The film “Sunrise” (1927) of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is one of the first silent films that was released with synchronised sound and incorporates a musical score. The melodramatic masterpiece with an allegorical subtitle “A song of two humans” involves a story about a married farmer who is tempted to leave his domestic life in order to run off with a seductive mistress from The City, who tries to encourage him to drown his wife. Plotting the kill the next day, the farmer invites The Wife for a trip across the water, where in the middle of the lake he stops rowing, stands up and lunges towards his wife, but appears unable to go through with the murder. Then he rows his terrified wife to the opposite shore where she runs away into the forest and catches a train to The City, while The Man chases after her craving forgiveness. Murnau’s great achievement is giving credibility to the unspoken nature of film. He employs a few title cards or dialogue cards as purely poetic symbols; but the most silent legacy of this work is the understanding that film should stand on its own even without speech.
However, the salient films demands constant attention in a sustained manner much more than any other films, because they require us to enter into them experiencing each part of the sound. As Eisner puts it ‘[t]his film, in which each image speaks and each face reflects its innermost thoughts, had no need for subtitles.’ (1973: 181). Once immersed into this atmosphere, a spectator can find himself effortlessly understanding a particular message of timbres or rhythms supported by precision of the acting, without even noticing the lack of spoken words. Skilful sound design in “Sunrise”, as well as effective employment of symbolism, builds a strong relationship between film score and image track. Deeply exploring this connection, we can trace a developing of the relationship between the characters, who struggle in marriage, in which not all is quite well as can obviously be appreciated when the film begins.
During the journey, The Man and The Wife become significantly closer, which reflects the surrounding circumstances; while the director makes their inner dialogues noticeable for the spectator. This sophisticated mood-change is also palpable when the domestic environment of the countryside, with a heart-warming classical or sometimes nervous, anxious compositions, are replaced by the bustling city, with fragments of modernist jazz, to emphasize the contrast between the country and the city; purity and corruption; peace or violence. The phenomena of F.W Murnau’s work brings me to discover particular scenes in the film where the beautifully-realised orchestral symphony mimics the human voices, and the exquisitely edited sound effects elicit an emotional response from the spectator. This sensitively-directed film shows The Woman, who has arrived in the village several weeks previous for leisure and now is walking down the road to the farmer’s house. Once she has stopped and looked into the camera, she purses her lips for a whistle.
The camera transposes to the next shot where The Man, sitting at the table, slowly turns his head towards the window when he hears a surreptitious acoustic signal from the outside. As a spectator, we are aware of him hearing a whistle, while the man is also aware of who is calling for his attention. Irresolute for a while and confused by his wife, who comes into the screen shot to serve dinner, he decides after the second signal to sneak out of the house. This is one of the great examples of when sound effect or ‘noise is not merely a way of situating screen characters in their place, but is a perceptual anchor for us as well – both relative to the film world and to ours.’ (Losseff 2007: 74)