In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans 
Director: F. W. Murnau
Writer: Carl Mayer
Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Running Time: 94 minutes
(This post discusses the film’s plot at length, and therefore contains spoilers.)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the first American film from German director F.W. Murnau, has developed an impressive legacy since its release over 85 years ago. It shows up on countless “best of” lists, and it is widely considered to be one of the finest silent films ever made (often serving as a gateway to the era, much like Chaplin, Keaton or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). Sunrise also has the distinction of being the first and only film to win an Oscar for “Best Unique and Artistic Production”, which at the time was considered as prestigious of an award as Best Picture. After finally tackling this undisputed classic, it’s easy to see why it is held in such high regard.
Sunrise tells the story of the Man (George O’Brien) and the Wife (Janet Gaynor), an impoverished married couple that lives in a farmhouse with their young child. Their relationship has seen much better days, as the two of them seem to be growing more and more distant with every minute. Much of this disparity can be attributed to the presence of the vacationing Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston), who has struck up a passionate affair with the Man. Not content to be just a summer fling, the Woman from the City proposes that the Man move back to the city with her. In order to get rid of the Wife, the Woman recommends drowning her and making it appear as an accident. Surprisingly, the Man agrees.
I have to admit that the dark nature of this first act caught me completely off guard. I knew the film wasn’t a conventional love story, but to have such unabashed sex and violence in the silent era came as a shock to me. It also had me hooked immediately.
The Man brings the Wife along on a boat ride — to the city, he claims — fully prepared to commit this act of murder. Just as he stands above her, ready to end her life, he has a change of heart and breaks down crying. His wife, obviously distraught, goes into hysterics. Despite this horrifying encounter, the two of them proceed to the city anyway, with the Man desperately trying to make it up to her. He buys her food, gives her flowers and constantly apologizes. No dice.
It isn’t until they stumble upon a wedding in progress that their love is rekindled. The Man, realizing that he has made a grave mistake by breaking his own marriage vows, begs for forgiveness one more time, with the Wife finally accepting. Seemingly remarried (the scene, amusingly, even shows them leaving the ceremony first, much to the surprise of those waiting outside), the two are finally able to enjoy their time in the city together.
Just when it seems like we might get a happy ending after all, the film goes in *another* completely different direction. On their ride home, a terrible storm hits, causing their boat to capsize. The Man washes ashore, but the Wife is nowhere to be seen. Now, in complete contrast to the beginning of the film, the Man is desperate to save the Wife, even getting his neighbors and other townsfolk to search for her.
When the Man retreats home, assuming the Wife is dead, the Woman from the City makes another appearance. Full of joy, the Woman attempts to get close to her lover, only for the Man to snap and turn into the same horrifying monster he appeared as during the first boat ride with his wife. Once again, the film comes full circle, as the Man attempts to strangle the life out of the Woman, only stopping once the townsfolk run in yelling that they found the Wife alive and (relatively) well.
And so it goes. The sun rises in the morning, and everything appears to be back to the way it was before the appearance of the evil seductress.
A more jaded viewer could nitpick about the jarring transitions between the film’s three acts, but I grew quite fond of its meandering path. The way the film bounces back and forth between darkness and light works quite well, as does the way everything comes full circle in the end.
The film itself is also technologically impressive, and I can only imagine how bold and adventurous it was when it was released. Title cards are few and far in between, and Murnau uses slick camerawork and superimposed images to tell the story. There are some truly magnificent shots, including one in which the Man sits delirious in bed, feeling the presence of the Woman from the City holding him from behind (which we see, with her in a ghostly form).
In short, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is an essential film. Its influence is still felt today, and its three distinct acts offer a sense of unpredictability that continues to make this such an engaging watch.