“I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid, I just couldn’t find the proof. It was just a kind of feeling. There is goodness in blue sky and flowers, but another force – a wild pain and decay – also accompanies everything.”
– David Lynch
A Man is seduced by A Woman From the City. She smokes and dresses in black, waiting in moonlight by the shores of an endless lake. She wants him to run away with her, sell his farm.
“…and my wife?” asks the Man.
The Woman laughs, gazing into a far distance, fingers playing at his hair, taming him, controlling.
“Couldn’t she get….drowned?”
So begins one of the most remarkable and strangest of films, silent or otherwise. The story, or the idea of a story, is so simple as to be almost elemental, a Grimm tale forged in great brush-strokes. It is there in the film’s subtitle: ‘A Song of Two Humans’: what else can the song be but love? What else do we have? And it is there in the lack of names, the quiet but immense victory of universality, of Woman and Man, of Country and City. Murnau, it seems, sought to create a parable, a paper drawing, and that’s an easier thing to do when your actors do not have to speak, or reflect incumbent realities. Think, crudely, of Jean Hagen in Singin’ In The Rain, or, if you will, of Boyhood. If Man and Woman had thick Brooklyn accent, or Georgian drawl, or Bavarian lilt, the film would descend into terrestrial particulars. So the first thing to note is that Sunrise could only be made silent. The blood-rush of music is all that we need. It’s not the characters, or the actors beyond, that find our concern; it is the feeling that finds us, the effortless idea that this goes on (without attempted murder) everywhere, all at once.
I ask, what else do we have? But we have cinema. And this is the beginnings of the camera movement, and of cinematography as mass hallucination. Story would come later, and complexity of character, but not from Hollywood, and not from Murnau. We forget, because we don’t have to remember, that once the camera was still new and amazing and that Kubrick had not yet been born (July 26, 1928). And we forget that we are breast-fed on dog-shit camera-work, where anything is possible and nothing interesting, and we wonder despondently to ourselves why we cannot appreciate the achingly simple beauty of apparent weightlessness, the flowing movement over a crowd of people doing what people do.
“The motion picture camera,” wrote Todd Ludy, “for so long tethered by sheer bulk and naiveté had with Sunrise finally learned to fly.”
Realizations emerge in flickers and bursts of visual poetry; and even the term visual poetry, so overburdened, must have been created for this film. There are so many beautiful moments; boats drifting haphazardly on a river at night; the Expressionist slope of the house where Man and Woman live; the stuttering journey of the train from Country to City, from stillness into bustling activity; a marriage; a drunken skittering pig; phantom apparitions of the Forest, backlit and gorgeous, as Man and Woman walk through City streets, unaware of blaring traffic, filled with love.
Yet, it’s also easy to overlook the sheer strangeness of this film. The husband is clearly a homicidal lunatic: violence and sexual conquest live together in his blackened eyes. The wife is lonely and defeated; the temptress pure succubus. And Murnau, of course, made his way in darkness and evils. Sunrise is the tale of two humans, yes, but there is also an underlying shadow, waiting beneath the rippling surface of that placid lake. The ending feels unconvinced of itself; we feel that something crueller may have happened, easily and naturally. Melodrama, it seems, hides forms of horror that exist everywhere, and the opening titles tell us as much.
And how long before the Man gives in to his murderous urges? How long before tragedy and horror strike seemingly beautiful family existences? This is the song of two humans. We have love, cinema and violence. The three great truths.