Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans


Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Critics Consensus

Boasting masterful cinematography to match its well-acted, wonderfully romantic storyline, Sunrise is perhaps the final -- and arguably definitive -- statement of the silent era.



Total Count: 52


Audience Score

User Ratings: 9,576
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Movie Info

Considered by many to be the finest silent film ever made by a Hollywood studio, F.W. Murnau's Sunrise represents the art of the wordless cinema at its zenith. Based on the Hermann Sudermann novel A Trip to Tilsit, this "Song of Two Humans" takes place in a colorful farming community, where people from the city regularly take their weekend holidays. Local farmer George O'Brien, happily married to Janet Gaynor, falls under the seductive spell of Margaret Livingston, a temptress from The City. He callously ignores his wife and child and strips his farm of its wealth on behalf of Livingston, but even this fails to satisfy her. One foggy evening, O'Brien meets Livingston at their usual swampland trysting place. She bewitches him with stories about the city -- its jazz, its bright lights, its erotic excitement. Thrilled at the prospect of running off with Livingston, O'Brien stops short: "What about my wife?" Drawing ever closer to her victim, Livingston murmurs "Couldn't she just...drown?" (the subtitle bearing these words then "melts" into nothingness). In his delirium, the husband agrees. The plan is to row Gaynor to the middle of the lake, then capsize the boat. Gaynor will drown, while O'Brien will save himself with some bulrushes that he'd previously hidden in the boat; thus, the murder will look like an accident. The next day, the brooding O'Brien begins slowly rowing his unsuspecting wife across the lake. Halfway to shore, he makes his intentions clear, but is unable to go through with it. As his wife cringes in terror, O'Brien rows to the other side of lake. Once ashore, she runs away from him in terror, as he stumbles after her, trying to apologize. Gaynor boards a streetcar bound for the city, with O'Brien climbing aboard a few seconds afterward. Upon reaching the city (a renowned set design), O'Brien continues trying to make amends to his wife. They sit disconsolately at a table in a restaurant, unable to eat the plate of cake that is set before them. Slowly, Gaynor begins overcoming her fear. The couple wander into a church, where a wedding is taking place. Breaking down in sobs, O'Brien begins repeating the wedding vows, thereby convincing Gaynor that she has nothing to fear. Together again, the couple embraces in the middle of a busy street, oblivious to the honking horns and irate motorists. Anxious to prove to each other that all is well, the husband and wife spend a delightful afternoon having their pictures taken and "dolling up" in a posh barber shop. They cap their unofficial second honeymoon at a joyous festival in an outsized amusement park. More in love with each other than ever before, O'Brien and Gaynor head back across the lake in the dark of night. Suddenly, a storm arises. Pulling out the bulrushes with which he'd planned to save himself, O'Brien straps them onto Janet, telling her to swim to shore. The storm passes. Washing up on shore, the unconscious O'Brien is brought home. But Gaynor is nowhere to be found, and it is assumed that she has died in the storm. Half-insane, O'Brien strikes out at Livingston, the instigator of the murder plan. Just as he is about to throttle the treacherous temptress, he is summoned home; his wife is alive! As Livingston stumbles out of the village, O'Brien and Gaynor cling tightly to one another, watching the sun rise above their now-happy home. Together with Seventh Heaven, Sunrise earned Janet Gaynor the first-ever Best Actress Academy Award, while Charles Rosher and Karl Struss walked home with the industry's first Best Photography Oscar. The film itself was also in the Oscar race, but lost out to the more financially successful Wings.

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Critic Reviews for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

All Critics (52) | Top Critics (14) | Fresh (51) | Rotten (1)

Audience Reviews for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

  • Jan 10, 2018
    Director F.W. Murnau made an outstanding film in 'Sunrise', which is an emotional drama and real visual treat. The story of temptation is simple and stripped down to the point of not even having character names for the principals (The Man, The Wife, and The Woman From the City), but the theme is timeless, and Murnau wastes no time getting to the tension. The simplicity may bother some, but I liked how tight the storytelling was. We really don't know which way the story is going to go, and at different times find ourselves horrified, touched, and even tickled during moments of levity. Janet Gaynor delivers a strong performance, and demonstrated real range to earn the first ever Oscar for best actress. She is very cute in the scenes where she's playful, such as when she dances with her husband. George O'Brien and Margaret Livingston are solid too, but what makes the film truly special is how far ahead of its time it was in its direction. Murnau uses overlays, imagined sequences, interesting camera angles, and flat-out beautiful cinematography from Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, and there are brilliant shots in the moonlight, on the water, and in the city. Poignant and artistic, this is one not to miss.
    Antonius B Super Reviewer
  • Apr 07, 2013
    At his mistress's command, a man takes his wife on a boat ride in order to kill her, but he decides against it, and they have a lovely afternoon together. While the cinematography is quite charming and the superimposed images were probably revolutionary and striking in their time, the story of <i>Sunrise</i> is streamlined and not that interesting. We know early that the man isn't going to kill his wife, so there isn't any suspense on the boat, and what follows lacks any real, compelling conflict. Overall, for its technical achievements, <i>Sunrise</i> has been rightly praised, but its emotional effect is pretty close to nil.
    Jim H Super Reviewer
  • Jun 23, 2012
    The ultimate silent film, released right after the talkies had already become a reality. Featuring some splendid superimpositions and impossible camera movements, this wonderful movie is both an impressive technical achievement and a beautiful story about love.
    Carlos M Super Reviewer
  • Dec 10, 2011
    Quite simply beautiful. One of very few honest and poignant true love stories in cinema. It is very slow paced but highly worthwhile for its moments of romance, humour, tragedy and beauty. Murnau created a timeless silent film that stands up as perhaps one of the greatest films ever made.
    Shauna R Super Reviewer

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