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Favorite Films: Sunrise (1927)

George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans

It is difficult to think that the first time I saw F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans was some half century after it was produced in 1927. And now I saw it again, almost a century after it was produced. Each time, I thought it was one of the most beautiful films ever made.

None of the characters in the film are named. Unlike most silent films, there were few titles. Murnau had the unique ability to let the visuals speak by themselves, except for a few times when it was absolutely necessary. We begin with a farmer and his wife whose relationship is falling apart because of a girl from the city who is vacationing in their community and who is targeting the farmer for what she can get out of him.

In one of their trysts, the city girl suggests that the farmer take his wife boating and drown her. She even collects bullrushes so that the farmer can save himself by floating on them after he has deliberately swamped the rowboat.

He does take his wife on a boat ride to the city. At one point, he looms over her scaring her. She knows about the relationship and is scared for her life, and for their child, who has been left at home under the care of a maid. The farmer repents of his intention and works at winning her back once they reach the city. These city scenes are by far the best in the film, as he takes her to a restaurant, a photography studio, a church wedding, a barber shop, a carnival, and a dance hall. By the end of the evening, they are obviously still in love with each other. And Murnau’s images of the city are magical.

The Farmer and His Wife in the Magical City Scenes

On the boat ride back to the farm, a storm rises; and the husband and wife are separated as the boat sinks. Has what the farmer planned to do happened by accident? You’ll just have to see the film to find out. And that would definitely be worth your while.