September 23, 1927
Directed by F. W. Murnau
Sunrise is a misleading name. This movie is about the moon. The glowing silver orb appears again and again. On both sides of the sky, so that we can’t tell which way is which. Glowing bulbs light up the paths of streets through the city. Car headlights appear out of nowhere, swerving in cacophonies of alarm.
The moon creates no light of its own but through its reflection we make out shadowy forms in the darkness. Moonlight is the allegory of the cinema. We leave our houses to sit in darkened rooms and watch an artificial light show us the truth about ourselves.
Murnau knew he was the foremost auteur of this new art. When William Fox saw Der Letzte Mann, he jumped at the chance to hire him and give him a Hollywood budget, which Murnau did not waste a penny of. He and his Fox colleague Frank Borzage worked closely together, sharing sets, ideas, and the brilliant new star Janet Gaynor.
Their twin achievements are the two ultimate poles of silent cinema. The feminine Seventh Heaven reaches into the deep level of sorrow and despair that an unloved woman can experience, this love is depicted with a soft and friendly warmth. The sun never fails to shine, and our couple are always reunited at 11:00 am. Fox decided to release that one first, so that audiences would fall in love with Gaynor (and it’s impossible not to), before seeing what Murnau would do to her.
Because Sunrise is both a story of darkness and a story of masculinity. Gaynor is a perfect wife from the first frame, and we don’t need any closeups of her to know that. The tension of this movie lies entirely in the soul of George O’Brien’s husband, the man who sets out to murder his wife.
He doesn’t look like he even wants to kill her. He feels he must. It’s a dark unconscious compulsion that he must he venture into the moonlight to confront. For the couple to express their true love, to know themselves as lovers, as husband and wife, they must confront the dark side. She must know that he could kill her whenever he wants, and he must know that his power to kill her is the same power that will protect her from all harm. When she forgives him, he undergoes a second redemption, taking the oath of marriage along with the couple that they both watch, as if spectators watching a performance on the screen.
The superior man loves everyone, but this love must find its root in the love of his chosen woman. They wander the night in the artificial light of the Luna carnival and delight in each other. But the struggle is not yet over. There is an even greater challenge that O’Brien must confront – the darkness of that vast unknowable feminine of nature.
Most men can comfort themselves in the feeling that killing your wife is something only movie villains do, but the truth is that every time a man turns his heart away from his woman, in every moment he closes himself off because he cannot handle the power of her anger or despair, in each of those moments he is killing her. In every moment he must choose, whether to persevere in conquer the feminine and allow it to open into light.
After confronting his murderous desire and deciding once and for all that he must protect, honor, and serve his chosen woman, his masculine strength is put to a final test. He must reckon with Nature herself, the pure primordial feminine force, who has the power to take any of us at any time. A man must dedicate his life to his woman, knowing full well that she will one day die. And there he is – alone in his house, facing the empty bed, with the result he once desired. The moonlight boxes him in as he slumps before the broken rectangles of moonlight on the covers.
The happy ending does arrive shortly, as the bulrushes the man had planned to use to escape his wife end up saving her, but the brutal truth of the empty bed remains for me the true “end” shot. This movie is a celebration of life through the confronting of death. We all must die. You and everyone else. Yet in each moment of our life we have the opportunity to conquer nature, open the world, and allow light to shine.