Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they revel in the sheer beauty of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans while embracing it as the movie that has everything.
And, yes, “wine-drunk pig” is on the list.
Cole: So the #5 entry is Sunrise from F.W. Murnau – the highest-ranked silent film. But I want to give it another honor: gutsiest romantic comedy ever.
Landon: Getting that pig drunk was a pretty ballsy move. That always makes for a pretty unpredictable situation.
Cole: Drunk pigs, a guy trying to pick up a married woman in a barbershop, and – you know – a husband set to murder his beloved wife before falling in love with her all over again.
That’s your logline right there. Tell me that’s now a Katherine Heigl movie we’d actually give a shot.
Landon: Except she and Ashton Kutcher could never make that transition believable, and I would write some routine article about the lamentable pre-feminist state of the romantic comedy.
Sunrise, pretty amazingly, goes through several drastic tonal shifts and pulls them all off beautifully.
Cole: Almost invisibly, too.
Landon: What starts as a dark suspense/horror film about jealousy and infidelity turns into a whimsical romantic comedy and finally finishes as a missing woman thriller.
Cole: It’s hard to explain why Murnau and his production get away with some of this stuff.
Landon: Yeah, none of this seems like it’s supposed to work
I had the pleasure of introducing a screening of this film last year, and I talked about how it shows Murnau’s emotional range (which is evidenced in his German work in separate films like Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, but rarely together.) The pianist who played along with the film that evening stated that it was his favorite silent film to play to, because it conveys so many different moods.
Cole: The only explanation I could come up with was that Murnau gets us to believe in him as a storyteller with technical acumen and small plot details that act as connective tissue. Plus, George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor are pretty excellent actors.
Landon: Haha, well that’s a pretty solid explanation.
Cole: Murnau delivers an intriguing opening which played with cutting edge technology (and a happily confounding use of miniatures) but then follows it with a strikingly intimate, poetic image: a wealthy city woman getting her heels buffed by an old broken-down housewife.
Fascinating breadcrumbs along the way create a big incentive to keep watching. Plus, the dramatic plan The Man and The Flapper agree to in the first act fills an innocent boat trip with suspense.
Landon: I agree. This movie is centrally about 2 (in the first act, 3) characters, but they’re enriched by a world of details.
The extended trot through the city is one of the most unapologetically whimsical sequences in cinema, and I love it. Sunrise certainly earns this moment when it emerges out of darkness, but why aren’t there more films where characters simply enjoy the small things about life for an extended period of time before almost drowning to death?
If there was a time of greater sincerity in American cinema, this was it.
Cole: This is one of those movies where it might be easy to dismiss an extended sequence like that before taking into account how devastating the storm is. Would losing The Wife in the dark, turbulent waters be as impactful if we hadn’t seen how much joy they’d recovered?
Landon: True. All of these tones and events work so well juxtaposed together, yet they never seem to be simply laying the ground for the other one.
Cole: It’s Murnau playing the long game. All of the dramatic irony at the end comes from the beginning’s details. Not to mention the reeds The Man stores in the boat for the murder.
Which brings up the biggest brain-freezer: If he hadn’t plotted to kill his wife, she would have died in the storm.
Landon: Whoa. I never noticed that. Now I have an ice cream headache for some reason.
I should watch this film backwards.
Cole: Hahah. It really was the Memento of its time.
Landon: Or the Irreversible.
It’s worth mentioning that Sunrise won the Academy Award for “Unique Artistic Production” – the only film to win this award – while Wings won the first ever Best Picture. I like to think that Murnau here offers all the possibilities of what Hollywood could be before sound cinema solidified separate genres.
Cole: How so?
Landon: It seems that Hollywood movies of, say, the subsequent decade wouldn’t dare make these shifts in tone. But here you have it all: a horror film whose use of shadows is worthy of any Universal monster movie, a romantic comedy worthy of wise-cracking Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and an adventure/thriller worthy of Bogart.
But at the same time, it doesn’t look or feel like any Classic Hollywood movie. Murnau definitely didn’t compromise his vision coming across the Atlantic.
Cole: Which is rare in and of itself, and I have to say I have a soft spot for that German Expressionist flair. The amazing dream visuals and jaunty set design.
I see what you’re saying, although it’s still a huge mystery why this particular silent film has survived so long on the S&S list. It even proved more longevity than Battleship Potemkin by staying in the top ten this time around.
Why not Pandora’s Box? Or The General? What is it about Sunrise that makes it so worthy?
Landon: Well, I’m not going to make a case to you of all people why Buster Keaton isn’t/shouldn’t be in the Top 10…
Cole: But, bias aside, you see what I’m getting at. The General is a romance/adventure with incredible imagery, stunts and comedy. The similarities are there.
Landon: Because Sunrise is a one-of-a-kind Hollywood movie. Its artistic expression really is still resonant after all these years, but Murnau’s artistry isn’t merely something to be admired (as it is in Nosferatu) or something used to make a larger point (as it is in The Last Laugh). It’s Murnau’s best because it goes so many places, accomplishes so much emotionally, earns all of it, and does so through a visionary style that also manages to suck the audience in.
Top 10 movies have the burden of not being the Top 10 in every category. Kane, for instance, can’t be the #1 or #2 comedy unless you watch it from the sled’s point of view…but Sunrise seems to be the rare movie that one can call great in so many overlapping categories.
Cole: Well that’s a pretty damned solid case you’ve got there.
Landon: …And that’s why The General sucks.
Cole: I’ve never liked you. I’m not going to fake your drowning, though. Unless it’ll help us re-find our friendship while catching a drunk pig at a carnival.
Speaking of which, Sunrise has another important distinction.
Landon: What’s that?
Cole: It’s the highest S&S film to not be abjectly depressing!
Cole: In fact, it’s really joyous.
Landon: Seriously. Even the highest rated “comedy” has an extended sequence of bunny-killing. So what do we make of this? Are critics not always self-loathing cynics? In the Age of Irony/the Internet, can we still believe in films as thoroughly sincere as this?
Cole: Psychoanalyzing critics is about as fun as chasing wine-soaked bacon , but what seems obvious is that the world needs to remember this movie. It’s a celebration of life, expertly done in its execution, but it’s also surprising. That’s rare.
Could you have predicted anything that happened in that movie, especially from the end of the (gorgeous) midnight scene between The Man and The Flapper?
Landon: It startled me a bit the first time I saw it, not being able to figure out quite what the movie was. That could explain its delayed appreciation. The Academy was keen enough to know this was something special, but couldn’t quite figure out what. Wings won Best Picture instead, and audiences were indifferent after awhile.
Besides Tokyo Story, no film on this list was as beloved when it was first released as it is now.
Cole: No one in 1927 got that the drunken pig was a metaphor for the political treaties that led to WWI.
Landon: …And now that metaphor has become such a cliche.
Cole: It’s just overused.
One last thought on Sunrise – I love how universal the story is made to be. Not just the nameless-names, but the opening titles which tell us straight up that this story could happen to anyone, anywhere.
“You, too, might want to murder your wife, sell your farm, and move to the city with a harlot only to be unable to go through it, fall back in love with your wife, have a hell of a time on vacation, think you’ve lost her forever in a ferocious storm, and almost choke your adulteress to death before learning that your wife is still happily alive!”
That happens ALL THE TIME. The populist storytelling of F.W. Murnau, everyone.
Landon: The universal message I took away was that, if you shave, you’ll stop hunching over and glaring at your wife all evil-like. I can’t put into words how valuable that advice has been.
Cole: Or perhaps the even broader lesson of Sunrise: Go on vacation once in a while, will ya?
Landon: I certainly would if today’s cities were half as fun as the one depicted here. I wonder if this movie took place on a week day since we only see one game where you throw balls to watch pigs fall down a slide.
But as you said, it’s finally good to find a movie on this list that’s easy to relate to.
Cole: Finally. Sunrise for best movie ever!
Landon: Free pigs and wine for everyone!