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Sunrise and Problematic Values

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Sunrise and Problematic Values

In 1988, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) was added to the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress for films deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. When you look at the film in the context of the 1920’s, it is possible to see why it has been considered so significant. In the US, the 1920’s were the beginnings of the modernist movement. The younger generation began a new age of art, music, and fashion, as well as a new set of values and cultural behaviors. Young people were attracted to the fast-paced and independent lifestyle of the city, and women especially became more attracted to that idea of independence. As many people joined the modernist movement, others resisted it just as much. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a film that deals very much with the struggle between modernist and anti-modernist values, represented by The Man’s (George O’Brien) struggle over his choice between The Woman from The City (Margaret Livingston), and his wife (Janet Gaynor). The way in which this struggle presents itself, however, is pretty problematic; after a bit of thought, it is fairly obvious that the film condemns the modernist lifestyle, including the independence that women were developing. This much becomes evident to some people, but even then, very few people have fully realized the values that Sunrise is promoting, due to the excessive tenderness and emotion of the film, in the themes of forgiveness and rekindled affection. Thus, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans may be one of the most effective conservative films of its time in that its messages about anti-modernism and women are heavily concealed in the kind of romantic sentimentality that appeals to many.
The very center of modernism in this film is the city, which is nameless and feels as though it’s on an entirely separate plane of existence from the village where The Man and The Wife live; it can only be reached by rowing all the way across what appears to be a large lake, and then riding a trolley that happens to pass by it. When a series of events, involving The Wife fleeing from her husband, brings them both into the city, the contrast to the village is very apparent. The city is alarmingly alien to the both of them: fast-paced, loud, and chaotic. The sets themselves are dazzling though, and throughout the day as they both experience the city, they find themselves having more fun than they likely had in a long time. These scenes actually capture the sort of temptation that a modernist lifestyle may hold for these people. However, the city is also portrayed in a very hedonistic and ultimately frivolous way. Throughout the scenes in the city, there is almost nothing but humor. The scenes in the barber shop,the scenes as the couple tries to get their photograph taken, and the extremely extended sequence of a small pig getting drunk are all entirely ridiculous, and in such stark contrast to the dark tones in the beginning, and towards the end as their boat was destroyed in the storm. Ultimately, the city is not meant to be seen as real life, only a fantasy.
And of course, from the city, came The Woman, also a representation of modernist values as seen by F.W. Murnau. She is new, exciting, and tempting to The Man, just as the city is. She is essentially the epitome of the modernist woman: her style of dress is considered risque, she wears makeup, she has cut her hair short, she is used to the glamorous life of the city, and she is sexually liberated, a total opposite to The Wife who is pure, innocent, loyal, and definitely anti-modern. The Woman from The City reflects the classic Femme Fatale trope, an often morally ambiguous female character who has essentially weaponized her sexuality. In seducing The Man and then convincing him to kill his wife for her, she is established as a villain, and we as the audience hate her and want her defeated. Even her aesthetics make her into the classic villain: she is only seen wearing black, she smokes, and the only scenes in which we see her are at night. However, she has no real hand in the attempted murder of The Wife; she only suggested the idea and convinced The Man to go through with it. The way in which she is portrayed, however, is definitely meant to antagonize her, as well as stereotype and demonize modern values and the liberated woman: She wears makeup, and is seen fixing it a few times, so she is vain and petty, and she is openly sexual, so she is evil and manipulative with her sexuality, and so on. In essence, the character of The Woman from The City is a harmful and sexist character, and is meant to condemn the lifestyle of the modernist woman.
Knowing this, why is it then that we establish her as the villain, and The Man as the her victim and eventual hero of the story? She did not attempt to kill The Wife, he did. She did not cheat on her spouse, he did. Later in the film he even exhibits dangerously possessive and jealous behavior as he threatens a man who had been flirting with his wife, a trait often associated with abusers. The Woman from The City is definitely not a moral character, but in reality, The Man is more responsible than she was.
The reason that we don’t hold him responsible, is because the film uses our sentimentality and empathy against us. We can see how much The Man struggled with his decision, and how supposedly helpless he was against the temptation of The Woman, much like a drug addict. In one scene, after he had snuck out to meet with her, he is being cradled in her arms and he literally looks as if he were strung out on heroin. We as viewers pity him for his inability to overcome his weakness, though we know what he is doing is wrong. When we view him in this light, it removes the blame from him. When we also see how remorseful he is and how scared and sorrowful his wife is, we as viewers want desperately want her to forgive him, though realistically he is not deserving of it.
There is a major turning point in the film at which The Man is truly established as a “good guy”, or at the very least, a “not so bad guy”. That turning point is the scene in the church, as The Man and The Wife come across a young couple being married. When The Man hears the vows being exchanged, and remembers “his duty to love and protect her,” he breaks down and cries into The Wife’s lap. At this point he is forgiven by his wife, and we as viewers are meant to forgive him too. The scene is so excessively emotional that it manipulates us in a way that it becomes almost impossible to not forgive him. If we don’t fully believe in his rekindled devotion to his wife at this point, however, the scenes at the end of the film as he desperately searches for her after their boat has been destroyed definitely reinforce that. It’s possible that these are the most important scenes in the film for that reason.
In essence, though this seems to be a relatively harmless and “feel good” film, it does reinforce things like victim blaming, sexism, and the rejection of progressive or modern values in favor of tradition, just as many films have throughout time. It takes a bit of thought to see those messages though, possibly even a second or third viewing of the film, because the way those messages are presented is so visceral and subconscious,since we tend to develop such an emotional attachment to the film itself. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is so effective in spreading its problematic values, because we don’t even think about what the film is telling us about women or modernism, we just accept it.

Word Count: 1,361

Sources: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018455/ http://www.angelfire.com/film/sunrise/sunrise.html http://www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/47698/Sunrise/details http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~./clamen/misc/movies/NFR-Titles.html…...

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