Sunrise: Silent Poem like a Dream

As I continue my discussion of poetic moments in film, I head back 86 years to the silent era with F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece, Sunrise. Early in the film I encountered an awe inspiring scene that lifted me out of the narrative and into a moment of viewing ecstasy, a transcendent moment of cinematic poetry.

Director F. W. Murnau’s silent film, Sunrise, subtitled A Song of Two Humans, released in 1927, tells the story of a married farmer, played by George O’Brian, who is having an affair with a character called “Woman from the City.” He intends to drown his wife (Janet Gaynor) so that he can sell his farm and be with the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), but he is unable to carry out his plan and ends up trying to reclaim their love. In the film’s most poetic scene the Man leaves his Wife, who is preparing dinner, to meet the Woman from the City as she waits for him by the lake. The tone of the scene is dreamlike and haunting. As the Man walks slowly from the house, he saunters to his destination with his hands in his pockets. He passes through a marsh and crosses over a wooden fence. The camera follows him from behind, moving seamlessly, never cutting away. It is as if we are floating behind and spying on his indiscretion. The camera moves beyond the farmer and pushes through the trees to reveal the City Woman standing by the lake, impatiently twirling a flower in her hand while she waits for her lover. As soon as she hears him coming, she tosses the flower aside, opens her purse, and applies lipstick and powder. The City Woman is modern, chic; she is dressed in black and wears a stylish black hat over her short dark hair. She is the complete opposite of his wife, who is soft and dressed in light tones. Her hair is blond and worn severely flat and tight against her head, as if to symbolize restraint and certainty. The City Woman’s hair is worn in a modern short and loose style. Murnau juxtaposes the urban and the rural by placing the City Woman with country elements: the lake, the marsh, the trees, the fog, the weeds, and the moon. Her costume dramatically contrasts with the surroundings: she is out of place, her dress is shiny or glossy like a snake. Her movements are frenetic and certain. They contrast with the farmer’s movements which are slow, lumbering, and uncertain. Even the flower she holds is limp and lifeless as she twirls it in her hand with complete disregard. Once the man arrives, they embrace in a long passionate kiss, still under the moon. The kiss ends with a cut to the wife as she embraces their child, again contrasting with the City Woman as she embraces the Man. He mirrors his own baby cuddled in its mother’s arms, as he’s held in the woman’s arms, helpless like the baby.

The visual polarities of the man and woman create a sense of tension in the scene. Ken Dancyger in his book, Global Scriptwriting, writes: “Polarities or opposites are a very useful device to create drama or conflict. Where characters in the story have opposite goals, and where these differences are dramatically purposeful you have the idea of opposites working for you in the narrative.”1 The Man is unworldly and poor and lives in the country with his wife. The City Woman is chic and worldly and lives in the city as single modern woman of the 1920s. The film scene is haunting and feels like a dream, partially because of the fact that it’s a silent film and because of the black and white images. These two elements create an aesthetic distance. We experience the world in color and sound. Roger Ebert states, “. . . silent films were more dreamlike, and Murnau was a genius at evoking odd, disturbing images and juxtapositions that created a nightmare state.”2 

Murnau, a German expressionist, was famous for experimentation. In this moment by the lake, the dark images and juxtaposition combine to express the necessary emotions. There are very few intertitles in the film; with the haunting imagery they are almost unnecessary.3 Justin DeFreitas states: “The story develops on screen in pictures and not in words, a major step in allowing film to separate itself from literature and stand on its own as a legitimate source of entertainment.”4  Although the scene by the lake is crucial to the plot development, it still seems to stand apart from the film and exist as a satisfactory viewing experience. It has the vertical quality with multiple layers of meaning that are expressed: the contrasting dress and look of the two women, the fog, the moon, the mother embracing her baby while the City Woman embraces the Man, and finally the Man reluctantly walking through the marsh as if he is weighted down while the camera seems to glide behind him and fly over the uneven terrain. 5  It’s been speculated that George O’Brian (the Man) wore weights in his shoes to help create the heavy, lumbering walk. The camera is buoyant and free like a dream in which you can fly. But the Man and the City Woman are heavy, they wear dark costumes, and their intentions are as dark as their plan to kill his wife. Chris Fujiwara writes in The Greatest Moments in Film, beautifully describes the duality of the scene. The Man is both entrapped and free. Murnau effectively creates that double in the scene’s environment:

In this famous and profound shot, the magnetic attractions of sexuality and modernity appear as two related paths. One is that of a farmer walking at night across a field near his home towards a rendezvous with his mistress, a visitor from the city.  His journey is doubled—it might be better to say raised to a higher power—by the unearthly fluidity of Murnau’s camera, which first follows him, then tracks alongside him (as his winding rout diverges sharply from the camera’s), and then faces him before pivoting around and losing his figure to approach (through branches that magically part) the woman who is waiting for him. This very fluidity makes it clear—as does the full moon that looms in the top left of the composition at the start of the shot, reappearing at the end of it to illuminate the chic, black-clad woman—that the man’s trajectory is a symbolic configuration of forces that transcend the human and that he has abdicated free will to become their vehicle.  The shot is as much a protest against this enslavement as it is a glorification of it.  In this internal tension and in the overwhelming beauty of Murnau’s shot, we can find a definition of mise en scène.6

In the mise en scène 7 Murnau has positioned the actors, dressed the scenery with marshes, trees, fog, a lake and a moon on sound stageto create a haunting yet beautifully unforgettable moment.  It’s worth noting that prior to the talkies, the cameras of the silent era were not hampered by recording sound and therefore had more freedom to move.  The camera creates the illusion that makes us fly.  The scene and its cincinematic composition is effective in communicating emotions.  Every time I watch this moment in the film I am struck with a sense of awe as I lift off, beyond the film, and I am momentarily transformed.   Rogert Ebert writes about the aesthetic aim of silent films that they “. . . aimed for the emotions, not the mind, and the best of them wanted to be, not a story, but an experience.  Murnau, raised in the dark shadows of expressionism, pushed his images as far as he could, forced them upon us, haunted us with them.”8
—John David West


1 Dancyger, Global Scriptwriting, 8.
2 Roger Ebert, The Great Movies II, (Broadway Books, NY, NY 2005), 441.
3 Intertitles: Dialogue in silent film.  F. W. Murnau’s film The Last Laugh (1924) did not use intertitles at all.
4 Justin DeFreitas, “Moving Pictures: Motion and Emotion in F.W. Murnau’s ‘Sunrise,’” The Berkley Daily Planet, Feb.11, 2009.
Scott MacDonald, Cinema 16: Documents toward a History of the Film Society, (Temple University Press, 2002), 211.  
Chris Fujiwara, Sunrise: Full-moon tracking shot, Defining Moments in Movies, (Casell Illustrated, 2007) 61.
7 Mise en scène: the positioning of actors, scenery, and properties on a stage or movie set for a particular scene or particular production.
8 Ebert, The Great Movies II, 445.

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