Director: F. W. Murnau
Studio: Fox Pictures
Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Language: Silent with English Captions
Not Rated: two instances of immodest dress, a man chocking a woman
A young couple’s marriage is in jeopardy as an adulterous relationship develops when a vacationer comes to the countryside. A woman, (Margaret Livingston) on an extended stay from the city, seduces the husband (George O’Brien) of a peasant couple into contemplating selling his farm and running off with the mistress. The husband, already taking on a mountain of debt in order to indulge in his sinful ways, is torn on the idea because of his existing marriage. When the mistress suggests that his wife (Janet Gaynor) might be drowned in a boating accident, the husband, enslaved by his lust, considers the possibility.
The film was adapted from the Hermann Sudermann short story “A Trip to Tilsit.” Considered one of the greatest silent films ever, this beautifully shot and touching story is a true testament to sanctity of the sacrament of marriage. The transformations of characters are extremely well portrayed. The film, not terribly far from its centennial, will continue to stand the test of time for true admirers of film.
Many consider “Sunrise” to be the best silent film of all time, however, some even insist it is one of the greatest films silent or not. The film is conformed to an expressionist style that German director F. W. Murnau is renowned for. This style constructs an exaggerated world to produce symbolic effects. The absence of names for the characters emphasizes the symbolic effect even more profoundly. The character development is masterfully portrayed in symbolism throughout the film’s entirety.
The film opens with a boat coming into port. It is then relayed that these are vacationers coming to the peasant countryside. The woman from the city is shown preparing herself for her scandalous affair. She immediately contrasts to the local residence. Her fake outward appearance fits well with her inner convictions. She even has the inn keeper’s wife shine her shoes on her way out.
A young husband and wife are about to sit down for evening supper when the husband hears whistles from his mistress outside. He plots his subtle escape and his wife comes back from the kitchen to his absence. The wife begins to break down as she is does not seem oblivious to the current circumstances. It seems the affair is well known by many. Flashbacks show better times before the debt collectors begin to take the livestock from the couple. The man is shown walking through the swamp to indulge himself with his mistress. The moonlight shining on the wet swamp portrays the monster like figure that the man is becoming. At the first suggestion of killing his wife the man is appalled, yet as the sin grips him in the form of his mistress, he later agrees to the arrangement. At the instruction of the woman, the man takes a couple bundles of reeds and hides them till morning.
In the morning the wife is out of bed early and is going about her daily chores. She is grateful in her work even though she suffers with her misfortunes. She is remarkable beautiful and humbly goes about which is a complete contrast to the mistress. She is the virtue to the mistresses vice. However, the man is still overcome by his lust for the mistress (as shown in the ghostly effect of her over him). He sets up the planned outing with his wife. She is completely unsuspecting but as they get into the boat she seems to become more suspicious. The man is so awkward that even the dog knows something is wrong and races to delay the trip even for just a moment. On the water, the husband begins to approach his wife with his hands out and fear starts to set in for the wife. The sin has brought him so far, but the grace of his wife leaves him incapable of following through.
The woman is devastated as she quickly jumps off the boat onto shore and runs up a hill to a trolley. The husband runs after her pleading for her to “not be afraid” of him. The woman still distressed becomes completely distraught and abandons any sense of rational thought. She moves through the streets only to be saved by the husband who now becomes protective of her. He buys her flowers and deserts but none of those seem to faze his wife’s uncontrollable crying. She continuously breaks down in public because of the attempt on her life. As they walk the streets together, they see a wedding party making its way into a Church. The husband later leads them back to the Church as they decide to sit in on the ceremony.
The couple witnesses the wedding party vows. The words of faithfulness and obligation of duty to protect his spouse settle into the couple’s minds. The husband has now reached the climax of his repentance and embraces his wife with a true emotion plea for forgiveness of his shortcomings. All of his efforts of reconciliation so far have not come to fruition. His gestures until this point have been minor, and a serious repentance is needed to reclaim his wife’s trust. It is fitting that they come into the presence of God where a true reconciliation can take place. The sacramental vow soaks into their hearts and renews their spirit. The love for one another comes back to life as if they had reversed back into time to the very start of their marriage. Not only has the husband repented but his wife has accepted him again. Her heart had been shattered but now those pieces have been restored. The marriage is reborn with an embrace of forgiveness and happiness.
Just as if they were newly married, symbolically, the couple leaves the front of the Church and descends the stairs where the crowd has parted on each side in anticipation of the real wedding party. Here begins the wedding night for the couple as they reignite their marriage. They first see a photography shop and wish to get their picture taken. The husband is in dire need of a shave so they march over to the local barbershop. The modern barbershop is a prime example of the expressionist style of the film. Here the husband’s transformation will mark its completion in spirit and now in the physical. Before, as he slowly developed into a monster, he was rugged with his hair in no apparent order. Now, he will be clean shaven with his outer transformation back to a loving husband complete.
The barbershop also presents another temptation, this time for each spouse. However, they are both a challenge to the husband then they are the wife, since he was the adulterer. He rejects the woman’s enticement and then resolves the situation with his wife’s encounter with another gentleman. Here, the husband shows his faithfulness in the rejection of the woman’s presence and also his protection to his wife in disposing of her admirer. Again, the two main attributes of the martial vows he had just heard.
The couple returns to the photographer to get their picture taken and, not ironically, are mistaken for a newly married couple. While they are awaiting the development of the pictures, they playfully look around the props and accidentally knock over a statue. The statue breaks with the head misplaced. The couple rummages through the room but cannot seem to place it. With time running out, the husband replaces the head with an obviously misplaced ball with a face drawn on. The photographer comes back out; they pay and quickly leave. It’s just the sort of thing a young couple might do. After the rush of escaping, the couple views their portrait only to find themselves in the picture embracing in a kiss. Their wedding night has just begun.
The arrival at the carnival isn’t without incident as well. While trying to impress his wife in a game, the husband finds a pig has got out and attempts to chase it down. He receives much fan fare after he finally corners and captures the pig. This is followed with the couple’s “first dance” of the night, again to the awe of the crowd. They finally celebrate with a bottle of wine in which the husband realizes he has exhausted his financial means. The wife, however is able to save the day as she has brought a little of her own savings. The couple escapes the town and envisions a quiet moonlight journey back home on the water. They probably haven’t had such a magical night since they were actually married.
The quiet ride back on the water is interrupted by a sudden storm. The waters become extremely violent and the couple realizes they are in a troubling situation. Remembering the stowed away reeds, the husband takes them and ties them around his wife. The husband now has come full circle, as he initially planned on using the reeds for himself after he killed off his wife. The scene is emotional and quickly ended with a huge wave consuming the small boat. The storm dies down and one wonders if the man has made the ultimate sacrifice for his wife.
On the contrary, the man washes up ashore alive and frantically gathers the townspeople to help search for his missing wife. During the commotion, the mistress from the city takes notice and subtly makes her way down to the dock. The mistress is shown looking through the ads to find a buyer for the farm who pays in cash. It is now fully understood that the woman main objective is monetary gain from the adulterous relationship. She probably has no intention of even carrying on the relationship after the selling of the farm. The town’s people search the waters but only find the scattered reeds from the bundles the husband tied around his wife. All hope seems lost as they all return to the town and the husband to his house to see his infant son. The mistress anticipates the plan was a success and wonders over to the house. The man kneels next to his wife’s bed in complete sorrow but only to hear the whistling again from the mistress. As she approaches the door she soon finds out that she is encountering a different man. She turns and runs in fear only to be caught by the husband who starts to strangle her. Considering he almost murdered his wife and the circumstances of righting his wrong, this is a probable outcome. However, he is interrupted by the cries of the house maid that the wife has been found and is alive. He leaves the mistress and runs quickly to his wife. Hope has been restored.
In the finale, the mistress is shown returning to the city and the sun rises for a new day. As the movie opened with the woman making her way to the peasant town, it concludes with her leaving. In contrast, the sin which came into the marriage has now left and the restoration to its proper dignity is complete.
Arts and Faith Top 100 Film List
United States Library of Congress
United States National Film Registry
American Film Institute’s Top 100 Passions List
Top 10 Sight and Sound Critics Poll for best film ever made (2002, 2012)
Academy Award Winners: Best Art Director, Best Unique and Artistic Production, Best Cinematography, Best Actress in a Leading Role
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