AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions: ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ (#63)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
When I first became seriously interested in cinema I was somebody who wanted to go back and see the classics. Every list I looked at was full of references to F.W. Murnau and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was brought up as a seminal film that influenced everything that came after it. I sat down to see it for the first time when I was just a teenager and I had to deal with the fact that the sun kept obscuring half of the screen. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time and I had to read several articles after seeing it in order to appreciate its significance as a technical marvel. The major sticking point for me was that the love story didn’t make sense as I couldn’t understand why a woman would re-accept her husband so quickly after he tried to murder her. I got caught up in thinking about that and I found myself unable to fully embrace the story that Murnau was aiming to tell.
The Man, George O’Brien, leaves his stable and loving Wife, Janet Gaynor, and their child for the reprehensible hussy The Woman from the City, Margaret Livingston, who encourages him to murder his wife and run off with her. The next day he attempts to do this on the boat but relents and the two fall back in love during a day in the city. As they head home in their boat there is a storm and he ends up washing up onshore and believes that his wife is dead. He meets up with The Woman from the City who is happy because she thinks that he deliberately murdered his wife. He blames her for his wife’s possible death and tries to strangle her but stops when he is told that his wife is still alive. The couple embrace as The Woman from the City appears to be approaching death as the carriage she is riding in rolls down a hill towards a lake.
In watching this for a second time I began to question everything that I had previously assumed. I started to believe that Murnau was using the conventions and tropes of Classic Hollywood films in order to subvert the narratives that romances traditionally present us with. His background was in German Expressionism and that shows as the visuals in this film are deceptively pristine but lurking behind all of the polish of a studio production is a twisted quality that suggests that Lang sees the horror in this oft-told tale. This was a man who was aware of the system he was working in and he knew he had to package things in a certain way in order to get people to consume them but there is a wonderful madness to the art he produced and I marveled at all of the incisive comments he makes here.
Initially, I interpreted this story as a terribly sexist tale in which men are completely blameless for anything they do and women are either perfect saints who exist to forgive flawed men or evil hussies who deserve to die. The three main characters are all ideas to some degree as they aren’t given Christian names and the actors are asked to represent their inner thoughts rather than giving them all of the characteristics that we typically associate with well-developed characters in films. Murnau does not want to waste time on telling us about the back story of these characters and what their personal tastes are like. He is more invested in using them to talk about gender dynamics in society and the expectations that were placed upon people in the 1920s.
The wife is seen as an impossibly loving, forgiving woman who tolerates her husband’s worst actions but Murnau encourages us to feel pity for this woman as she accepts her horrible husband back into her heart. This time I picked up on the fact that all is not as it seems at the beginning of the film. We see the first act through the eyes of the husband as he is torn between his mistress and his wife but looking back I realized that the wife’s perspective is also important. He has assumed that she is not aware of his philandering and just waits around for him to return home and take care of her but Gaynor suggests that she is a woman in the grip of deep depression. You could argue that this is because she wants her husband to be around more and doesn’t like the fact that he is having an affair but it seems to relate to a deeper problem. We get brief flashes of their neighbors and we notice them looking on at her husband with judgment in their eyes. He is the person who is committing ‘sins’ in the eyes of these people but she has to tolerate living in a town where everybody knows that her husband does not love and respect her. Being an object of pity and concern must be painful and their gazes of sorrow must constantly remind her of the fact that she doesn’t have a life outside of her marriage. When people see her they automatically think of her husband and even though they think they are being nice by being sympathetic towards her, she must feel suffocated by their condescension.
Her whole day is spent thinking about him and his needs. I love the resentment in Gaynor’s eyes as she prepares to make dinner for him and notices him heading outside to meet his mistress. Not everybody can relate to being with somebody who is having an affair but we can all relate to the feeling of putting a lot of effort into cooking dinner or trying to set the mood for the night and feeling angered when all of that effort is thrown back in our faces. This affair has presumably being going on for some time and it has worn her down as she has likely sat through night after night in which she hopes that he will stay at home, eat dinner with her, laugh at her jokes and announce his intention to recommit to their marriage. Gaynor is remarkable because she makes us consider all of these possibilities through her acting in this scene. She holds herself as though she is close to breaking but there is a hint of optimism in her eyes as she places her pot on the table. Everything changes when the force of her husband’s rejection sets in. She only gets a few seconds to react to what he has done but she packs so much emotion into this limited time. She is insulted by the fact that he thinks she is stupid enough to let him do this and then return home to her and act like a good husband and father. Then she is almost startled by the fact that she has to let him do this because she has no other options. She wilts before our eyes and whatever strength she possessed before he left seems to evaporate. She knows that nothing can change now as she has a selfish, cruel husband who does not love him but lives in a society where she cannot escape from him.
The judgmental townsfolk say “They used to be like children, carefree…always happy and laughing.” This quote is telling as these people think that real love should be childlike and without any dispute. This is a form of love that nobody could possibly attain or even hold onto. The ‘puppy love’ that can exist between immature teenagers often doesn’t lead to lasting, meaningful relationships as it can be driven by lust, intense infatuation or excitement over the fact that one is experiencing new emotions for the first time. We tend to romanticize this form of love and view it as aspirational because it seems so simple and uncomplicated. You don’t have to deal with the responsibilities that you have as an adult and in some cases you have not been wounded by past relationships so you have a certain innocence. I am not against people laughing and being happy when they are with the one they love but I do feel like this is used as the shorthanded for two people being blissfully in love too often in cinema. People don’t just run around in fields and giggle all the time when they have met the person for them. They do things like having serious conversations about philosophy and other topics such as politics and finances. The women talking about their marriage probably think that the wife should still act like a child as she does housework all die but has to act cheerful and spirited when her husband returns home. She isn’t supposed to be smart enough to talk to him and engage with him when it comes to intellectual pursuits so even if she could satisfy the needs of the townspeople and stop them from looking down on her she would still be in a difficult position as her life would be empty and unsatisfying.
The Wife is contrasted with The Man’s mistress and they are dramatically different as one is a vamp and one is an angel. I had always thought of The Woman from the City as a traditional femme fatale as she leads a weak man down the wrong path and tries to get him to commit a crime before being punished herself. She is seductive and takes the reins in their relationship as she throws herself at him and is positioned above him when she kisses him. Unlike his wife, she doesn’t sit back and wait for him to make the first move but expects him to follow along with what she wants. I rolled my eyes as I thought this was an obvious depiction of the Madonna-whore complex in which a man is sexually aroused by a bad, dangerous woman but would never want to commit to her while wanting to be married to a saintly, pure girl who satisfies all of his needs without asking anything of him.
Fortunately, Murnau is able to get beyond this as he acknowledges the fact that The Man sees the world this way but doesn’t represent his worldview as being correct. In his world, he is the master and he is much stronger and smarter than everybody who surrounds him, including the women who love him, but we see that he is putty in his mistress’s hands and doesn’t realize that his wife is cannier than he thinks she is. His mistress can control him but knows that she needs to humor him and let him think that he is in command so he won’t feel threatened by her. She has to subtly manipulate him so that she can get what she wants without letting him in on the fact that she is wiser than him. His wife adopts a similar approach but doesn’t receive any of the benefits of this method of dealing with him. The single woman is seen as somebody who can have more control over her life while the married woman has to endure living with somebody who does not respect her. In most scenes, she has to exercise patients as she waits for her husband to figure something out and then smiles sweetly when he reaches a conclusion that she had already reached minutes ago. It is frustrating for her to go through all of this and her politeness masks an annoyance that she refuses to recognize in herself. In Murnau’s world, the Madonna and the whore are very similar and they are both restricted by the fact that men have all of the control. Even if one of them appears to be scary she ultimately has to cede power to a patriarchal figure and most of her joy is derived from the fact that she isn’t tied down to a man.
In the following scenes, we see The Man considering killing his wife before going back on his plan and deciding to win her back. His efforts are successful and the couple act like the carefree children that the townsfolk saw them as. There is something very disturbing about these scenes as you can tell he is taking advantage of her fragile mental state. After almost being murdered we see The Wife finally taking control of her life and choosing to step away from the man who has mistreated her. He doesn’t skip a beat when it comes to chasing her down and bombarding her with gifts in order to prove that he still loves her. He looks shocked when he registers what he has done and sees that his wife has run away but his fear is that of a man who doesn’t want to be in a position where he no longer holds all the power. His wooing of her is extreme as he spends a lot of money on her and buys her gifts but we still recognize the fact that he is the one who controls their finances and many of the items that he purchases her for her reassert her traditional femininity. They get their photo taken and he assumes an almost comical pose to show off the fact that he is her tough protector while she rests inside the crook of his arm and looks up at him with stars in her eyes. He blinds her with his sudden generosity and convinces her that he will change and be the sort of husband who offers her respect but Murnau implies that everything will stay the same.
In the final act of the film, he regresses back to his normal state and almost kills his mistress when he believes that his wife has died. I am not stating that the actions of the mistress were acceptable in any way and she should have been legally prosecuted for trying to have somebody killed but The Man’s attempt to kill her tells us a lot. He has told himself that he is not responsible for the attempted murder because his actions were guided by this saucy slut and as a victim of her influence he has the right to kill her. This outburst of violence and irrational thinking proves that he still hasn’t changed and is not willing to be held accountable for his actions. He will regress back to his old patterns when he returns to his wife and they rebuild their marriage. There will be other mistresses from the city that she has to tolerate and their child will come to hate their father because he is always out late and views his family as a burden and not something to be cherished.
Murnau really was a visionary and I do see what made him such a talent now. We have him to thank for the subtly subversive Douglas Sirk melodramas that tackled social issues in the 1950s. The shadows that play against the walls in the city and the sight of a small woman resting her head against an impossibly large trolley window sill are reminders of Murnau’s background in German Expressionism but he fuses that genre of cinema with more traditional American film language and the result is stunning. If you can’t tell, I really loved this one but I feel like I am facing a conundrum. This is easily the best of the films I have reviewed so far and yet I don’t think of it as a love story. This is the tale of an abusive relationship in my eyes and because of that this does not qualify as a love story. This means that I don’t think it should have been on this list even though it is a brilliant piece of work. Save this for a list of great dramas or even horror films but don’t tell me that this is a story about two people who are genuinely in love.