yet always at the service of the story. O’Brien & Gaynor don’t let the aesthetics overpower them, and both give genuine, heartfelt performances that ground the film. “Sunrise” is an apt title for a film that showed us the promise and the beauty of a new era in film.

Everybody Gets One: Margaret Livingston is known for two things: playing the other woman in “Sunrise” and being on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht when director/producer/her alleged lover Thomas Ince died on board. His death certificate says “heart failure”, but yellow journalism at the time speculated murder, and the legend lives on.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the whole “women are property” vibe that permeates throughout. Also big bands and jazz, but mostly that first thing.

Seriously, Oscars?: As if the Academy created the Oscars with this film in mind, “Sunrise” was a major player at the 1st Academy Awards. “Sunrise” started with four nominations and won a record-breaking three: Actress for Janet Gaynor (along with her performance in “7th Heaven”), Cinematography, and something called Best Unique and Artistic Picture. This category was only presented at the first Oscars, alongside the category of Outstanding Picture, which went to “Wings”. The Academy merged these two categories together the following year and retroactively declared “Wings” the first Best Picture, leaving “Sunrise” out of oh-so-many Best Picture montages. Despite the film’s strong turnout, F.W. Murnau was not nominated for Best Director.

Other notes

  • “From an Original Theme by”? I guess the word “adapted” hadn’t been invented yet.
  • All I wish is to one day be cast in a movie as either “Obtrusive Gentleman” or “Obliging Gentleman”.
  • Fox was quick to cash in on the latest trend, consequently making “Sunrise” one of the first movies to have its soundtrack synchronized with the film.
  • Holy crap this is already a vast creative improvement over its contemporary silent films. Murneau is fully aware that movies are not the real world and adhere to their own logic. You can move the camera around, superimpose images for symbolism, or do anything else you can think of. Long Live German Expressionism!
  • Nice try, but you can’t make 21-year-old Janet Gaynor look homely and careworn.
  • A flashback within an intertitle! Talk about innovation.
  • I wonder how that baby felt years later we he learned that not only is his butt featured in a movie, but that movie has been preserved by film historians, meaning his butt will be seen by future generations.
  • Dogs are always the first to sense earthquakes, hurricanes, and attempted murder.
  • George O’Brien may have the worst posture of any movie star ever.
  • I predict a lot of couch-sleeping in The Man’s future.
  • The city is only one trolley stop away? Why would you ever live in the country?
  • Not a big turnout for this wedding. Is it a weekday?
  • But seriously, the cinematography in this is amazing. Kudos to Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. There are several shots that made me think, “How did they do that?”
  • Geez, even back then there was manspreading. No wonder he’s “The Obtrusive Gentleman”.
  • If you’re watching the version with the original soundtrack, you’ll recognize the use of Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette” in the photographer scene. I didn’t realize Hitch made cameos in other people’s movies.
  • And then we get to the funfair sequence that, while entertaining, really has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s an example of the dangers of adapting a short story into a film. I was not expecting one of the first 25 NFR films to devote this much screen time to a drunken pig (and that’s not a euphemism, there’s an actual pig who sops up wine).
  • Not only does Murnau overlap some of the film’s visuals, he also overlaps some of the film’s soundtracks.
  • Wow, Gaynor can sleep through anything.
  • The ending left me breathless. Literally, it wasn’t until the film ended that I realized I was holding my breath.


  • F. W. Murnau would go on to make three more films in America (including fellow NFR entry “Tabu”) before his untimely death in a car crash at age 42.
  • The original short story was adapted into a German film in 1939, this time as “The Journey to Tilsit”.
  • Where this movie left off, “A Place in the Sun” picked up and continued.
  • This film’s unintentional legacy was, appropriately enough, the beginning of film preservation. Turns out nitrate film spontaneously combusts when not properly stored, and “Sunrise” was one of several films whose original negative was destroyed in the 1937 Fox vault fire. This was Hollywood’s first wakeup call to the danger of losing our films/cultural heritage. Side Note: Obviously a print of “Sunrise” survived elsewhere, and a new negative was created.

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