The plot of Sunrise was adapted to Hollywood conventions from a naturalistic novella by Hermann Sudermann. It is wrong, however, to assume the changes were all for the bad, as so many critics have done. The film's plot is neither hopelessly sentimental nor melodramatic. It is true that Carl Mayer and F. W. Murnau, with a free hand from the studio, changed the tragic ending of the novella to a happy one for the film. This change can be viewed as an improvement upon Sudermann's gratuitously ironic ending of having the young husband's death occur after the couple's reconciliation. If not viewed as an improvement, the popular-art convention of the happy ending is certainly no worse than the naturalistic one of culminating a work with a tragic twist whether it is apt or not. Also the third party of the love triangle was, in the novella, a servant girl and, in the film, is a vamp from the city. On the basis of this change, all too many critics have accused Mayer and Murnau of setting up a simplistic "good-country" and "evil-city" polarity; however, they forget that the couple's experiences in the city, with all its modern delights, bring the husband and wife back together – or perhaps together for the first time. The plot allowed Murnau to draw upon his background in art history and literature, and above all it offered the basis for a cinematic narrative par excellence. This plot was made for the camera, especially in motion, and for the radical oscillations of lighting and mood that are so conducive to a temporal art like film. In such fertile soil, the talents of cameramen Rosher and Struss flourished.
Human characters, in Sunrise, are secondary to the true protagonist – the camera. The scenes in this film are neither conceived as a staged work, like so many silent films, nor as slices of actuality on which the camera allows us to spy. The premise of the film is that the camera will move; and that it will have any excuse to move. Plots and characters seem pretenses for movement and light; boats, dance halls, trolley cars, and other city traffic – not intrigue and love – are the true forces of motion in Sunrise. Akin to the ballets created by the avantgarde in the Paris of the 1910s and 1920s, patterns of movement seek their raison d'être in the slimmest threat of plot. In addition, the camera (and the cameramen) have been allowed so much freedom that the camera soon takes on a life of its own. Even when the camera is at rest or pauses within a shot, the effect is electric.
According to the testimony of Rosher, Murnau was obsessed with capturing the play of light, especially as it occurred on the surface of the lake – either in nature or in the studio. Water, boats, moonlight, and reeds are pretenses for capturing the fleeting effects of light, much in the same way that clouds and waterlilies are used in Claude Monet's last paintings. Indeed, the film's frequent use of mist, dim lighting, and blurred exposures reminds one of Monet's work. This impressionistic concentration on light is not just limited to the scenes of the lake; in the city, glass replaces water. In the famous restaurant scene, lighted figures are seen dancing behind a glass window; people move in front of the window and are reflected in it; and the camera moves to catch the reflected light from different angles. The effect is shimmering.
A frequent complaint concerning Sunrise is that the film is divided into disjointed parts and stylized scenes often clash with more naturalistic ones. Murnau compared his own narrative structure to that used by James Joyce. Just as in Ulysses, there is a radical shift of style to match the spirit of different episodes; so too, in Sunrise, is there a fluctuation between the actual and the artificial. Murnau may have had another source for his scene-structuring in the German Expressionist theatre – especially in the works of Ernst Toller, where naturalistic scenes alternate with expressionistic ones. There are few films that depict such an astute sense of the spirit of place and the events that occur there, as, for example, where the husband secretly meets the vamp, and passes through a studio-set marsh with a broodingly low horizon lit by a moon shining through the haze. Also, the trolley ride taken by the husband and wife gives the sense of a location shot made in daylight; the joyful effect is complete down to the bouncing of the trolley car. The trolley soon moves into the city, actually a studio backlot construction, that is scaled larger than life in order to convey the awe of the country couple who are seeing the city for the first time. The actual only seems to be so. Acting, like the lighting and the sets, is conceived of scene by scene. Murnau took great pains in making the actors' gestures and facial expressions fit the moment; therefore, the styles of acting fluctuate between the naturalistic and the expressionistic. And over all there is the evermoving mercurial camera. In every way, each scene is contrived to have its own particular mood, and each fits with another like pieces of Byzantine mosaic.
Hollywood fell under the spell of Sunrise, and under its influence the camera took wings, only to have them clipped by the limitations of primitive sound equipment. In the long run, however, the lessons of Sunrise resurfaced in such films as John Ford's The Informer and Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. The camera searching through the night and fog for a reflected gleam of light was a thematic and formalistic motif in these films. On the one hand, Sunrise culminated film's silent experience; but, on the other, it foreshadowed the first maturity of sound.
Release Date: 1927
Starring: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Bodil Rosing, Margaret Livingstone, J. Farrell Macdonald, Ralph Sipperly, Jane Winton, Arthur Houseman, Eddie Boland, Gina Corrado, Barry Norton, and Sally Eilers
Director: F. W. Murnau
Writer: Carl Mayer
Source Citation: Farnsworth, Rodney. "Sunrise." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1169-1171.