Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans casts a pretty monumental shadow in the arthouse sector. When Sight and Sound released its Greatest Films of All Time poll, it was Vertigo that got all the headlines, finally toppling Citizen Kane. Sunrise, released in 1927, came in at number five. It’s not hard to see why. It’s dark but sweet, simple yet revolutionary.
Sunrise is a tale about the rediscovery of love. A sad, angry man finds himself adrift in a small farming town. When a girl from the city arrives to the tiny community on vacation, the man finds solace in her arms, or at least a little bit of fun and adventure. As they fall deeper into lust, the girl attempts to convince the man to return to the city with her. One thing stands in their way: the man’s family, specifically his adorable, neglected wife.
A murder is plotted. A murder most foul. The man resolves to invite his wife on a small, romantic boat ride and trip into the city, with the intention of drowning her in the lake, far from from the prying eyes of witnesses. Naturally, the sweet, meek wife jumps at the opportunity, grateful for a modicum of affection. Much to the relief of us softies in the audience, the man can’t bring himself to carry out his heinous plot. When he begins towards her, and sees the horror in his loved one’s eyes, he pulls back. The man then sets himself on salvaging his life and his love.
The rest of the movie follows the man and his wife’s adventure through the big city, reconnecting and rediscovering their love. Consequently, Sunrise still feels novel as far as love stories go. Romances are so fixated on the new: first kisses, first loves, first heartbreaks. So the Man and his Wife instead falling back into love plays as fresh, and somehow more adult. The extreme depths to which these two souls plummet imbue their reconciliation with enormous heft and tenderness. Young love can feel ignorant or naive, but since Sunrise starts so dark, with its heroes at such a loss, its later innocence becomes all the more endearing, and even compelling.
Films don’t end up on Sight and Sound’s list unless they’re important pieces of filmmaking. Many images are impactful well beyond their storytelling significance. The scope and grandeur of Sunrise’s scenes inside a carnival are magnificent to behold. Unreal, yet delightfully so. Ambitious special effects shots such as the girl from the city’s initial plea for the man to follow back home are similarly magical.
Sunrise is a lovely fairy tale of a movie built on an incredibly dark foundation. It’s a simple story that relies on pretty broad archetypes (The Man, The Wife, The City are the only names given) to communicate its themes with conviction and love. Inevitably, anything that bears its heart so completely can come off a little quaint with the passage of time, but Sunrise‘s flirtations with profound evil save it from playing too sugary sweet.