Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (also known as Sunrise) is a 1927 American silent 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 story was adapted by Carl Mayer from the short story "The Excursion to Tilsit", from the collection with the same title by Hermann Sudermann.[1][2]

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Theatrical release poster
Directed byF. W. Murnau
Produced byWilliam Fox
Screenplay byCarl Mayer
Based on"The Excursion to Tilsit"
by Hermann Sudermann
StarringGeorge O'Brien
Janet Gaynor
Margaret Livingston
Music byHugo Riesenfeld
Ernö Rapée
CinematographyCharles Rosher
Karl Struss
Edited byHarold D. Schuster
Distributed byFox Film Corporation
Release date
  • September 23, 1927 (1927-09-23)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent film
English subtitles

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 was later used as the theme for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955–65). 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 (she also won 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 selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress for films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[4] The Academy Film Archive preserved Sunrise in 2004.[5] The 2007 update of the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American films ranked it number 82,[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]


A vacationing Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) lingers in a lakeside town for weeks. After dark, she goes to a farmhouse where the Man (George O'Brien) and the Wife (Janet Gaynor) 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 cakes 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 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).[9] 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.[10] Veit Harlan compared his German remake Die Reise nach Tilsit (1939), pointing to the symbolism and soft focus of Sunrise he claimed that it was a poem, whereas his realistic Die Reise nach Tilsit was a film.[11]


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 is now widely considered by film critics and historians to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Awards and nominations

Academy Award wins (1929)[12]

Academy Award nominations (1929)

Other distinctions

DVD and Blu-ray releases

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,[14] 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.[15]

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


  1. "The Screen", Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, September 24, 1927.
  2. "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". 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, p. 131–133.
  5. "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  6. "100 Years...100 Movies" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2009-09-18.
  7. "Critics' top 100". Retrieved 10 March 2016.
  8. "Silent Is Golden", DVD Journal. Retrieved 2009-9-16
  9. Gallagher, Tag John Ford: The Man and his Films (University of California Press, 1986), p.55
  10. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies p. 46 ISBN 0-03-007606-4
  11. Cinzia Romani, Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich p86 ISBN 0-9627613-1-1
  12. "NY Times: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-07.
  14. Sunrise at the Masters of Cinema catalogue
  15. Galloway, Chris (February 26, 2010). "Sunrise [Blu-ray] (1927)".
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