I'd never heard of this movie before I began assembling this list. Not sure how it fell under the radar - I guess its memory was trampled by Metropolis and The Jazz Singer, which came out the same year. But the name kept popping up as I did my research - not usually at the top of the list, but on every list. And I thought, "Huh." And then upon closer inspection, I saw that it was directed by F. W. Murnau, famed German expressionist director best remembered for bringing us this image. And I thought, "Huh." So, we watched it. And I thought, ...well you get it. The point is, why didn't anybody mention this one before?
Which is not exactly to say I liked it, but more on that later. First I want to talk about the photography, which is what everyone talks about most regarding this movie. It's not quite what I expected. Somehow with what I gathered about the plot and setting I had got the impression that by "beautiful film" people simply meant the photography is great in the traditional sense of being lush and vivid and well-composed - comparable to great still photography. I was thinking Ansel Adams, that sort of thing. And it is nice in that regard, as far as I could tell through the somewhat battered print. But much more striking is the camerawork, in the modern sense of the camera actually doing "work" as opposed to just sitting there and maybe being panned back and forth every now and then. Composition centered around motion; kinetic energy. The camerawork in Sunrise is absolutely revolutionary compared to what we've seen before. It even contains a couple complicated, mechanical tracking shots that hold their own against the best of Hitchcock. I'm glad I didn't know about them, actually, so I could experience the joy of watching these shots unfold; my jaw falling further and further open as - instead of quitting while it's ahead - it continues on to some even more interesting twist or turn before finally coming to rest at the beautiful composition that's been patiently waiting for it.
Sorry - I do tend to wax poetic when I'm impressed. But I love it when filmmakers put a ridiculous amount of effort into getting a detail just so. It shows they care, and their care shows in the quality of the film. Even today, with all the dollies and cranes and Steadi-Cams at their disposal, this sort of effort is rare (sadly, Dark City is not on the viewing list, but it's one of the few examples in my lifetime of a film with similarly meticulous and - as Ebert put it - generous craftsmanship). Modern movies have a lot of motion, but it's generally unfocused; off-the-cuff. Imagine a great conductor leading his orchestra - that's how I envision Murnau as he crafted this masterpiece.
And it doesn't stop there! Fancy camerawork isn't enough for you? How about fancy editing/post-processing/effects? Sunrise has them in spades. Keep in mind, this is a drama about two people who take a small boat and then trolley to the city, have a crazy night, and then go home. Almost every movie we've seen so far is less mundane in setting, yet none come close in terms of the sheer amount of crafting that went into the visuals - not even Thief of Bagdad. The city is built up from composites of multiple shots, miniatures, forced perspective... pretty much every trick in the book. Other shots involve double-exposure "ghosts" interacting with people and an astonishing, unbroken stroll through multiple backgrounds (the sort of thing that would be done with green-screen today, and rear-projection before that - but I was told the first use of rear-projection was 1930, so I have no idea what technique is being used here). Some shots are meant to look believable if "too perfect," while others are deliberately dream-like. Even the inter-titles get in on the action, occasionally getting animated effects (like "washing away"). It's an incredible achievement. I have no idea how Murnau talked anyone into giving him the money for all this.
The obvious comparison is to Citizen Kane, which is the only other "normal" drama (meaning not sci-fi or fantasy) I'm aware of that contains so much effects work and hyper-real design. Actually, I think Sunrise has it beat. What I like is both the acknowledgment that the "world" of a drama is just as important as the world of a fantasy adventure, and that it is, really, no less a fantasy. A film's world is a character just like all the others, and should not let the actual world the filmmakers inhabit hold it back from its true potential. That said, if I were making such a film, and wanted $150 million to make it "just so," and the studio said "no way"... I probably wouldn't hold it against them.
Citizen Kane also has a lot of fancy camera work apart from the visual effects. The difference here however is that Kane is famous for its frequent and bold-faced symbolism, whereas the photography in Sunrise is driven by emotion and "dramatic momentum" - evocative, but not strictly "symbolic." No shame in that; just wanted to point out a difference since people like to compare these films so much.
Another difference, I think, is that Kane just has a stronger story. Of course, as they say on the internet, YMMV. The story to Sunrise is simple (and timeless, as it points out in the opening title cards). So simple that it's probably either going to click with you or it won't, because they're aren't a lot of wrinkles. The problem for me came early on. The plot, as Mandie summarized, is that a depressed, unfaithful man has been convinced by his mistress to murder his wife (classic duplicitous woman noir stuff, except the murder scene wouldn't be so early on). This he intends to do by taking her out on a boat and throwing her overboard. He - SPOILER ALERT! - gets as far as almost having his hands around her neck, by which time she's well figured out what's going on, but then can't do it and backs off in a daze. They reach land and naturally she tries to run away. He follows her to the city, trying to calm her down and apologize (!?), eventually succeeding as the night on the town becomes a new romance and they fall in love all over again.
So I think I get the timeless part, reconnecting with a love they assumed lost and all. But... after attempted murder? An affair sure, or violent outburst or selling the farm or some other crazy episode. But... "sorry about trying to kill you - take me back?" And I'm not saying a murder attempt makes him irrevocably evil. I see the desperation. I'm sure he wasn't quite in his right mind. I'm sure he really is very sorry and really does wish to do all he can to make it up to her, and even that he's capable of holding to that wish. I'm even ready to believe that she can process and understand and know all of that, intellectually at least. But to truly set it aside? In one night? Or one year for that matter? It seems to me that attempted murder crosses an irreversible line somewhere. The best I can believe is that she would not file charges and wish him well in his new life. Apparently the people who love this movie can believe a bit more. Again, YMMV. For me, that took me out of the film pretty much permanently. After that, I enjoyed watching it, but it was as an outsider looking in. It was a lovely curiosity to behold, but not a deep experience. I hold no grudges, and I wish it well with an audience that can love it the way I couldn't.