“This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place; you might hear it anywhere at any time.”
The aching simplicity of the story in Sunrise is the reason the silent film remains thoroughly watchable almost 90 years after its release. It’s also why the movie will remain thoroughly watchable another 90 years from now. Then again, the reason F.W. Murnau’s 1927 effort goes beyond simply remaining watchable — and enters masterpiece territory — has less to do with what the story is and much more to do with how it’s told.
Sunrise picked up three trophies at the very first Academy Awards in 1929, including a prize called “Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production” that the Oscars never gave out again. (At the time, the honor was considered to be on par with that of Best Picture, Production winner Wings, which is historically acknowledged as the year’s top winner.)
As I mentioned earlier, the story is incredibly simple: a vacationing Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) is having an affair with a married Man (George O’Brien), who lives on a farm in a quiet lakeside town with his Wife (Oscar winner Janet Gaynor). The Woman from the City wants the Man all to herself, so she suggests he drown his wife and move to the city with her. I feel silly throwing in a “spoiler alert” for a movie that came out in the 1920s. On the other hand, the fact that it came out in the 1920s probably means a significant segment of more contemporary-minded moviegoers have never seen this film. (This was actually my first time watching Sunshine.) So we’ll just say the Man starts rediscovering his affection for his wife, and the scheme doesn’t go as planned.
And that’s pretty much it. The movie’s plot can be tidily summed up in a few sentences. (A trait that all great movies sneakily have in common.) Things get a little more askew when you look closely at what’s being shown on screen. Murnau had already established himself as a master of German Expressionism, having directed impressive films like 1926’s Faust, 1924’s The Last Laugh and (most famously) 1922’s Nosferatu. The director was coaxed by William Fox — the founder of the studio that’s responsible for this impressive Blu-ray release — into bringing his brand of Expressionism to Hollywood.
German Expressionism is characterized by, among other things, heavy reliance on symbolism and the use of highly-stylized production design. Both of these traits are evident from the very first image in Sunrise, which features a (model) train traveling off screen only to have another (or is it the same?) train appear at a diagonal angle in the background. If the previous sentence made you roll your eyes at the artsy-fartsy-ness of it all, I assure you it’s a cool little effect.
More importantly, Murnau uses his technical mastery to serve and enhance the story he’s telling. (Sunrise commonly carries the subtitle, “A Song of Two Humans”, and is based on the short story “A Trip to Tilsit” by Hermann Sudermann.) The massive sets Fox built for Murnau go a long way toward selling the enormity and clamor of the mythical city. Sunrise also includes some impressive tracking shots — cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss picked up Oscars for their work on the film — which invite the audience to take in the entirety of both the rural and city settings along with the movie’s characters. Murnau also superimposes images on top of another, resulting in moments that are alternately poetic (a ghostly Woman from the City appearing to fortify her hold on the Man) and feverish (the same Woman from the City doing an uninhibited, devilish dance as images from the city frantically play in the background).
Gaynor picked up an Oscar for her performance as Wife, and she’s certainly an affecting vision of purity and loveliness. However, I was actually more impressed with O’Brien’s work as the violently conflicted Man. Early on, Man looks gaunt and hunched, with O’Brien totally selling the idea that the character’s extramarital relationship is poisoning his soul and turning him into a monster. (He’s a few steps away from looking like this guy.) Meanwhile, Livingston does alluring, manic work in her limited screen time. By the film’s design, each of these characters is meant to represent abstract ideas more than they are three dimensional people, and the actors embody those concepts quite well.
The story in this silent film is told so well that the customary title cards are used much more sparingly in the film’s second half. The movie’s mid-section does feature a series of scenes of two of the main characters frolicking around the city; some of these moments feel frivolous and a bit redundant, but there’s almost always something interesting going on from a visual standpoint. The final act features a spectacularly-rendered storm that promises to wash away past events and usher in a new day. (Hence the title.) It seems a bit counterintuitive to title a movie Sunrise when there was no hope of faithfully reproducing its namesake’s resplendence in a black & white film. Murnau, as he did with everything else in this movie, found an innovative way to get the message across.
This Blu-ray release of Sunrise from Fox actually features two versions of the film. The original, 94-minute Fox Movietone version of the movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.20:1, while the 79-minute silent European version of Sunrise is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. (The shorter version nixes the Obtrusive Gentleman in the barber shop and shortens a number of other scenes.) Both versions of the film were previously released on Blu-ray, with the prevailing feeling being that the shorter version of the film had more blemishes but offered a sharper, more vibrant picture than Fox’s original cut.
I elected to review the original, longer cut of Sunrise (the one previously considered to be inferior) and was very pleased with this most recent restoration. The relative dearth of blemishes in the Fox cut — some specks and a few minor scratches sneak in, but (hello!) the movie is almost 90 years old — remains unchanged, but is now complemented by improved contrast and clarity. Some moments are still a bit soft — even the ones that aren’t supposed to look dreamy — but the image remains admirably sharp overall. Black levels are satisfyingly deep (especially when applied to everything about the Woman from the City). Fox has certainly done right by the original version of this classic with this Blu-ray release.
Both versions of the film feature a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 score, while the original Fox Movietone version allows you to watch the film with a score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock. (Brock’s score is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0) Personally, I preferred to watch Sunrise with the original score by composer Hugo Riesenfeld. Brock’s score is terrific, but it also came off as overly aggressive and a bit obtrusive at times; the movie’s original soundtrack gave the story and the images more room to breathe.
Speaking of that soundtrack, Sunrise was the first Fox feature film to have a recorded score, and one of the first movies that featured both music and sound effects. The sound effects are used infrequently, so I want to talk about that original score: it sounds spectacular on this release. The best compliment I can give the re-mastered track is that the 1920s recording sounds virtually indistinguishable in quality from Brock’s much newer offering.
The majority of these special features — including the commentary and outtakes — are retreads from the previous home video release. The bonus material is presented in standard definition.
Commentary with ASC cinematographer John Bailey: Not surprisingly, Bailey focuses on the movie’s groundbreaking cinematography and lets us in on some of Murnau’s tricks, such as painting sunbeams on a wall and using little people in background shots to mess with the perspective of a crowd scene. Although Bailey is clearly a fan of the movie itself and offers a bit of historical perspective early on, the track turns drier and more academic as the film goes on.
Outtakes with Commentary by John Bailey: (10:01) Obviously, this isn’t a gag reel with a bunch of the actors flubbing their lines. (There’s no dialogue!) Instead, the material here expands on existing scenes from the movie. Bailey once again helpfully points out some of Munau’s techniques. Meanwhile…
Outtakes with Text Cards: (9:20) …this special feature gives us most of the same footage, courtesy of a 35 mm nitrate print kept by Sunrise editor Harold Shuster as a memento. Instead of Bailey’s voice, however, we get title cards that give us bits of behind-the-scenes info, like pointing out a shot of Murnau directing his actors on set.
Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnau: (3:07) This interactive feature allows you to click through a collection of pages outlining the film’s story. (Mayer was the screenwriter for Sunrise.) Murnau’s handwritten notes are a little tougher to decipher. The listed running time applies if you choose to have the disc automatically flip the page every five seconds; unless you’re just skimming through or are some kind of speed reader, I don’t recommend this. Read this at your own leisure.
Original Sunshine Screenplay: (8:22) This is the same deal as the “Scenario” bonus feature. As you can probably guess by the longer running time, this particular special feature gives you a more in-depth look at the film’s highly-descriptive screenplay, which is a great example of why movie scripts are more than just a collection of dialogue.
Restoration Notes: (0:39) Another interactive feature, this one gives a bit of background on the Movietone process and how the goal of this particular presentation was to recreate what moviegoers in 1927 saw and heard. This transfer — the original negative was destroyed in a 1937 nitrate fire, so this version was taken from a print that had been donated to the Museum of Modern Art in 1936 — is a collaboration between the Academy Film Archive, the British Film Institute, and 20th Century Fox.
If you never really got into silent films, Sunrise is a pretty great place to start. It’s already considered one of the masterpieces of its era, but I’m here to tell you that it still plays quite well today. The strong Blu-ray transfer is just another reason to give this classic a look, even if it’s for the first time.