Cinema Classics: “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (1927)

We are one week away from the 93rd Academy Awards, so this week I’ll be counting down with some reviews of some of my favorite winners from past ceremonies.

Perhaps the best way to emphasize the importance of director F.W. Murnau’s landmark film “Sunrise” is to look at the Oscars it won at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Besides winning well-deserved awards for cinematography and Janet Gaynor for Best Actress, the film itself won an Oscar in the category of Best Unique and Artistic Production, also referred to as the “most beautiful.” This was the first and only time an award was handed out in this category; the following year, it was eliminated so that the Outstanding Production category remained the highest honor for a single film.

But there really is no more fitting way to describe “Sunrise” than unique and artistic. Murnau, famous for using the German expressionist technique in his films, was invited by 20th Century Fox to create an expressionist film in Hollywood. The result is both surreal and beautiful; a massive art deco city set was constructed for this film, with varying perspectives used to make it seem more like a fantasy than reality. Superimpositions of characters were used to create a haunting effect, and few title cards were used as well, with the action carrying much of the story.

George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor play husband and wife in “Sunrise”

That story involves a farmer (George O’Brien) who is tempted by a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) to sell his farm, drown his wife (Janet Gaynor), and come away with her. The next day, the man takes his wife out on a boat, but when he attempts to throw her overboard, he finds that he can’t. She flees, terrified, but he follows, and the rest of the film traces their journey throughout the day as they fall in love again.

“Sunrise” is a masterpiece, with Murnau taking the most basic of morality stories and layering it with symbolism. The cinematography and, of course, the lead actors’ performances, elevate it to a work of art. Today, “Sunrise” is consistently ranked among the best movies ever made, leading many to question why it didn’t win that very first Outstanding Production Oscar instead of the war drama “Wings.” It deserved that award too, but being the only film ever to be named the year’s Best Unique and Artistic Production is perhaps a higher, and even more appropriate, honor.

“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” is available to rent on all digital platforms. Runtime: 94 minutes.

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