Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)


     There are only a handful of silent films that I really enjoy. I know I should enjoy more, but I guess that because I’ve been conditioned to movies having sound my whole life, it’s hard for me to really get into a silent one. But still, there are some really good ones that I’ve seen: “Intolerance”, “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, “The King of Kings”, even the recent film “The Artist”—which is a special kind of silent film in the sense that it actually uses some sound for artistic reasons. Many people probably saw “The Artist” and thought that its use of sound was revolutionary, but it turns out that this technique was first used in 1927 by German expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau in his masterpiece, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”.

     “Sunrise” tells the story of an unnamed man (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor) living in some kind of country town in the United States, but the city surrounding it is full of distractions, one of which is a woman (Margaret Livingston) who has won the man’s affections—or lust. As we are introduced to these three characters, the woman sits alone in her home with her baby boy, crying for her husband who hardly ever spends time at home anymore and instead sneaks out to see the woman from the city. One night, the man meets up with the city woman, and she suggests that they leave for the city together. And in order to be totally free to leave, she tells him to kill his wife.

     Though he is extremely conflicted about it, the man decides to go through with the act, and one morning, he takes his wife on a rowboat onto the nearby lake. When they are farther in, the man slowly stands in the boat and approaches the wife, about to throw her overboard to her death. But suddenly, he realizes what he is doing and immediately sits back down and turns the boat around, arriving again at shore. The wife leaves the boat and runs away from her husband, who chases after her hoping to make amends. But of course, after a man has almost attempted to kill his wife, it’s understandable that the wife is at least a little shaken.

     Eventually, the two arrive in the city, and the wife is slowly able to accept her husband’s apologies as he buys her flowers and walks her down the street. The two then see a church where a wedding is starting, and they enter to see the ceremony. As the priest talks to the groom, something stirs inside the man:

PRIEST: God is giving you, in the holy bonds of matrimony, a trust. She is young, and inexperienced; guide her and love her, keep and protect her from all harm. Wilt thou love her?

     As the groom responds, so does the man, as his face falls into his wife’s lap in tears, begging for forgiveness. And for the next forty-five minutes of the film, “Sunrise” basically just follows the man and his wife around the city as they spend the day together. The man gets a shave, they get their pictures taken at a photo shop, and they end their day at a carnival. And through it all, the man and his wife fall further and further in love. All these scenes may seem like a lot of “padding” just to make a longer movie, but to me, it portrays the couple’s reconciliation as if to say that it is more important than a film’s conventional three-act structure, and that’s pretty profound to me.

     The film ends, however, on a suspenseful note, as the two of them go on another rowboat at night to go home, and a storm suddenly hits, separating the two and making the man believe that his wife has drowned. The woman from the city arrives at his home, assuming the man killed his wife after all, but when he sees her, he nearly strangles the woman to death. He is stopped, however, when his maid yells for him to come into the house, that some men have found his wife and rescued her. The next morning, as the wife awakes from her sleep, she smiles at her husband sitting next to her as she lays on the bed with her son, and as the woman from the city heads back where she came from, the beautiful sunrise closes the film.

     “Sunrise” has been called one of the greatest films ever made for many reasons regarding its technical side. Murnau was one of the pioneers of German expressionist films, which used exaggerated imagery to symbolize emotions or characters’ feelings. With this film, Murnau brought that touch to a modern American film, and not only is there a whole lot of awesome, symbolic imagery in the film, but the film is also one of the first films ever (if not the first) to use an actual soundtrack in an artistic way. (It was overshadowed upon its release, however, by the more popular “The Jazz Singer”, which, if I may say so, is almost inferior to “Sunrise”.)

     But when you come right down to it, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” is actually a pretty simple story. A man and his wife are going through a rocky time in their relationship, and in the end, they reconcile and find themselves more in love than they have ever been. It’s a simple story, but it’s so beautiful! And it’s an awesome reminder of how we often as humans have to re-commit ourselves to loving others—not solely our significant others, but everyone!

     The first example of this in the Bible that I think of is Psalm 51, which King David wrote after committing adultery with Bathsheba. His request, as I have referenced before on this site, is a pure and perfect plea for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (51:1-2) Asking a spouse for forgiveness is hard enough, but I think many of us underestimate how important it is to come to God for forgiveness of sin. Maybe it’s because we need to do it so often?

     Whatever you and I need forgiveness for today, I pray that we would find reconciliation in God’s love, and that we would strive each day to be more in love with Him than we were the day before.

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