We see a film every week that dubs itself a study of romance. A film where a man and a woman recognize their differences and settle for the sake of love, this intangible thing that if we could ever so easily define it might solve the world’s problems on a whole in one feel swoop. Or at least that’s what I tell myself at night…
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is that very film. George O’Brien, playing ‘The Man’, is convinced by a mistress he’s seeing who’s on vacation in his town from the big city, played by Margaret Livingston, to drown his wife and run off with her to a much fancier lifestyle. In recent days, spending more and more time with this mistress, The Man and The Woman’s, played by Janet Gaynor, marriage has been going through some strenuous times. She seems to know of his infidelity, even if not specifically in a general sense, and has been saddled with the care of their son with little to no acknowledgement. After being given this plot by his mistress he invites his wife out on a day on the town, planning to drown her while crossing the river. However, along the way — while seeming to reveal his plan through some threatening actions — decides not to kill her and spends the rest of the day winning her over with what seems to be one of the best days of their lives together.
In the Blindspot Series of discussions I’ve talked about Metropolis as well as Sherlock, Jr. as it relates to silent cinema. While I’m not a completely lost individual in it’s ways of storytelling it’s obvious, given the genre’s age, that I am less familiar with it than more modern styles of storytelling. However, with the previous films mentioned, as well as a few other films from that time, I didn’t feel as disconnected as I did from scene to scene as I did with this film. The first fifteen or so minutes of the film felt easily the most arduous as it dealt with one of the least desirable parts of the story that left me wishing it’s absence was an option on the DVD.
Regardless what struck me so starkly are the many moments of visual bliss laced into the fabric of this simple story. While Murnau himself proclaims in the preface of the film the triteness of the story told in this film, “This song… is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere at any time,” I’m still amazed by it in the same why that I’m amazed at Almost Famous for giving me a great coming of age tale. From the wonderous overlayed scenes of Man and Wife walking through the fields as the walk through the streets of the city careless of their surroundings while looking lovingly at one another, to seeing the double-exposed film with the mistress holding the man to their plot the night before the big day; the film is a beauty to look at. People love to use superlatives in discussing the cinematography of films as time goes by, I almost want to refuse to allow them as it relates to this film. Just as we forget to use those superlatives as we talk about Kubrick‘s filmmaking I want to forget them with this movie.
Otherwise the film works best when it’s Beforing the story. In the “Before” trilogy — hopefully to be saga in coming decades — we live and die by the great moments of this couple’s day together. They become intimate and close while at the same time being honest and even hard with one another about not seeing eye to eye all the while. In Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans as we follow a man and woman on their day together it can slowly become a highlight reel of just happiness on screen. Even as we see some more comedic moments, like in the barbershop as the two of them take turns becoming jealous watching people dote on each other from a distance, we become invested in wanting these two to have the best day ever; and seeing it come to life is a joy.
As the end of the film comes about, bringing some ironic (but forseeable) twists in the plot, is when the film and I started to part. While I understand it being necessary for the completion of the mistress plot-line it only highlights how unnecessary and undesired it is on the whole. There are other ways for us to have the story ask this man to want to consider leaving his wife in such a dark manner, and while it attributes to a few of my favourite shots of the film it takes away from the “Before”aspects of the film that I love so dearly.