Free: F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, the 1927 Masterpiece Voted the 5th Best Movie of All Time


Ger­man direc­tor F.W. Murnau’s silent mas­ter­piece Sun­rise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is a rare exam­ple of a for­eign auteur who man­aged to keep his vision in the face of the Hol­ly­wood machine.

Pri­or to this movie, F. W. Mur­nau was arguably the most impor­tant film direc­tor of his time. He direct­ed a string of Ger­man Expres­sion­ist works that were as bleak and brood­ing as they were tech­ni­cal­ly bril­liant. Murnau’s eeri­ly, hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Nos­fer­atu (1922) rede­fined the hor­ror movie. The spec­tac­u­lar­ly depress­ing Der Let­zte Mann (1924) fea­tured a rov­ing cam­era, dou­ble-expo­sure and forced per­spec­tive to bril­liant­ly evoke the shame, humil­i­a­tion and (in one tour-de-force sequence) drunk­en­ness of a proud door­man demot­ed to a wash­room atten­dant. And his adap­ta­tion of Faust (1926) was the most lav­ish, expen­sive movie Ger­many had ever pro­duced at the time.

Enter William Fox, a Jew­ish-Hun­gar­i­an immi­grant who found­ed the Fox Film Cor­po­ra­tion. Though his stu­dio was mod­er­ate­ly suc­cess­ful pro­duc­ing Tom Mix seri­als, he aspired to some­thing greater; he aspired to art. Fox con­vinced Mur­nau to make the jump to Hol­ly­wood, in part by agree­ing to build a $200,000 set for the movie — an astro­nom­i­cal sum in those days.

Sun­rise opens with a series of title cards that announce just what this movie is about:

This song of the man and his wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it any­where at any time. For wher­ev­er the sun ris­es and sets in the city’s tur­moil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; some­times bit­ter, some­times sweet.

Mur­nau and his screen­writer Carl Mey­er (who also wrote Der Let­zte Mann) made the plot­line so sim­ple, so uni­ver­sal that the char­ac­ters don’t even have names.

A strug­gling farmer is smit­ten with a femme fatale from the city. She invei­gles him to drown his young wife and run off to the city with her. But when it comes time to do the deed, he real­izes that he can’t do it. When the wife flees from him, he fol­lows her into the city, apol­o­giz­ing pro­fuse­ly. Even­tu­al­ly, he and his remark­ably for­giv­ing wife rec­on­cile and rekin­dle their love for one oth­er. The sto­ry is so ele­men­tal that it could be a fairy tale.

Yet Murnau’s abil­i­ty to spin absolute­ly daz­zling images — using tech­nol­o­gy per­fect­ed in Ger­many – is what makes Sun­rise so mem­o­rable. At one point in the movie, the cam­era seem­ing­ly floats over a crowd in an amuse­ment park; at anoth­er the lovers walk down a city street that, with­out a cut, trans­forms into a flow­er­ing mead­ow. Com­pared to his Hol­ly­wood con­tem­po­raries – D.W. Grif­fith for exam­ple – Murnau’s movie seems vital, mod­ern, and sur­pris­ing­ly poignant.

Though the movie earned a few Oscars – includ­ing one for Best Unique and Artis­tic Pro­duc­tion and one for Best Actress for Janet GaynorSun­rise suf­fered the fate of many cin­e­mat­ic mas­ter­pieces: It flopped. Yet over the years, its crit­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion has only grown. In 2012, it was named the 5th best movie of all time by Sight and Sound mag­a­zine just ahead of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike Kubrick’s sci-fi saga, how­ev­er, you can watch Sun­rise for free on Check it out. Also find the clas­sic on our list of Great Silent Films, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: Dzi­ga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, Named the 8th Best Film Ever Made

Watch Ten of the Great­est Silent Films of All Time — All Free Online

Watch Nos­fer­atu, the Sem­i­nal Vam­pire Film, Free Online (1922)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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