Directed by F. W. Murnau
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989
I first watched it on April 22nd, 2021
What It’s About:
A married couple in a strained relationship rekindle their love for each other during an initially-ill-intentioned trip to the city.
My experience with the film:
Sunrise, also known as “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” was the first film to win Best Picture at the first Academy Awards ceremony … and then it wasn’t. At the first Oscars, and only the first Oscars, there were two different awards given that were intended to be equally prestigious. One was called “Outstanding Picture”, which was given to a film called Wings (later inducted to the NFR in 1997), while another award, called “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”, was given to Sunrise. The following year, the “Best Unique and Artistic Picture” award was discontinued. Later, the Academy would retroactively decide that “Wings” was the first film to win Best Picture, rather than give the honor to both films. There are some who are still salty about this decision to this day, and you will occasionally see writers defiantly include “Sunrise” alongside “Wings” in articles that contain lists of “every Best Picture winner.” (To make an analogy: you know how some people are upset that Pluto is no longer considered to be a planet, and they still refer to it as a planet anyway? That’s how some people feel about Sunrise’s “Best Picture” status.)
That said, time may have proven that the Academy made the wrong choice—Sunrise is now regarded by many to be the best silent film ever made (though I personally would give that award to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). Additionally, as mentioned above, Sunrise had the honor of being included in the first-ever group of 25 inductees to the NFR in 1989. Wings, on the other hand, wasn’t added to the Registry until 8 years later.
Regarding my thoughts on Sunrise: the second act of this film is delightful. The chemistry between the two lead characters as they once again fall in love is absolutely charming, sold by their convincing and sincere acting. That said, the first act of the film may prevent modern audiences from enjoying the romance. Unfortunately, I can’t discuss much more about this movie without spoiling the first 30 minutes, so if you’d prefer to remain spoiler free, you may want to skip to the “Availability” section below.
A brief summary of the first act for those who don’t mind spoilers: “The Man” (none of the characters in this film are given names) is having an affair with “The Woman from the City.” She convinces the man that he should drown “The Wife” in order to start a new life with her in the city. The Man eventually agrees, but seems disturbed by his choice. The next day, The Man offers to take his Wife on a spontaneous trip to the city via rowboat. When they’re far from shore, he gets up to drown her, and she becomes terrified as she senses what he is about to do. Her terror is enough to soften him, as he finds himself unable to do the deed, and is similarly horrified by what he nearly did. When they reach the shore, she runs away, he follows, and eventually they find themselves in the city. During their day there, they encounter several situations that help them to realize that they still love one another, and by the end of the day, they’re as madly in love as they were when they were first married.
As I said, a modern audience may be too soured by those first 30 minutes to enjoy the romance that the two share for the rest of the film. (If your spouse ever makes plans to murder you, even if they decide not to go through with it, run! That relationship is not worth saving!) During the second act, I found myself wishing that the murder subplot would have been removed, and that The Wife had instead been distraught because she found out about The Man’s affair with The Woman from the City. However, the last 20 minutes of the film made me change my mind. I will not spoil the ending, but the final act of the film would not have been nearly as effective or poignant with the murder-by-drowning subplot. If you can get past the heightened melodramatic style of the film and suspend your disbelief enough to forgive The Man for his initial murderous intentions, then you will find the second and third act of this film to be quite rewarding.
Sunrise (1927) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/sunrise-a-song-of-two-humans
To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:
- The DVD sent to me by DVD Netflix (pictured above) included a few special features, including an audio commentary, some deleted scenes, and two different versions of the film. A Blu-ray, which appears to have the same special features, also exists.
- The entry for Sunrise on The Horse’s Head, another NFR-related blog: https://thehorseshead.blog/2018/02/14/170-sunrise-a-song-of-two-humans-1927/
- The post about Sunrise from MerryWatchesMovies, an NFR-related Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/p/BrusGEjAaGH/
- The original 1927 review from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1927/09/24/archives/the-screen.html
- The original review from Variety (note that the website dates it “1926”, but I’m assuming that is an error, since the film was not released until 1927): https://variety.com/1926/film/reviews/sunrise-a-song-of-two-humans-1200409836/
- A 2004 review from Roger Ebert: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-sunrise-1928
- An introduction to/overview of the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1pVxnIdf4U
- A brief analysis of the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGQV2cxEVxo
- The intro and outro for Sunrise from Turner Classic Movies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5-vdqPlicU
- A podcast episode that discusses Sunrise, and includes a brief interview with a professional animal trainer, who talks about the “drunken pig” scene: https://www.earwolf.com/episode/sunrise/
- An essay about the film: https://macguff.in/macguffin-spotlight/an-appreciation-sunrise/
- The Wikipedia page for Sunrise: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunrise:_A_Song_of_Two_Humans
For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory.