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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Theatrical release poster
Directed byF. W. Murnau
Screenplay byCarl Mayer
Based on"The Excursion to Tilsit"
1917 story in "Litauische Geschichten"
by Hermann Sudermann
Produced byWilliam Fox
Edited byHarold Schuster
Music byHugo Riesenfeld
Distributed byFox Film Corporation
Release date
  • September 23, 1927 (1927-09-23)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguagesSound (Synchronized)
(English Intertitles)
Sunrise - A Song of Two Humans (full film)
Janet Gaynor, winner of first Best Actress Academy Award

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (also known as Sunrise) is a 1927 American synchronized sound romantic drama directed by German director F. W. Murnau (in his American film debut) and starring George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston. The film's plot follows a married farmer (O'Brien) who falls for a woman vacationing from the city (Livingston), who tries to convince him to murder his wife (Gaynor) in order to be with her. While the film has no audible dialog, it was released with a synchronized musical score with sound effects using the Movietone sound-on-film process. The story was adapted by Carl Mayer from the short story "The Excursion to Tilsit", from the 1917 collection with the same title by Hermann Sudermann.[1][2]

Murnau chose to use the then new Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, making Sunrise one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects soundtrack. The film incorporated Charles Gounod's 1872 composition Funeral March of a Marionette, which inspired its use as the theme for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–1965). Frédéric Chopin's A minor prelude also features prominently in orchestral arrangement.

Sunrise won the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929. Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in the film (the award was also for her performances in 1927's 7th Heaven and 1928's Street Angel).[3] The film's legacy has endured, and it is now widely considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made. Many have called it the greatest film of the silent era. In 1989, Sunrise was one of the first 25 films selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[4][5] The Academy Film Archive preserved Sunrise in 2004.[6] The 2007 update of the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American films ranked it number 82,[7] and the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound critics' poll named it the fifth-best film in the history of motion pictures, while directors named it 22nd.[8]

Although the original 35mm negative of the original American version of Sunrise was destroyed in the 1937 Fox vault fire, a new negative was created from a surviving print.[9]


A vacationing woman from the city lingers in a lakeside town for weeks. After dark, she goes to a farmhouse where the Man and the Wife live with their child. She whistles from the fence outside. The Man is torn, but finally departs, leaving his wife with the memories of better times when they were deeply in love.

The man and woman meet in the moonlight and kiss passionately. She wants him to sell his farm—which has not done well recently—to join her in the city. When she suggests that he solve the problem of his wife by drowning her, he throttles her violently, but even that dissolves in a passionate embrace. The Woman gathers bundles of reeds so that when the boat is overturned, the Man can stay afloat.

The Wife suspects nothing when her husband suggests going on an outing, but when they set off across the lake, she soon grows suspicious. He prepares to throw her overboard, but when she pleads for his mercy, he realizes he cannot do it. He rows frantically for shore, and when the boat reaches land, the Wife flees.

She boards a trolley, and he follows, begging her not to be afraid of him. The trolley brings them to the city. Her fear and disappointment are overwhelming. He plies her with flowers and bread and finally she stops crying and accepts his gifts. Emerging back on the street, they are touched to see a bride enter a church for her processional, and follow her inside to watch the wedding. The Man breaks down and asks her to forgive him. After a tearful reconciliation, they continue their adventure in the city, having their photograph taken together and visiting a funfair. As darkness falls, they board the trolley for home.

Soon they are drifting back across the lake under the moonlight. A sudden storm causes their boat to begin sinking. The Man remembers the two bundles of reeds he placed in the boat earlier and ties the bundles around the Wife. The boat capsizes, and the Man awakes on a rocky shore. He gathers the townspeople to search the lake, but all they find is a broken bundle of reeds floating in the water.

Convinced the Wife has drowned, the grief-stricken Man stumbles home. The Woman from the City goes to his house, assuming their plan has succeeded. The Man begins to choke her. Then the Maid calls to him that his wife is alive, so he releases the Woman and runs to the Wife, who survived by clinging to one last bundle of reeds.

The Man kneels by the Wife's bed as she slowly opens her eyes. The Man and the Wife kiss, while the Woman from the city's carriage rolls down the hill toward the lake, and the film dissolves to the sunrise.



Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans trailer

Sunrise was made by F. W. Murnau, a German director who was one of the leading figures in German Expressionism, a style that uses distorted art design for symbolic effect. Murnau was invited by William Fox to make an Expressionist film in Hollywood.

The resulting film features enormous stylized sets that create an exaggerated and fairy-tale world; the city street set alone reportedly cost over US$200,000 to build and was re-used in many subsequent Fox productions, including John Ford's Four Sons (1928).[10] Much of the exterior shooting was done at Lake Arrowhead, California.

Full of cinematic innovations, the groundbreaking cinematography (by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) features particularly praised tracking shots. Titles appear sparingly, with long sequences of pure action and the bulk of the story told in Murnau's signature style. The extensive use of forced perspective is striking, particularly in a shot of the city with normal-sized people and sets in the foreground and smaller figures in the background by much smaller sets.

The characters go unnamed, lending them a universality conducive to symbolism.[11] Veit Harlan compared his German remake Die Reise nach Tilsit (1939); pointing to the symbolism and soft focus of the original, he claimed that Sunrise was a poem, whereas his realistic Die Reise nach Tilsit was a film.[12]


Sunrise premiered on September 23, 1927. It was accompanied by the first ever talking newsreels, which attracted much of the initial interest in the film.[13]

Reception and legacy[edit]

The film received positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator holds an approval rating of 'fresh' 98%, based on 65 reviews. The site's consensus reads, "Boasting masterful cinematography to match its well-acted, wonderfully romantic storyline, Sunrise is perhaps the final -- and arguably definitive -- statement of the silent era."[14]

Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times hailed Sunrise as "A Film Masterpiece".[1] A reviewer for Time, however, called its story "meagre" while writing that the film overall "manages to remain picturesquely soporific for a long evening".[2] Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is now widely considered by film critics and historians to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Academy Award wins (1929)[15]

Academy Award nominations (1929)

Other distinctions

Home media[edit]

20th Century Fox originally released Sunrise on DVD in Region 1, but only as a special limited edition available only by mailing in proofs-of-purchase for other DVD titles in their "20th Century Fox Studio Classics" line, or as part of the box set Studio Classics: The 'Best Picture' Collection. The DVD includes commentary, a copy of the film's trailer, details about Murnau's lost film Four Devils, outtakes, and many more features.

In late 2008, Fox released the "Murnau, Borzage and Fox Box Set" in some markets. Both Movietone and European silent versions of Sunrise are included. A documentary of the three individuals is also part of the collection.

Sunrise has also been released on DVD in the UK as part of the Masters of Cinema series. In September 2009, Masters of Cinema released a 2-disc DVD reissue, containing both the Movietone version and the shorter Czech print found on the 2008 "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" DVD, as well as the extra features found on the previous Masters of Cinema DVD release and the Fox Studio Classics release. The film was released simultaneously on Blu-ray Disc,[17] with both versions of the feature rendered in 1080p High-definition video, and both the stereo and the mono soundtracks rendered in Dolby TrueHD lossless audio. This UK release was the first occasion of a silent film being released on Blu-ray. The Blu-ray disk is apparently not region-encoded, and thus should be viewable on any Blu-ray disk player.[18]

In January 2014, the film was released in the US on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack by 20th Century Fox.

The film's copyright was renewed in 1954.[19] Sunrise entered the public domain on January 1, 2023.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Screen", Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, September 24, 1927.
  2. ^ a b "New Pictures: Oct. 3, 1927", Time, October 3, 1927
  3. ^ Bird, David (September 15, 1984). "Janet Gaynor Is Dead At 77; First 'Best Actress' Winner". nytimes.com. Retrieved March 30, 2015.
  4. ^ Eagan, Daniel. America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. New York: Continuum, 2010, pp. 131–133 ISBN 978-0-8264-2977-3
  5. ^ "ENTERTAINMENT: Film Registry Picks First 25 Movies". Los Angeles Times. Washington, D.C. September 19, 1989. Retrieved April 22, 2020.
  6. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  7. ^ "100 Years...100 Movies" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved September 18, 2009.
  8. ^ "Critics' top 100". bfi.org.uk. Archived from the original on August 19, 2012. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  9. ^ "Silent Is Golden", DVD Journal. Retrieved September 16, 2009
  10. ^ Gallagher, Tag John Ford: The Man and his Films (University of California Press, 1986), p. 55 ISBN 0-520-05097-5
  11. ^ Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies p. 46 ISBN 0-03-007606-4
  12. ^ Cinzia Romani, Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich (Gremese, 2001), p. 86 ISBN 0-9627613-1-1
  13. ^ Harwell Celenza, Anna (2017). Jazz Italian Style: From its Origins in New Orleans to Fascist Italy and Sinatra. Cambridge University Press. p. 100.
  14. ^ "Sunrise". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved September 29, 2023.
  15. ^ "NY Times: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2009. Archived from the original on September 4, 2009. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  16. ^ Academy Awards, USA 1929 at IMDb
  17. ^ Sunrise at the Masters of Cinema catalogue
  18. ^ Galloway, Chris (February 26, 2010). "Sunrise [Blu-ray] (1927)". CriterionForum.org.
  19. ^ "Catalog of Copyright Entries 1954 Motion Pictures and Filmstrips Jan-Dec 3D Ser Vol 8 PTS 12-13". U.S. Govt. Print. Off. 1954.
  20. ^ Jenkins, Jennifer. "Public Domain Day 2023". Duke University School of Law.

External links[edit]