Olavo de Carvalho
January 30th, 1997
Translation by Jules Lapprand
Sunrise, directed by F.W. Murnau (1927) and based on a short story from The Excursion to Tilsit by Herrman Suderman, is by my account the finest film ever made. When we consider how the great Eisenstein painstakingly put together a collage images with the sole aim of letting out a jingoistic howl of communistic propaganda, the art of Murnau takes us by surprise in its ability to lead us, through a play on images, to something beyond what any image can represent and beyond even our ability to express ourselves with words.
The film’s plot is developed on three levels: that of the characters (the human being), nature, and the supernatural. Everything is perfectly sealed into the production without any appeal to indirect or “hermetic,” that is to say obscure, language — although there definitely are heavy doses of hermeticism if you mean spiritual alchemy.
The main theme of Sunrise is the game that is played out between human decisions, the forces of nature and a mysterious providence that orders them all without altering their apparent order, without causing any ostensibly supernatural events, and barely if at all toying with the natural elements.
The film begins by presenting us with two lovers—a farmer from Tilsit and a tourist—who together make the most arbitrary decision possible, a decision without any foundation whatsoever: to flee together into the city, and to make this possible, murder the farmer’s wife. This decision springs up from a momentary passion, an extravagance founded on mere desire, that corresponds neither with the life purpose of the woman (the one who wishes to flee off with the farmer) nor with that of the farmer; nor does it have any logical bearing on both characters’ ordinary life possibilities. The normal course of events would be for the whole episode to be brushed off as a happenstance; nothing more than a passing summer love—for that, in essence, is all it was. The moment they decide to transform this summer love into a lasting union, sacramentalized by an act of homicide, this is when Murnau begins to entangle the situation beyond the initial intrigue.
If the life of the farmer before his love affair with this woman had any semblance of solidity, he himself was unaware of it, otherwise he would have categorically rejected his mistress’s proposition. Yet he accepts it. He thus allows himself to exit the logic of his own life and enter into the fog of the imaginary. It is no coincidence that the scene in which the two plot the murder takes place in a foggy marsh. The man walks through a mist, as one who is leaving the realm of the real to enter into the realm of the imaginary, to the place where he is to find his spectator.
The film can be summarized as the protagonist’s progressive return from that mythical world to the reality he had abandoned. After that brief moment in which he prefers the imaginary to the real, what we witness for the rest of the movie are the operations of destiny to bring him back to real life. But this return is far from easy. Initially, the farmer’s reaction is simply of a sentimental order, a feeling of pity for the wife he did not love, and of regret. But this regret is not yet a victory over self, because it happens passively, in the sphere of the immediate. The character’s return to reality must gradually reconstruct all the elements that once were a part of his life.
When he follows his wife into the city, after the failed homicide attempt, she is still very heartbroken, and he tries to rekindle a dialogue with her—after all, he has become a stranger to her. He attempts to take up his role as husband once more, just as though he were saying, “I am not a murderer, I am not a stranger,” but in fact, he is not the same as he was. He will try to reclaim his lost identity, and obviously this is a challenge.
We then come to two decisive scenes: the one in the tearoom, where he offers her a morself of food she ends up refusing, and the one in the church, where the couple watch a wedding take place. At that wedding, no coincidence once more, the guests are waiting at the door of the church for the newlyweds to come out, and our protagonists are the ones who come out instead, preceding the newlyweds without the slightest notion of what is happening around them. In the church, the man realizes anew the meaning of marriage, that is, exactly what he had gone there to do, and why he is now at this woman’s side who up until a few hours prior meant nothing to him. In a certain way, at that moment his whole existence is summed up to him.
From the moment he desists from killing his wife, he had already repented inside, but this was not exactly repentance in the Christian sense. It was remorse. What is remorse? It is a feeling of guilt and despair. Repentance, on the other hand, is a feeling of guilt accompanied by relief, and by a hope that what was lost can in some way be restored. The man experiences this only in the church: at that moment, his remorse is transformed into repentance.
But the plot is not yet resolved. He still needs to confirm that intention. He needs to acquire an absolute certainty of his restored identity. When he consented to murder, he threw away his whole life; he acted as though he were another. Another man, living another life, in another place, with another woman. In the scene where the mistress speaks of life in the city and he sees himself dancing at the nightclubs, he imagines up for himself another biography, one that should miraculously spring up ex nihilo. After having built an entire life as a man of the countryside, suddenly he sees himself elsewhere, and to experience this other life truly, he would have to have had another life, a different job; he would have to have been born someplace else. The call of that imaginary life dulls his intelligence to such an extent that he loses his identity: he is no longer connected to his wife, nor to his profession, nor to his material environment, nor to anything. He has been disconnected from the meaning of life, and that is why that life seems to him vapid and tedious—it is the psychological emptiness of a man who, incapable of assuming the duties of his state, projects that interior misery outward.
The rest of the movie will show how that meaning is returned to him, first to his life; second, to his marriage; and third, to the place where he built his life; how, in a certain way, he retrieves the purpose of the life he had abandoned momentarily to chase after a madman’s dream. How will this happen? He will, as the plot develops, have to bet, again and again, on the value of all that he had despised, and he will have to bet higher and higher. He will reconquer, with a conscious effort of the will, everything that vanity had made him abandon.
He begins by asking for forgiveness; he offers a piece of cake; then, in the church, he repents again and pronounces something akin to a vow; the couple gets their photo taken (just like they might have on their wedding day); and finally, they go to an amusement park, not unlike what a couple might do on their honeymoon. In all this, he recovers his identity as a married man, but he has not yet recovered the meaning of his life. For that he will have to bet still just a bit higher.
And this bet will be a second temptation, except this time the temptation will not have a human origin; rather, the elements of nature, as though purposefully mobilized to this end, will execute his intention—that is, to really drown the woman he himself had tried to drown. We have to be clear that he is not the one who is carrying out what he had envisioned; it is a power immensely greater than he is. In other words, he asked, and Heaven complied. At that moment he will have to make a decisive bet, to save the woman he once wanted to kill.
While on the way home, the storm picks up, and it is during that return home that he will finally take up full possession of the meaning of his life. Up to this point, he has been saying “yes” to everything he had once said “no” to. But who now is opposing that yes, who is that tempter who is again suggesting a no? It is no longer the devil; it is God Himself, who wishes to try him, to see what he really wants. Theologically, the film is dead on in showing that the devil is the one who acts by manipulating the imagination, fantasies, and desires, whereas God acts through real events, through the realm of nature transformed into a messenger of the supernatural.
Thus our character will be forced to reaffirm, with greater strength than ever, his adhesion to all those values he had trampled on. He will now have to risk his own life to defend them, and further still, risk, from a certain point of view, the very salvation of his soul; for he cannot avoid that sentiment of revolt against Heaven when he comes to believe his wife has died, that feeling of having been ensnared into the atrocious trap the devil has laid for him: that he actually carried out the action from which he thought he had desisted. He must reaffirm and put all his cards on the table once again, and this time he is fighting against all apparent probabilities.
Truly, Sunrise goes backward. The farmer’s move into the city, as it was initially planned, does not take place, and all that’s important happens during his return from the city to the country, where once again he will have both feet planted firmly on the ground. The movie has something of a builtin “coming-of-age story” (Bildungsroman), a typical German genre, that concludes with the forming of the human personality, in which the individual, through his mistakes, truly becomes a man. One example of this is Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; Herman Hesse also did this in Steppenwolf and in Demian. The sole conclusion of these novels is human growth and progression to maturity. But this growth is always a decrease; the individual always gets back on the ground after having dreamed up some craziness and navigated through a web of lies. It’s a characteristically German apology of the “frank discussion” as the supreme value of existence. What we have, then, is that the meaning of existence is found in existence itself: it has meaning in and of itself, and not in some other world precariously placed on top of it, like the imaginary world the protagonist is offered by his mistress or one that is not unlike the world of Wilhelm Meister’s false theatrical vocation. (Meister dreams of being an actor, but he’s no good at it,and he can’t possibly be one; deep down he’s incurably bourgeois, and his discovery that he is a solid, upper-middle-class bourgeois is his true education.) The daily life of the bourgeois—to the extent that it is real, and by the simple fact of its being real—has a magical force that is stronger than anything the imagination could conjure up, because it is not made up of images; it has a tridimensionality that fantasies lack.
The imaginary as an alternative that the diabolical tempter offers is a bidimensional world, a world made up only of images, images in the midst of a fog. The scene of the conversation between the farmer and his mistress in the swamp is a reference to the 18th card of the Tarot, The Moon: the man on one side, the woman on the other, like the dog and the wolf; the water below and the moon in the middle, forming a diamond shape. This “world of the moon” is the world of reflections in the water, where things do not really happen, but only appear as though they will happen. The image can certainly be alluring, but it lacks the three dimensions, the depth, of real life. Only in returning to the earth will man finds his true heaven, the meaning of life.
Now, the most frightening thing about real life is precisely that here, things do not have a final explanation, whereas the imaginary is easily comprehensible and explicable, by the simple fact that you are the one who dreamed it up. The moment the protagonist imagines another life in the city, everything for him suddenly makes sense, because he himself wishes those things to be so. There the cause-effect relationship is nice and clear, but returning to real life, we discover the play between cause and effect to be infinitely more complex, more subtle; never can it be said that this or that occurred because of x-y-z exclusively; life is always a braided fabric, a tapestry of things, and never can a single, linear cause be conveniently pointed out.
But then why does the storm happen to spring up just when he is on his way home? It could have happened at any other time. Never in the least does the film insinuate anything magical about this. It was no angel who kicked up the storm, and yet if that storm had not occurred, the fulfillment of the meaning of this individual’s life would certainly have gone in another direction. Natural causes interfere, and it is not known whether or not they have a purpose. In all honesty it cannot be said: “God made the storm fall upon them for this or that end,” because only the storm, not God, appears in the film. Everyone is free to interpret the event either as coming from divine intentionality or as a random happening, but in either case this event takes place as a component of an overall meaning.
And when the storm hits and the woman drowns, nothing in the movie allows us to interpret it as an act of God, as if He had purposefully kicked up the storm to teach the characters a lesson. God does not show up, and there is not the faintest insinuation of a religious sense being mixed up into the affair. All we see is the storm; all we see is what happens. We cannot say it had a divine cause, nor can we say it was a fluke; in either case, the event does not fit into the order of causes, but it does fit into the order of meaning. Divine causality is not manifest as an efficient cause but only as the final cause, acting through the natural combination of efficient causes. Whatever its cause may be, to our protagonist, the event’s meaning is crystal clear, not subjectively but objectively, in the realm of the real, of his real life. What is this meaning?
The meaning of the malicious intention he had already relinquished, and which is now carried out, precisely at the moment when he has fully rejected it and most dreads it. His thoughts turn into real actions at the exact moment he repudiates them. This meaning is not subjective; it is not the character simply interpreting these things: they simply are, in and of themselves and objectively. Without needing to fall back on the idea of a providence that purposely “makes” this or that happen—and this is one of the most beautiful things about this movie—the event has an objective meaning, and this meaning, through purely natural mechanisms, is just as divine intentionality would have it, that is, to reconquer the meaning of life itself. It’s a kind of natural irony, and at times the character feels like he is a victim of this irony. Whether it is premeditated or random, it is no less ironic in either case. To the protagonist, in that moment, it matters little whether it was the devil that brought on the storm, with the intent to harm, or if nature innocently and almost mechanically produced it. The storm is ironic in either case, and in either case it has meaning.
This is where we find a very clear distinction between the order of things and the order of meaning. Only this meaning is not subjective, and we’d be hard pressed to call it human; it is a real meaning, and within the context of events the storm’s purpose is palpable; it is a cruel irony on the part of nature, and it matters little whether it was intentional or not. In truth, if it’s unintentional it’s even more cruel, for then the protagonist’s destiny would seem all the more absurd. Suddenly, he falls completely into the insanity he himself had premeditated. If there was a hidden intentionality behind these happenings, it was meant to teach; if there was none, it was an ironic coincidence.
[to be continued]