What can one say that hasn’t already been said about F.W. Murnau’s lyrical masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). The film marks the German auteur’s first American film after being coaxed out of Germany to the burgeoning Hollywood by producer William Fox, the founder of Fox Film Corporation. Much like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941) at RKO Studios, Murnau was given carte blanche by Fox Studios to make Sunrise entirely in his own vision. Murnau meticulously planned the film whilst still in Germany, eventually arriving in America where he and his crew would create one of the most elaborate sets the studio had seen at the time, building city streets, a theme park and the idyllic nameless village. Despite these efforts, like Citizen Kane, Sunrise was a commercial flop upon its initial release. Yet only two years later, in 1929, the film was critically reassessed and hailed at the inaugural Academy Awards, winning the ‘Most Unique and Artistic Picture’ (the only year this award was presented), ‘Best Cinematography’ and ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ for Janet Gaynor who plays The Wife. Since then, the film has continued to stand the test of time, praised as a cinematic masterpiece for its poetic portrayal of the human struggle between faith and temptation.

Murnau penned the script for Sunrise with his writing collaborator Carl Mayer, who had worked with Murnau previously on Tartuffe (1925) and The Last Laugh (1926), along with Robert Weine on his hugely influential German expressionist horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Due to the success and unique aesthetics of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fox was eager for Murnau to make a film styled in the German expressionist aesthetic, which the director and fellow Deutschlanders Fritz Lang and Robert Weine established in Germany throughout the 1910s and 1920s. In their films they employed abstracted, angular set designs and cinematography paired with harsh chiaroscuro lighting to invite the audience into their characters’ troubled inner-worlds. Although adopting a similar visual style, Sunrise would mark a stylistic leap forward for Murnau who transformed his harsh and angular German expressionism by contrasting it with a softer, romantic, naturalist aesthetic. The effects of this visual dichotomy effortlessly weaves us in and out of the characters’ inner and outer worlds, most evident in one of the most iconic scenes from the film where the camera tracks The Man walking through a dark, foggy swamp in the middle of the night to meet his mistress, only for the camera to suddenly pan away from him and move into his inner world by morphing into his point of view as he embraces his mistress under the cover of moonlight. 

Although this singular visual style and lack of recorded dialogue has led Sunrise to be praised as a landmark of silent cinema, it’s actually one of the very first films to feature a synchronised soundtrack using an optical sound-on-film system known as ‘Movietone’ to fuse the score and sound effects to the film. It was also released in the same year as The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) which is regarded today for pioneering synchronised dialogue in cinema, positioning Sunrise in a transitory moment in cinema history, bridging the gap between the silent cinema before it and the sound films that quickly followed by combining synchronised sound with the aesthetics of silent cinema. This amounted to a level of immersion and emotional depth to the film that wasn’t common or technically possible in the silent films that preceded it. 

Furthermore the film is also rarely broken by intertitles as Murnau was known to detest them, famously using only one in his film The Last Laugh. Hence, intertitles are used sparingly throughout the films’ first half and gradually become non-existent by its second half. This lack of intertitles paired with the textured sound effects enhances the sensorial immersion into the film.

Another element of the film that is often overlooked is its use of comedy in its second half. The slapstick nature of the comedy marks the film as a forebearer to the screwball comedies that would rise to prominence twenty years later in the 1940’s which would frequently feature dysfunctional married couples breaking up, only to be brought back together in a series of humorous happenings. Murnau however was not known for comedy, which led to the belief that it was the studio who added these sequences into Sunrise. However, it was later proven that this was unfounded, as Murnau was given full creative control over the film.1 Although, from a modern perspective these comedic sequences can seem awkward and drawn out at times – most notably the pig chase and couple’s dance sequence which frequently cuts to a prudish man in the crowd around them, obsessively tidying a woman’s dress straps – it marked a new style for the director whilst also acting as a breath of fresh air after the claustrophobic dread that permeates the first half of the film. 

Considering Murnau’s blending of genres, synchronised sound and silent cinema, as well as German expressionism with romantic naturalism in Sunrise, it’s a shame to know that he would only complete two more films before tragically passing in 1931 in an automobile accident at the age of 42. At the rate of his artistic success, who truly knows what heights Murnau could have reached and the films we would have been blessed with. However, lamentations aside, Sunrise still stands today as the German auteur’s masterpiece and as one of the most artistically unique films ever made in Hollywood, transcending its German expressionist roots into a timeless parable about our grapples with faith and our compassionate resilience in the face of temptation.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, USA, 94 min)

Prod. Co: 20th Century Studios, Inc. Prod: William Fox Dir: F.W. Murnau Scr: Carl Mayer Phot: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss Ed: Harold Schuster Art Dir: Rochus Gliese 

Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston


  1. As noted on the commentary track presented by John Ira Bailey, ASC, for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, directed by F.W. Murnau (1927; UK: Eureka Entertainment, 2011), Blu-Ray.

About The Author

Jacob Agius is a writer and audio producer based in Melbourne, Australia. They are a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, the Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia and Senses of Cinema.

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