‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ – F. W. Murnau – (With actors George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor)
“Silent films had a language of their own;
they aimed for the emotions, not the mind,
and the best of them wanted to be,
not a story, but an experience.”
~ Roger Ebert on ‘Sunrise’ (film critic)
Life is relationship. No matter what. We are always engaged in a relationship with an apparent ‘other’. Should we be left alone in the world, with no other humans, life would remain an encounter with the other — any other being — be it the sun, the wind, the rugged stones on our path, or our very own self. Our life is always a song of apparent duality. And the success of any relationship, which is the coming of intimacy and love in our life, is always the road taken from apparent separation to the realisation of our shared being. Life is one. But that needs to be fully seen.
I was put on these tracks by watching the 1927 silent movie ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ by German director F. W. Murnau. The film is a splendour. Although an overly simple love story, the title suggests that its lessons are of an universal nature. And the finesse and poetry of its making renders it as an archetypical manual for everything that a relationship can bring or teach. The story can be summarised in a few lines: a country man has become weary of his relationship with his wife, and has started a love affair with a passing woman from the city. His new lover convinces him to kill his wife while being on a boat trip on the lake, a plan which the man, overtaken by remorse, fails to execute at the very last moment. The rest of the film is the story of his winning his wife’s forgiveness and the return to a dazzling feeling of love and happiness between the two.
A silent movie has a very telling lesson to offer in life. For it needs necessity and simplicity in its expression. It has to go to the core of the matter, to its essential. Truth and clarity must be its guiding lines, not the superfluous. We cannot be led in it by many layers of abstraction. We need to be taken by the story, by its underlying meaning. We need to see what a smile can convey of beauty, or what a devious thought can provoke on a man’s face, what shadow it can bring. Since there is no need to bring in the intellect and follow a complex line of reasoning, we are free to receive all that the movie has to give. And this ‘song of two humans’ has a lot to give: it taught me that life ought to be sustained by something more than its objective components. Otherwise frustration awakens and takes the first role, makes itself all important. We react, and make life responsible for our suffering. We don’t see what we have. We overlook the substance of life — its intrinsic flavour and perfection. Life is misunderstood. Its nature and purpose are overlooked and mishandled. We get lost, and wrongly directed.
The man has become a prey to his desires. There is no resting in desire, in following the course of its schemes and obsessions. No end in hopes and dreams, in projecting something only imagined or fantasised. Yet this is what we do all the time, superimposing on our deepest fact of being, some layers of imagination. And then take them to be life itself, believe in what we think they imply, instead of reviewing what is present now, what is certain now, what cannot be changed or removed, which is the home of every possible experience in life. This presence is the sustainable factor. The consciousness that we are is the provider of meaning and beauty. Everything else, every new object, every escape or pursuit, every thought or belief, when it comes to achieving a sense of happiness or peace, is intrinsically a wrong turn taken. And this is happening at the moment when a new thought wanders in the direction of desire — at the very instant when we sense that something is lacking in ourself; that what we have or experience is not quite enough; that we need or deserve more or better. Right here is the time to suspend any action and look better at what we are; at what this sense of lack is made of at its truest core; why it is here at all.
The wife in the story stands for the innocence and inbuilt happiness of our innermost being. She is dressed in white. She represents the beauty and simplicity of life when it is taken as it truly is — not cheated upon, overlooked or misunderstood. The man with his black clothes and large bent shoulders, conveys the heaviness of belief and its veiling of truth. He occupies the screen. His dark presence fills everything, all beauty and happiness contained in a path of truth, with its obsessive agenda. He brings tension in everything he does. His life is built on false grounds. Things can only go wrong when we act from a mistaken standpoint. To believe in separation is to miss the only essential fact of life, which is its inherent oneness and its peaceful making. Our misery is not the proof that we need to acquire something new or other. It is only the sign of a wrongly acquired vision. We need to awaken to the reality of our true being. Objects are of no help in this. Objects will act like a vampire over us, luring us into their trap. The woman from the city represents this attraction.
‘Sunrise’ – (With actor George O’Brien)
Caught in the net of his desires, the man adopts evil plans and attitudes. When we are in pursuit of objects, we are distracted from the inherent beauty of life. We become blind, desensitised to its underlying perfection. We miss the deeper meaning hidden behind the obsessive and cumbersome separate elements of our life, which we try to arrange and manage in a way that could give us the peace and release that we seek. This is when things start to go wrong and when life seems to turn against us — this moment when we have reduced it to our own desire orientated designs, which life can never fulfil. Life will only fulfil us when our being aligns with truth. And life is a patient waiter. It has infinite ressources to make us comply to its laws. It has the purity and straightforwardness of oneness. It is never devious. It is truthful to itself. It won’t deviate from its course. Won’t cheat on you. Won’t play some double game. None of that. That’s why we can trust it, give our all to it. Life is disappointing only when we follow the course of our illegitimate desires. Never when we remain truthful to its flowing majesty, which is only found in ourself, and not in the apparent objects of experience.
The infinite sensitivity and subtlety of this silent movie has a way to involve us totally. Nothing is gratuitous in it. You feel everything, every nuance. You become one with the plot and characters, espousing their most refined accents of truth. It is cleansing, to be exposed to such degree of innocence. This is the way art can touch us so deeply and directly. The music plays a vital part in the film, but is often unheard. It becomes part of us. It is intertwined with us. Music is all important isn’t it? Like is the background of truth in our life. This is what gives us a contour or consistence. This is what gives us the direction, which is: never leave the home of truth. Go wherever you will, but stay grounded in the everlasting ground of being. Never depart from it. This is all your savings — what you truly own, and what will keep you safe. This truth is the larger picture that will include and resolve the thousand imagined elements and conflicts of your existence.
The man has renounced to his malefic deed. His wife is desperate and runs away, jumping in the first tram heading to the city. He is adamant in pursuing her and winning her heart again. We will find ourself, again and again, back to the starting point, our life seeming to never evolve towards the desired aim. We are back to ourself, where it all started. We seem to be stuck, not moving. But we are unaware that this is our solace, this constant coming back to the simple ground of being. We cannot escape the simple fact of being, the formidable truth of it. The success of our escapes would be a curse. It is never meant to be, because it has no ground in truth. It has no reality of its own. It cannot sustain itself. It cannot bring us what we are looking for.
The wife’s pliancy is dumbfounding. She is able to forgive. And it taught me something like this: we can hurt our relationship to truth, but we cannot hurt truth itself. Its innocence confers it infinite strength and flexibility. Having no will or agenda of its own, truth is never far away. It doesn’t sulk, is not a party pooper. It is only at an infinitesimal distance, which is the distance from ourself to ourself. Truth has an infinite power of seduction. Its face has the sweetness of a lover’s face. But we are too occupied with our driven mind, too obsessed with acquiring the happiness that we think is so terribly lacking in us. So beauty escapes us, and happiness is continually trampled. We’d rather kill truth than renounce to the promise of our beliefs. This is when truth runs away and hides from ourself. But truth is an obeying thing, and complies to our deepest and sincerest desire. Truth loves being courted. Yet our freedom is its most precious asset. If we push it away, it will retire. But only try to invite it, to be open to it, willing to know it, and it will be seduced, will make itself available.
The wife is now seduced again. The couple wanders in the street and meets a marriage procession. One thing though: don’t run after truth like you would after an object of experience. It is not the way to seduce truth. It will resist you, make itself invisible, unreachable. It will take the first tram home, leaving us lost and alone. We need to be more subtle than that. This is when we have to be humble, to surrender all that in us is self vindicative, that doesn’t want to let go, that doesn’t give in to the inner poverty of our essential being. Look at the way you attend to truth. Don’t let it go. Don’t let it disappear from your sight. Be like its companion. But don’t be forceful. Stay at a distance. Cover it with the blanket of your interest. Offer it the flowers of your engagement. Truth is sensitive to any gesture of sincere devotion. This is how it ought to be treated. Her vulnerability is your most precious asset, as is yours to her. His tenderness is your most valuable belonging, as is yours to him. Being is always ready for marriage. It is a never ending yes. Only you need to raise yourself to the level of its total engagement and openness.
‘Sunrise’ – (With actress Janet Gaynor)
The man keeps the same large, bent shoulders all along the movie. What was taken to be a symbol of his deviousness — the weight of his separateness — has now become the sign of his utter care for his lover’s well-being. The film is a creative feast. Its means for conveying all the hues and subtleties of the story are a treat to watch. The expressionist style of acting, the beauty of the landscapes, the quality of the photography, the special tricks and effects used to convey a particular emotion or idea, the perfect framing, the constant flow between the takes, the innovative tracking shots, all are here applied without ostentation, at the service of one thing only: the story. There is a magnificent scene when the two lovers cross a busy street, full of cars and dangers, but are kept utterly safe by the arresting power of their love. Poetry and love are what the film is about. Poetry is what makes its song worth singing. And love is a shield against all forces of separation. This is a movie where silence speaks a hundred words.
The man and the wife are now reconciled in love. They spend the night in town, dance and have fun. The film, at this moment, becomes a burlesque. The remaining story after a marriage with truth is one of our alignment with our new position in life. Happiness commands. Harmony presides. Peace governs. And lightness prevails. Even mistakes are not what they were taken to be. Life takes an altogether different purpose and meaning. It is a sharp bent, one that goes from enmity to love, from closeness to openness, from quiet desperation to the plain and infinite bliss contained in just being. In ignorance, this relationship with the apparent other takes the form of a quest. In truth, it takes the form of celebration. Love empowers us, and gives us a carte-blanche. Love is freedom, the ticket for the amusement park. Everything appears as clothed in being, and is painted in beauty and humour, in the peace and easiness of simply being our true self. Life becomes a dance in truth. We are called to swing in presence, at the rhythm of its endless hues and qualities. This is the meaning of the honey moon. Life shows its inherent sweetness, its golden features.
At the end of the movie, the man finds himself in the very same situation which he had desired and plotted for at the beginning of the story, but the spectre of his wife’s death is now an event that breaks his heart. This is when we realise that the pursuit of desired objects was never a means to acquire happiness, but rather veiled the peace and happiness contained in our innermost being. All the things that were felt to favour our pursuit of happiness are now seen to be the very cause of our suffering. And furthermore, the objects of experience which were reinforcing our feeling of being separate, are now the very means by which we can access the peace of our own being. Life appears to have reversed itself. Thus, challenges consolidate us, and grief becomes a royal path towards a sense of peace or love that is stronger and less inclined to be lost or damaged. The former agents of our loss have now become the guardian angels of our salvation. The objects of experience which were previously used to fill up the wounds of separation and aggrandise our sense of self — which they could never do — are now being the faithful agents of our establishment in truth.
The lesson contained in this movie lies at the core of any relationship. It says something like this: Imagine being separate from life and this vision will bring you endless suffering. Realise your inherent oneness with life and the truth of it will crown you as being life itself, its inherent peace and happiness. And we don’t need to kill our old erroneous vision, our belief in separation, our ego. It will come to die and recede of its own accord. This is the journey undertaken in the film. And this is our journey when it comes to being related in life. The coming of our belief in separation is the apparent death of oneness or love. But the realisation of our inborn oneness with everything will put an end to all our erroneous beliefs, and will make life a celebration of that love. This is why the film has been named ‘Sunrise’. By rising above the limitation of our illusory sense of self, we are flooded by the light of the sun of consciousness. This film is a benediction. As is the coming of the morning sun. As is the coming of love in our life.
‘Aurora’ 1927 – Wikimedia
Film by F. W. Murnau (1888-1931)
Text by Alain Joly
‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’, 1927 – Directed by F. W. Murnau
Based on the short story ‘The Excursion to Tilsit’, by Hermann Sudermann (1917)
Photography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss – Screenplay by Carl Mayer
Incorporates music by Charles Gounod and Frédéric Chopin
(With actors George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston…)
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888-1931) was an eminent German film director of the silent era. Out of the 21 films he made, only 12 have survived in their entirety, amongst which ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), a masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema, ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924), ‘Faust’ (1926), or ‘City Girl’ (1930). After making his first films in Germany, he emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, where he made ‘Sunrise’. The film won one Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture, and one for Best Actress. The French film director François Truffaut said of ‘Sunrise’ that it is “the most beautiful film of the world”. F. W. Murnau died in a car accident in 1931, near Santa Barbara in California.
The film ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ can be seen here on YouTube…
– ‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ – by Lucy Fischer – (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC)
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