Humanities 370, Section 2
July 21, 2017
Early American Cinema Project
Title: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Director: F.W. Murnau
Release date: September 23, 1927
Producer: William Fox
Screenwriter: Carl Mayer
Known as the pinnacle of the silent era, “Sunrise,” directed by F.W. Murnau is an Academy Award (Unique and Artistic Picture, 1929) winning film depicting the cultural struggles of modern and anti-modern values. The leading man is torn between his humble life on the farm and the bustling adventures of the city. This choice becomes tangible when he must chose between his wife or the woman from the city he is having and affair with. The life he lives with his wife is the epitome of the American dream of the era where family and children are held to the upmost standards. His wife plays the traditional gender role of women as mothers and committed housewives. Additionally, she is very modest looking with a clear complexion free of make-up and dressed in a conservative wardrobe. On the other hand, the woman from the city plays the reversal of the traditional role and serves as the temptation to refute the American dream. She is seen as a sexually liberated woman and being with her offers the man ostentatious ecstasies of urban modernism. Although the man initially succumbs to the temptations of both the woman and everything she represents, when faced with the decision, he is unable to follow through and turns away from it completely to seek forgiveness with the hopes of returning to his wife. In this sense, the film depicts a fairytale theme that true love prevails above all else. However, if we look closer at the representations of the characters, we find that the graver message is that while the modernist movement may present persuasive appeals, genuine happiness can be found in maintaining the American dream. At first glance “Sunrise” may seem like a melodramatic representation of unequivocal passion, closer examination shows that the film represents the struggle between cultures and its attempt to restore faith in the American dream during an era of uncertainty.
“Sunrise” was released during a time when the meaning of marriage was clearly changing. With marriage being the primary vehicle for women’s upward mobility, this shift in value created anxiety amongst the masses. In order to appease these concerns, the media began emphasizing lives of luxury and emphasized enjoying the good life. These lifestyles served as a distraction from the mundane struggles of daily life and an example of this distraction is paralleled in the man’s initial decision to choose the enticements of the city. The media also began portraying openness to sexuality and how these roles questioned the virtue of women as seen in the woman from the city. This also coincided with the rise in feminism in the early 1920’s, straying from the typical grouping of women based on shared characteristics and interests, and instead expanding the idea of the ability of women choose their own identities (Butler, “Gender Theory”).
Stories and plots during this era were served as attempts to prop up the American dream of wealth being rewarded to those willing to work hard enough for it. Additionally, the film was widely popular during the Great Depression of 1929 (hist110 timeline). The depression challenged the notion that anyone with drive and determination could improve themselves enough to become middle class. Celebrities and cinema served as a diversion during a time when many people began to question the future of American capitalism. Thus, it is evident that during a time of downward economic spiraling, American culture shifted their focus back to the American dream and “Sunrise” was a pivotal film in doing so. To this day, the film remains renowned for being
Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.” Thinking
Gender(1990): n. pag. Web. 21 July 2017.
H110 Timeline: https://hackintohistory.org/h110-timeline/
Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity culture and the American dream: stardom and social
mobility. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.