[Warning: If you haven't seen Sunrise, don't read this — instead go
see Sunrise immediately.]
Sunrise may not be the greatest film ever made — it may not even be
the greatest film of the silent era — but it certainly has passages,
many passages, that rank among the greatest in the history cinema and
still help chart the limits of what the medium can do.
Oddly, though, most of these supremely great passages happen in the
first 45 minutes of the film. After that, there are many wonderful
moments, much gorgeous lighting and many striking plastic effects, but
none of them are breathtaking in the way the high points of the first
I think there's a fairly simple explanation for this, and it has to do
with the structure of the story itself. The film tells the tale of a
simple man living in a rustic farming and fishing village who's seduced
away from his wife by a vamp visiting the village from the city. He
determines to drown his wife in the course of a boat outing but when he
moves to do so he sees himself, sees what he's become, in her terrified
eyes and draws back from the deed. She flees him when they get to land
again, jumps on a trolley — he jumps on, too, and they ride into the
city. There, as he's trying to atone for his awful behavior, they
stumble on a wedding. The man falls apart, begs for forgiveness, is
forgiven, and they walk out of the church like a newly married couple.
This is the artistic, emotional and spiritual climax of the film . . .
but the film is only half over.
We then see the couple recover their former lightheartedness at a
fairgrounds. We cut back to the scheming vamp in the village, and this
sets up an expectation that she will somehow intervene in the couple's
reunion and jeopardize it — but in fact this never happens. The man
has made his choice — the vamp has no more power over him.
On the boat ride home a storm washes the couple overboard, the man
thinks his wife has drowned, and he's devastated. There's great irony
in this, of course, but no great dramatic weight, because it doesn't
involve any further development of the characters' inner lives. The
storm is a mechanical contrivance — an impersonal threat to a marriage
that has already been reborn and renewed.
The man rejects the vamp with physical violence, almost killing her,
before being told that his wife has been found alive — saved by a
bundle of reeds the vamp had gathered as a device for the man to use to save
himself after he'd killed the wife. Again, there are multiple
ironies in these developments but, again, no real progression in the
inner lives of the characters. The storm isn't a direct consequence of
the man's past behavior and the reeds don't redeem the vamp — they are
like visual and narrative puns with no fundamental significance for the
The second half of the film does contains things one would miss if Sunrise had ended at the halfway point. In the fairgrounds
carousing, Janet Gaynor's character gets to reveal herself as a sensual
being, something she isn't really able to do as the long-suffering wife
in the opening sequences, where her astonishingly bad helmet-wig seems
to be giving her a headache — as it gives us one. The George O'Brien
character is so frankly sensual, even when he's menacing, that there
would be an imbalance without those fairgrounds scenes. O'Brien's
character also suffers in the second half from the apparent loss of his
wife, a tragedy he almost brought upon himself. Without seeing that
suffering, we might feel that he'd gotten off too easily for his
despicable behavior. And of course the vamp gets her comeuppance —
though it's almost more comeuppance than she deserves.
But none of these things transcends the emotional and dramatic climax
of the scene in the church or adds anything of essential significance
to it. They're like echoes of and reflections on a story that's
already been told. In the second half, Murnau can't summon up sublime
cinematic expressions for powerful emotional developments — because
those developments simply aren't there.
Pointing out the flaws in the dramatic structure of Sunrise does
nothing, of course, to diminish its stature as one of the most
important works in the history of cinema. It was the film that taught
John Ford the secret of movies, and that alone would make it a work of
inestimable value. It's one of those rare films that one one can watch
again and again with increasing astonishment and enchantment, and it
continues to inspire each new generation of filmmakers, especially
cinematographers, for whom it is a kind of touchstone. But recognizing
its structural flaws might help explain the vague and perhaps even
guilty feeling of disappointment which steals over one whenever that
“Finis” card comes up on the screen.
The great passages of the film, great as they are, don't add up to a
great whole work.
[Vincente Minnelli's fine film The Clock has a couple of intriguing echoes of Sunrise, which I think are too close to be accidental. Both films deal with moments of crisis in a marriage that play out in an urban setting. In both movies, the crisis is at first exacerbated and then transcended by the city environment, which becomes a kind of character in the drama. In the aftermath of both crises, the married couples try to get back to a state of normality in a restaurant, but the simple act of trying to share a meal only emphasizes the distance between them. In both restaurant scenes, the women break down. These scenes are followed by ones in which the couples happen upon a wedding in a church — they enter the church and participate vicariously in the ceremony, which restores their sense of commitment to each other. In each film, the church scene is the emotional climax of the story. In The Clock, the rest of the film is coda — in Sunrise the rest of the film is coda, too, but stretched out far too long, and too loaded with incident, to work properly as such.]