Directed by F. W. Murnau
Written by Carl Mayer, based upon “The Excursion to Tilsit” by Hermann Sudermann
Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston
Welcome, loyal readers, to the greatest day in Best Picture Project and Also-Rans Project history. You should stop whatever it is you’re doing right now and mark down this date on a calendar because you, dear reader, are bearing witness to a once-in-a-lifetime event. And in the future, when your grandchildren look at you and say, “Grandpa/Grandma, what was it like when The Best Picture Project, and The Also-Rans Project, crossed-over?”, you can tell them exactly where you were when it happened, and exactly what it was like.
And what is it, exactly, you are witness to? Well, only the single installment that crosses the purview of both The Best Picture Project, and The Also-Rans Project, because finally we come to the single film that can rightfully lay claim to a place on both lists. Rejoice! It is a glorious day!
Pop quiz, hotshot – name the movie that has the distinction of having won Best Picture, while at the same time, losing it?
Obviously, the answer is Sunrise – you already guessed that. But that Sunrise is both the winner and loser actually depends on a bit of a technicality. Allow me to explain…
You see, at the dawn of time – or at least the beginning of the Academy Awards – the Academy gave out two Best Picture Oscars. To be fair, they didn’t call either of these Best Picture, and they weren’t yet called Oscars either. Rather, the academy gave out an award for ‘Outstanding Picture’, which was won by Wings, and also an award for ‘Unique and Artistic Picture’, which was won by Sunrise. There was no overlap amongst the nominees in either category and both awards were apparently viewed as being as prestigious as the other, which can be a problem – how the hell can you give out two Best Picture Awards when only one thing can be best?
The next year they would answer this by eliminating the ‘Unique and Artistic Picture’ award and, in a bit of retconning – maybe the original retcon – decide that Wings alone won Best Picture. What did Sunrise win? Some other bullshit Best Picture Award that was definitely not Best Picture. Nevermind the box art for the DVD copy I borrowed from the library, fresh from 20th Century Fox, lays claim to Sunrise winning Best Picture, because the Academy says that definitely did not happen.
So, as the Academy hath made it’s decision, it’s decision must be abided. And that is how Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans can be both a Best Picture winner, and a Best Picture loser, making it the golden-unicorn of The Best Picture Project and The Also-Rans Project.
What’s it about
A young married couple lives on a farm in the country with their child. They are otherwise happy, until a temptress from the city pops into town and sets her eyes on the husband. Her goal? Seduce the husband to kill the wife, get him to sell the farm, then take him and the money and run off together to enjoy the fast-life in the city. So seduced, the husband tries to put the plan into action but, come the moment of truth, can’t seal the deal. The problem? He loves his wife. So, instead of killing her by throwing her in the lake to drown, he takes her to the city and they spend a lovely, charming day together, enjoying themselves and reaffirming their love. However, en route home, the wife nearly drowns in the lake, leaving the husband distraught. It is in those few moments, when the wife is believed dead, that the temptress appears again to claim the man but, rather than be claimed, he nearly strangles her to death, stopping only when there comes a cry from the water – the wife lives!
Let’s Get This Straight
For modern viewers, silent films are a tough ask. Hell, for some viewers, black and white films are a tough ask. And for others, anything older than the early 50s are a problem, given it was roughly around that era when screen acting changed from being overly-stylized to something more natural.
Push comes to shove, though, , silent films are toughest. Whereas other films can tell their stories with sights and sounds – aurally and visually – allowing a person to follow a movie without diligently keeping their eyeballs on it, silent films can only tell a story by what is seen on the screen. This means attention must always be paid for fear of missing things, which can be exhausting. Fortunately, most silent films have a primitiveness to them, and a certain broadness of story, meaning you never really have to worry about missing the nuances. But, if this is a fortune, that makes things fortunate, it really is a lesser-fortune.
What’s Good About It?
Honestly, once you get passed the silence and the acting styles, just about everything about Sunrise is what’s good about it.
F.W. Murnau’s direction is energetic – at least, by silent film standards – and has style. The way he uses the camera, and the lighting, creates a real mood, with shadows deployed expertly. If you didn’t know going in that Murnau hailed from the German Expressionist style of cinema, you’d know it from just watching the film – it’s pretty clear there on the screen.
And the visuals don’t merely contribute to the mood, they help tell the story as well, illuminating the interior lives of the characters. By using superimposed visuals we see their thoughts and internal conflicts, making the characters feel so much truer, and realer, than they ever could have with a hundred title cards. And if the visuals don’t show their internal lives, they use symbolism to tell us other things about the characters. For instance, early on a shadow in the shape of a cross appears on the wall over the wife’s bed, so as to emphasize her innocence and purity – it is a subtle touch that says everything.
The film is also a master class in suspense. The first time we get a taste of it is in the moments leading up to the aborted-murder, when the husband takes the wife out on the boat to drown her. While the husband is glum and grim in his preparations, the wife is happy and gay and makes a show of saying goodbye to their dog and their child. The sequence builds as they row the boat from the dock, only to have to turn around again when the dog breaks free and jumps in the water after them. Once the dog is returned to shore and secured, they return to the boat and row out again.
Throughout this sequence leading up to, and into the boat, the movie takes it’s time about where it’s going, knowing that because we know a murder is going to happen, and know the wife has no reason to be happy, it draws ever-tighter the tension we feel. It is then a great relief when the husband does not go through with the plot and the wife will not die.
A similar sequence happens at the climax of the movie, but rather than the husband take the wife out in the boat to drown her, they are in the boat and get caught in a storm, that eventually sinks the boat. The suspense of it is that while the husband survives and manages to get to shore, the confusion of not knowing whether the wife died or not, mixed with the opportunism of the temptress, achieves near-perfect suspense.
That said, my favorite touch in the film was the use of the title-cards. Typically in silent films, bits of dialog and exposition are thrown up on title card, interrupting the flow of the movie to give context about the story. Murnau, though, avoids the use of title-cards as much possible, letting the visuals tell the story. In those instances when he couldn’t avoid them, he didn’t merely throw them on screen to interrupt things, but integrated them with the movie with animation, so they became part of, and interact with the film, rather than interrupt it.
But the most important thing to say about Sunrise is it is a surprising film. In the beginning it promises to be a grim story about adultery and murder that instead switches gears roughly a third of the way through, and quite effectively, turning into a joyous endorsement for the life-affirming power of love that ends with a literal sunrise.
Worthy of Being Best? Or, Better than Best?
You bet it is. When I wrote the entry in The Best Picture Project on Wings I had no ther Best Picture nominees from that year – in either category. In fact, the only film I actually saw that was nominated in any category was the Harold Lloyd comedy, Speedy, which got Ted Wilde a Best Director-Comedy nomination. Looking at all the other nominees in all other categories now, it’s unlikely I will see any of them. The point being that, because I had no context to judge Wings by, I couldn’t say if it was worthy of the award because I didn’t know if it was better than it’s competition. That said, I did say you should skip Wings because you’d be bored silly. But now, having seen Sunrise and Wings – both winners of their own Best Picture – I can say that yes, the winner of Best Picture that year was both worthy of being Best, and also better than the Best.
The award for Best Unique and Artistic Picture was not the only category that did not survive into Oscars Year Two. Others included Best Engineering Effects, Best Title Writing, and Best Director-Comedy. Just as Sunrise is a Best Picture winner that is not a Best Picture winner, director Lewis Milestone is a two-time winner f0r Best Director who really is not, given his Award for Best Director-Comedy for Two Arabian Knights is omitted from the official Best Director rolls. Fortunately, he later won for directing All Quiet on The Western Front, which actually speaks to his versatility at being able to handle both grim drama, and comedy.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Though they were unofficially known as the Oscars around town from just about the very beginning, the name only became semi-official in 1932, when Walt Disney thanked the Academy for his Oscar. The name ‘Oscar’ only became official-official in 1939 when the Academy gave in and just adopted it.
 Just to be clear, the phrase “Best Picture” itself didn’t actually come into being with the Oscars until 1962. Before then it cycled through a handful of other names similar to ‘Outstanding Picture’ before landing on that one.
 The photographic effects are primitive, but never distract and are always effective.
 Which, if I’d been using my thinker when I wrote about Wings, I would have said Speedy was the true Best Picture by virtue of being the only other film I’d seen, and also being better than Wings.
 Best Title Writing would no longer be needed as film made the full transition to sound.