A marriage sinks as low as it can go, then rises again to the joys of marital bliss in F. W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The story is as simple and as simplistic as a story can get, yet the beautiful, expressionistic telling of that story turns it into a magnificent work of art.
In the 1920s, German expressionism appeared to be cinema at its most artistic. Rejecting naturalism, the expressionists used outsized acting styles against bizarre sets showing exaggerated forced perspective. Their films were no more real than Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, and at their best were just as emotionally effective.
Murnau was one of expressionism’s leaders. Among his German hits were The Last Laugh and the strangest adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu (see my Blu-ray review). But Hollywood has always tempted other country’s successful filmmakers, and Murnau leaped at the temptation. And why shouldn’t he? Studio head William Fox (whose name now adorns 20th Century Fox and, so help us, Fox News) offered him a huge budget and considerable freedom. He used it to make the greatest of all German expressionist features; and he did it in southern California with Hollywood stars.
Those stars were George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, playing a young married peasant couple in a quaint, lakeside village. A temptress from the city seduces the husband (no one has a name in this film), and talks him into murdering his wife. He backs down at the last minute, and the story takes the couple to a large city, where they find redemption, forgiveness, love, and joy. A good quarter of the movie simply watches two people in love enjoying a outing together–a risky approach for narrative cinema, but one that works perfectly here. Potential disaster will greet them on the trip home.
I told you the story is simple.
Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer (another German) treat the city as a place of temptation and redemption. In the first act, the evil Woman from the City injects adultery and violence into a a happy, rural marriage. But in the second act, the unnamed city–almost an alien landscape to our protagonists–provides an environment where the two heal their wounds and rediscover their love. And after that, they have a great afternoon and evening enjoying urban pleasures.Murnau shot all of the city sequences, and much of the countryside as well, on the Fox back lot. He didn’t want the realism of downtown Los Angeles, but a perfect dream city.
Make that a perfect European dream city. Although an early title tells the audience that the story "is of no place and every place," everything from the cottages in the village to the café in the city are designed to look European.
One can’t talk about Sunrise without acknowledging the groundbreaking, still breathtaking photography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. They turn a studio set into not just a moonlit marsh, but a beautiful, erotic moonlit marsh of the imagination. Their choice of lenses made the city set seem exciting and immense. They turned artificial weather into a chorus of angels and a wrath of the gods. And they highlighted brilliant, even if not realistic, performances by the two stars. Rosher and Struss deservedly won Oscars for their cinematography–Aa the very first Oscars ceremony.
Sunrise is a silent film in all but the most technical sense. It tells its story visually and with intertitles–and not many of those. But it was originally released–at least in some of the best theaters–with a recorded music and effects soundtrack. It is, I believe, only the second sound feature film released by a studio other than Warner Brothers.
American and European versions
This disc contains two separate versions of Sunrise, officially listed as the Movietone and European versions (Movietone was Fox’s sound technology). Back in silent days, filmmakers usually made multiple original camera negatives for a movie. For long shots, they’d have several cameras lined up side by side. For more intimate setups, which required more exact framing, they made sure to have more than one usable take.
The European version of Sunrise–or at least the European version on this disc–runs about 15 minutes shorter than the American Movietone one. Why? I don’t know and nothing on the disc explains it. I noticed one missing sequence–a cad hitting on the wife in a barbershop–and several missing shots. Jump cuts and mismatched cuts suggest some crude cutting. Perhaps this transfer was sourced from a print that had been cut for some long-forgotten reason.
Unfortunately, amongst all of the extras on this disc, there’s very little about the two versions. It’s too bad that Fox didn’t include a short documentary explaining how they came to be and highlighting the more interesting differences.
Fox didn’t even see fit to tell us what language the intertitles are in (Eric Heath Prendergast of the UC Berkeley Linguistics Department informed me that it’s Czech). These intertitles, by the way, use the broad, hand-painted, and very unique visual style of the English originals–it’s nice to know that someone in Prague cared enough to do that. These intertitles are subtitled back into English on the disc.
I only looked at the Blu-ray, which had both versions on the same side .
After a brief 20th Century-Fox fanfare, and some time loading, the disk takes you immediately to the main menu. Actually, it only takes you there the first time you play it. After that, you’ll get a choice of returning to where you left off, or going back to the main menu. That automatic bookmarking is a nice touch that you rarely find outside of Criterion Blu-rays.
How It Looks
Sunrise stands amongst the greatest works of cinematography. But the original negatives are lost, and image quality can only be as good as the worn and multi-generational prints available.
Movietone version: When Hollywood started putting soundtracks on film, the picture had to become narrower. So Fox properly pillarboxed Sunrise to a very narrow 1.20×1.
Some scenes are significantly scratched, but not too many. As a whole, the image quality is good for a film this old, but not exceptional. There’s a slight fuzziness to the image, as if the film source was too many generations away from the original negative (which is probably the case).
version: Wow! I wish the Movietone version looked this good. This is as sharp and detailed as the best silent Blu-rays I’ve seen. If it was complete, I’d definitely prefer this version.
Unlike the Movietone edition, this is a truly silent film, originally shown in theaters with live music, it’s therefore pillarboxed to the more conventional 1.33×1 aspect ratio.
Having watched these two versions on consecutive nights, I wish someone would take both and create the most perfect Sunrise out of them.
How It Sounds
Movietone version: Fox gives you a choice of two musical scores here. The default, of course, is Hugo Riesenfeld’s original score and recording from 1927. It’s haunting and beautiful, and is presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono. This is probably the best it ever sounded.
The second track is a much more recent score by Timothy Brock, recorded by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. I loved this score, too; I’d have a hard time choosing between them. This one is in two-track stereo, and oddly, presented only in lossy Dolby Digital.
European version: No choices here. You just get the Movietone soundtrack, edited to match the shorter length. Once again, it’s mono DTS Master Audio.
And the Extras
I’ve already complained about the extra that isn’t here–a documentary on the two versions. But there are plenty of others to fill in your knowledge of the film.
- Commentary by cinematographer John Bailey. Not surprisingly, he talks a lot about the camerawork, but he also covers other aspects of the film. Very interesting.
- Outtakes with commentary by John Bailey. 10 minutes. Some interesting stuff, here, although I get the feeling that Bailey wasn’t always sure what he’s showing you.
Outtakes with Text Cards: 9 minutes. These are for the most part–but not entirely–the same outtakes. Only this time, with introductory intertitles instead of vocal narration.
- Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnaw. You step through this one page at a time, either automatically (every 5 seconds) or manually. I didn’t get too far. I’d rather they made this available in a PDF. One interesting discovery: On paper, the characters had names.
- Sunrise screenplay: Same idea. Same problem.
- Restoration notes: Once again, static pages of text. However, with only nine such pages, this one is readable and interesting.
- Theatrical trailer
A Little Bit of Trivia
The front cover claims that Sunrise won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Yet most film historians will tell you that at the first Oscar ceremony, honoring the films of 1927 and ’28, Wings won Best Picture.
In reality, there was no award called "Best Picture" at that time. Wings won Outstanding Picture, and Sunrise won Unique and Artistic Production. In other words, they had one award for the big Hollywood blockbuster, and another for the work of art.