Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927): Murnau’s Masterpiece, First Best Picture Oscar Winner

This supremely mounted silent film has held is magic and power extremely well due to the simplicity of the story and the exquisite visual style of F.W. Murnau, the genius German-born director whose life was cut short in a car accident.

Our grade: A (***** out of *****)

Every aspect of the film is striking, from the direction to the mise-en-scene, camerawork, art direction, to the individual performances.

The tale, penned by Carl Mayer, from Hermann Suderman’s story, centers on a romantic triangle, a farmer who plans to kill his loyal and lovely wife having been seduced by a femme from the big city.

The characters have no specific names—they go by their role, the farmer (George O’Brien), the wife (Janet Gaynor), the woman from the city (Margaret Livingston), the maid (Margaret Livingston), and so on.  But the movie is not in the least abstract or symbolic, just universal and stunning in the way that it portrays love and marriage.

In this picture, Murnau continues to show his concern for lighting, spatial dimensions, and dramatic integrity, along with themes that appear in his German films, all exhibiting a rather downbeat (pessimistic) view of life and even a sense of doom.

“Sunrise” is a must-see for every film lover and film student.  Many images will linger in your memory due to their haunting beauty.

Murnau’s first American film has been hailed as “the last high peak of German silent cinema.”  The critic Todd Ludy summed up poignantly the movie’s greatest quality: “The motion picture camera–for so long tethered by sheer bulk and naivete–had with Sunrise finally learned to fly.”

Unfortunately, the movie was not a commercial success, but over the years, reexamined by more savvy critics, Sunrise has become a seminal film in terms of crafts and arts, a benchmark by which other great films (including Welles’ 1941 Citizen Kane, would be measured).

In the 1950s, the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema named “Sunrise” as the “greatest film ever made.”  In various international polls, “Sunrise” feature prominently among the best and most significant films ever made.

Distinguished cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, who both worked on the film, won the Oscar, as did the film, cited for “artistic quality of production” (a category that existed only in the first year of the Academy Awards)

Janet Gaynor, the first Best Actress winner, received the Oscar in 1929 for three films: “Sunrise,” “Seventh Heaven,” and “Street Angel.”

The movie was remade in Germany under the title, “The Journey to Tilsit.”

Running time: 97 Minutes.

Oscar Nominations: 4

 Picture

Actress: Janet Gaynor
Photography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss
Art Decoration: Rochus Gliese

Oscar Awards: 3

Production

Actress

Photography

Oscar Context:

In the first year of the Academy Awards, given in May 1929, the kudos honored films made in 1927-1928.  Two features were cited as Best Picture and Best Production: “Sunrise” and “Wings.”

Cast:

George O’Brien…. The Man
Janet Gaynor…. The Wife
Margaret Livingston…The Woman from the City
Bodil Rosing…. The Maid
J. Farrell MacDonald…. The Photographer
Ralph Sipperly…. The Barber
Jane Winton…. The Manicure Girl
Arthur Housman…. The Obtrusive Gentleman
Eddie Boland…. The Obliging Gentleman
Barry Norton…. Dancer

Credits:

Directed by F.W. Murnau
Writing: Hermann Sudermann  (story) Carl Mayer  (Screenplay)
The movie is also known as “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.”
Running time: 95 Minutes