One of the most unique films on the list, the 1927 silent romance film Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans makes it at #82 on the AFI list.
The movie revolves around the owner of a financially struggling farm, plotting with his mistress, a “woman from the city” to drown his wife. He takes his wife out on the boat to drown her but decides not to at the last minute. His wife, scared, runs away as soon as they get ashore and hops on a passing train. The man follows her and what follows is a long reconciliation process between the two of them that rekindles their romance. A day in the city complete with flowers, a visit to the fair, drinks and dancing has them falling completely back in love. As they sail home, a storm descends on them and their boat is capsized. The man survives, believing his wife has drowned. A search party is unable to find her. Beside himself, he attacks the woman from the city, but as he is choking her, he learns that his wife has been found alive. The woman from the city leaves town and the last shot is the man and his wife staring lovingly at each other.
The film is unusual for a few reasons. None of the central characters are given names throughout the film. The film’s mood swings wildly – the beginning where they are plotting the murder is sordid and a bit morbid, the middle is downright whimsical and fun and the end is an emotional seesaw. The entire style of the film has a surreal feel to it – both their home and the scenes from the city seem not quite real, like an impressionist piece of art.
The film was one of the last of the silent era and has some evolved techniques, such as mobile cameras (versus the static angles of earlier films) and the using of backing sounds such as dubbed train whistles and car horns. It is sort of odd to think that this movie preceded a Night at the Opera (which was previously revised on this list) by almost 8 years as it feels of an entirely different era.
The movie is visually stunning – the sets are engrossing and Janet Gaynor is brilliant in expressing the changing emotions of the wife, not an easy task in a silent film.
Comparing this film to modern movies presents a bit of a challenge as the medium of silent film is so different – it is sort of like comparing abstract art to photography. Compared against other films of the silent era, I think it is less influential or substantial than other movies such as 1922’s Nosferatu (which, like Sunrise, was directed by F.W. Murnau) and less entertaining than Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. Nor was it the breakthrough in film design that the then-and-now highly controversial Birth of a Nation (1915) was. Its plot is uneven and a bit odd – the sudden turn of the man from wanting to kill his wife to being madly in love and her rapid evolution from scared to loving seem implausible, to put it mildly. But as a singular piece of art, it is beautiful.
Sunrise was not on AFI’s 1997 list. I’m not sure it belongs on the current list, although it is an easy-to-watch, at-times charming and beautiful piece of history, 93 years after its making. As I work more deeply through this list, it appears that AFI highly valued the beautifully produced, perhaps more so than the profound in conceiving the list.
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 5/10
Total Score 28/40