“For wherever the sun rises and sets, in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.”
The most striking revelation occurred to me during my research for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. I was entranced by the film, and I found it to be the unquestionable best silent film I’d ever seen. It seemed to me the peak, the final amalgamation of so many silent classics which I had seen and adored. It picked pieces from many films, the most cutting edge cinematography and the most engaging storytelling, and it felt like the highest accomplishment of any film which came before Citizen Kane. Then I noticed the release date: September 23, 1927, just one week before the release of The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized sound. I was baffled by this connection, and I’m in this wondrous haze while thinking about the film’s place in history. It feels like the absolute send-off to the genre, the end of an era, and what a magical film to claim that title.
Sunrise tells of a man (George O’Brien) and a woman (Janet Gaynor) who are years into their marriage while living on a farm with a child. The spark has faded in their relationship, though the woman longs to connect with her husband again. He, however, has taken an interest in a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) with whom he spends much of his time and money. When she tells the man to drown his wife so they can be together, it sets in motion a heartbreaking, though ultimately triumphant, course of events.
What pulled me right into this film is how it twists the silent film genre and feels like a very modern movie, either by working around its constraints or glorifying them. Title cards, for instance, are used very scarcely, with the actors relying on powerful facial expressions and concrete gestures to convey story information. While a film like Dr. Caligari feels cluttered with all of its plot points, settings, and dialogue, Sunrise is a film which understands that a silent film is far more powerful when kept simple. When title cards are used, they are drawn in a beautiful, artistic way to enhance the message of the dialogue. There’s often a tedium to sitting through title cards in a silent film which holds back the genre, but Sunrise accepts their necessity and turns them into something beautiful.
In one of the strongest displays of silent film acting you’ll ever see, Janet Gaynor absolutely carries this film. She serves as a signal for how the audience should feel, as she’s one of the most sympathetic characters you can get in a movie. It’s little moments that stick out the most: such as when her husband invites her on the boat ride with the intent to murder her, but you see this glimmer in her eye like she’s finally going to do something romantic with the person she loves again. Her face alone puts out such care and honesty into the film that you simply can’t take your eyes off her. George O’Brien brings a fine performance as well, even if the film’s first thirty minutes makes it far harder to sympathize with his more redeemable moments.
I often watch a silent film and think how interesting a modern remake could be, but this is the rare case of a 90 year old story which was perfectly told on its first attempt. Never before have I seen a silent film and felt that the story actually melded into the genre. This isn’t just a movie without sound; it’s a movie that needed to be without sound. It’s a genuine, emotional work of compelling artistry which is only enhanced by its simplicity. It’s my favorite silent film after just one viewing, and I’m skeptical that I’ll watch anything even half as charming any time soon.
The film is up on Youtube here if anyone is interested in seeing it.
Films Left to Watch: 895