F. W. Murnau’s 1927 silent masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, won Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production, at the 1st Annual Academy Awards. It was the only year that the Academy awarded this distinction. Looking back at Sunrise with modern eyes only reinforces how much it deserved to be recognized in such a way. The images are just as powerful now as they must have been then. I feel as though I would need to see Sunrise several times before I would pick up everything. Just look at the image to the right; only after looking at it closely did I ever notice the other image in the upper left. Who knows what else I missed?
While the images are clearly a strong point of Sunrise, the film would not be great based on them alone. The revolutionary images in Sunrise complement a story that is equal parts haunting, dramatic, light-hearted, and romantic. The story begins as a Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) tempts a farmer (George O’Brien) into getting rid of his wife (Janet Gaynor) so that he can run away from her. What follows is a physical odyssey from the countryside to the city and back, the background for a powerful emotional journey for the man and his wife. Sunrise is, after all, subtitled A Song of Two Humans.
But the film undoubtedly belongs to O’Brien. Just as the plot pivots between light and dark, so does O’Brien’s performance. He is full of effervescent energy as he and Gaynor jaunt through the city. And when events take a turn for the more sinister, he lumbers through the frame with gruffness and brooding. If there’s one thing I will remember from Sunrise, it’s the intensity of O’Brien’s expressions. Even when his actions bordered on absurd, I felt everything he was feeling. He personifies the Norma Desmond proclamation, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Sunrise is worth seeing for many reasons, but O’Brien might just be the best.