Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Director: F.W. Murnau
Audio: Original Movietone score (mono), Olympic Chamber Orchestra score (stereo)
Subtitles: Original English intertitles, optional French/Spanish subtitles
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.20:1
Studio: 20th Century-Fox
Features: Commentary track, outtakes, original scenario with annotations, original screenplay, trailer, Four Devils documentary with screenplay and treatment
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: See Note Below

"They used to be like children, carefree...always happy and laughing...now he ruins himself for that woman from the city."

Film ****

Of all the silent film directors, few were more celebrated than the German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.  A true visionary, Murnau created films of such startling beauty and evocative imagery that many of them are still considered classics today.  Murnau had been a student of art and literature history while studying at the University of Heidelberg and had also trained as an assistant director under Max Reinhardt, Germany's greatest stage director at the time.  Thus, Murnau's university training and apprenticeship served him well, for his films often reflected the passionate eye of an artist rather than a typical director.  Perhaps most revealing of Murnau's artistic mindset was the fact that he had earlier changed his original surname from Plumpe to Murnau, after a Bavarian cultural art center at the time!

Murnau's career as a film director began in 1919.  By 1922, with his initial masterpiece, the horror film Nosferatu, Murnau was already making a name for himself.  His 1924 film, The Last Laugh, with its innovative use of free camera movement, cemented his reputation as a visual genius.

William Fox, head of the Fox film studio at the time, was floored by The Last Laugh after seeing it.  On the strength of this film, he invited Murnau to America with the intent of offering the director a studio contract.  So it was that in 1926, after Murnau had just completed his fantastical film Faust, that he was wooed over from Germany to begin the final stage of his remarkable career.  Murnau was to eventually make three films for Fox, of which Sunrise - a Song of Two Humans (1927) was the first and undoubtedly most famous. 

For Sunrise, Murnau was essentially given carte blanche by the studio, an unheard-of luxury at the time.  Collaborating with his longtime scriptwriter Carl Mayer, Murnau crafted in Sunrise what is arguably the most lyrical American film of the silent era.  In fact, his film is still listed by Sight and Sound as one of the ten greatest films ever made, quite a remarkable achievement for a film of such age.

Sunrise was also the recipient of a special Best Picture Academy Award as "Most Unique and Artistic Production" at the very first Academy Award ceremony.  It was first and only time that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had ever rewarded co-Best Pictures Awards (the other recipient being Wings).

Murnau was an innovator of German expressionism in the silent era.  As such, Sunrise demonstrates expressionistic stylizings, especially in the forced perspective design of the family cottage and in the swirling mists and fogs and eerie moonlight filtering in through clouds in the night sky.  The effect is subtle and easy to overlook, but it does provide an uneasy foreshadow of dark events to come.  Certainly, the heightened use of light upon shadows in the final portion of the film recalls this German style of filmmaking.

But, Sunrise is not an expressionistic film per se.  It is a romantic film and a surprisingly low-key and unassuming one at that for such an influential film.  A film such as this could never be made today, for it would be polluted by typically mindless Hollywood plot developments and unnecessary sub-plots to the point where its impact would be severely diluted.  Murnau, to his credit, avoids all this.  He tells his story simply and directly, focusing the narrative almost entirely on the two characters of a husband and his wife.

While Murnau was quite capable of very impressive compositions and camera flourishes in his films, he almost always used them to enhance the story rather than just for the sake of flashiness.  The cinematography in Sunrise does utilize an astonishing and effective array of tracking shots, pan shots, crane shots, dolly shots, zooms, fades, multiple exposures, and much more.  And yet, many of these shots are invisible in the sense that they serve the story so well (either through establishing the mood or in advancing the plot) that audiences will probably fail to register them over the story.  During an era when most cameras were stationary and shots were usually static in nature, even in the best films, the fluid camerawork of Sunrise was years ahead of its time and quite representative of Murnau's visual signature.

Sunrise can be considered a film of three acts chronicling a relatively simple love story between a peasant man and wife.  As the film begins, the couple have reached a crisis in their marriage - a Woman of the City (Margaret Livingston), vacationing in the islet village that is home to the couple, has secretly seduced the husband.  She contrives to persuade him to come with her back to the city and to convince him to find a way to drown his wife.

Janet Gaynor portrays the innocent wife.  She would go on to become a top box office draw by the mid-1930's, but for her endearing performance in Sunrise, she won the first ever Best Actress Academy Award.  At the time, these awards were usually given for cumulative bodies of work, so the award was for her films Seventh Heaven and Street Angel as well.  In these films and many others, Gaynor had a gift for projecting vulnerability and sweetness into her roles, a trait which served Sunrise quite well.

The role of her husband is played by George O'Brien.  A veteran of many silent westerns, he also gives a strong performance as the conflicted husband, a man caught between the sweet devotion of his wife and the seductive lure of the Woman of the City.  It is of note that while the original screenplay provides names for the characters, in the actual film, they are anonymous, establishing a more universal timelessness to Sunrise's themes of betrayal and redemption.

As though to emphasize the differences between the film's two women, their attire is symbolic of their contrasting personalities.  The wife dresses in light, pastoral colors, looking wholesome and pure.  Gaynor even wore a tightly-coifed wig for the role which further complemented her aura as a simple, rural wife.  In comparison, the Woman of the City is adorned a black, form-fitting dress, the smoke from her cigarettes weaving ominously about her in several scenes.  She does not walk so much as slinks about.  She is the classic Vamp, an archetypal seductress.

The first act of the film is the darkest, as the husband considers the heinous deed put to him by this seductress.  For a romantic film, Sunrise certainly commences in a daring and somber fashion indeed!  The husband does eventually invite his unsuspecting wife across the waters for an outing to the mainland city.  But, as he stands up in their rowboat midway through the ride to accomplish the deed, he ultimately shrinks away in shame at the gravity of his near-betrayal of his wife's love and faith in him.

The scenes that follow are perhaps the film's most emotional ones.  The wife shies away in fright, weeping as the nature of her dilemma dawns upon her.  Her husband quietly and morosely resumes his rowing duties.  There is nowhere to go, nowhere to run, for they are still upon the river.  When he makes landfall upon the far shore, the wife runs away, dashing for a depot whose trolley will take passengers to the city.  The despondent husband follows her, begging for her forgiveness.

Once the trolley reaches the city, the wife runs away once more, heading into traffic.  Again, the husband gives chase, fending the traffic away from her and protecting her.  And so it goes on for some time.  The husband is earnest in his efforts to win her forgiveness, and the scenes in this portion of the film can be quite heartbreaking at times.  Murnau handles them sensitively and delicately, and in the climax of this first act, when the wife finally forgives her husband, it is accomplished in a very touching and believable manner, a great testimony to the gentle intimacy of Murnau's direction.

The second portion of Sunrise is the most light-hearted of the film, as it follows the now-reconciled husband and wife as they visit the sights and sounds of the city.  Many of these interludes are bright, pleasant, and cheery, a stark contrast to the swirling mists and dark shadows of the first portion of the film.  They also showcase some of the cityscapes for which co-cinematographer Karl Struss was known.  For his part, Murnau was not generally recognized as a comedic director, so this middle portion of Sunrise represents a rare glimpse at humorous moments in a Murnau film.

The third and final part of the film is the shortest but returns to the darker, unresolved themes of the film.  The happy couple will "sail home by moonlight, a second honeymoon," but their journey home will meet an ominous fate.  Midway through their return, a ferocious storm approaches, threatening to drown the couple and to accomplish what the husband could not do earlier in the film.  In a sense, it is symbolic of the theme of duality which permeates throughout the film.  Even when viewed today, this storm sequence is visually quite arresting and also reflects the sense of doom and preordained destiny that was prevalent in many of Murnau's German films as well. 

Eventually, the film will close upon the sunrise of its namesake.  It is a touching and poignant moment, a fitting conclusion to the near-tragic proceedings of the film's final act.

In the end, it is ironic that the single greatest America film of the silent era was a European-style film made by a German director on his first production in the States.  But F.W. Murnau was no flash in the pan, and Sunrise was just one of his many masterpieces.  Admirers of the director's films will have their own personal favorites, but there is no denying the lyrical beauty of Sunrise, a film which has influenced scores of latter-day directors.  Sunrise marked the dawn of the final stage of Murnau's short but remarkable film career and even now, over seventy years since its creation, remains one of the greatest films ever made.

Video **

Silent films frequently had original negatives which differed slightly from one another.  This was due to the fact that many films were shot with multiple cameras, resulting in negatives with slightly different angles and sometimes even variable running lengths!  In the case of Sunrise, this situation was further complicated by the fact that Sunrise was printed as a silent film and then as a Movietone sound film.  The Movietone process uses space to the left of the frame to store the audio track, so it loses some non-vital picture information present in the silent-only prints.

This version of Sunrise uses a Movietone print of the film.  While the original Movietone negative of Sunrise was sadly lost in a nitrate fire in 1937, this transfer was made from a fragile diacetate release print held at the Museum of Modern Art.  The print is in good condition, as far as silent films go, but does look its age.

How old is this film?  It is so old, it hails from the days when movies were still commonly referred to as photo-plays.  The general image is somewhat soft with a mildly grainy texture, and details are occasionally lost in the contrast level.  The picture is also loaded with scratch marks and debris.  The frame sometimes shakes around slightly, but this occurs with all silent films, and the only exception I've seen on DVD is the superb (but tremendously expensive) restoration for Kino Video's Metropolis.  However, these defects are characteristic of nearly all surviving silent film prints, so relatively speaking, Sunrise actually looks better than many silent films, thanks to a collaborative restoration effort by the Academy Film Archive, the British Film Institute, and 20th-Century Fox.  The MOMA print was used to create a new negative for Sunrise, and the transfer itself looks fine with no discernible compression artifacts.  Overall, this is a solid job by 20th-Century Fox, a studio not known for putting out silent films on DVD.

Audio ***

There are three audio tracks available.  The first is the film's original score, composed by Hugo Reisenfeld.  Sunrise was made as a silent film, but special prints of the film employed the Movietone process, a new and innovative sound-on-film process.  Sunrise was, in fact, the first significant feature film released with the new Movietone process.  This monoaural track is presented here as a historical footnote.  Sound technology was in its infancy when Sunrise was created, so the audio is primitive, to say the least, although it has been remarkably scrubbed of the hisses and pops of age and still holds up surprisingly well to modern standards.  In fact, it has been restored to pristine condition to represent how Sunrise may have sounded to audiences back in 1927.  More than just a musical accompaniment, this original score also includes sound effects (such as church bells, crowd noises, and automobile sounds) not present on the second audio track.

This second audio track contains a modern score by Timothy Brock.  Performed by the Olympic Chamber Orchestra, it is in stereo and, being newer, has a much richer and deeper sound than the original score. 

I've watched the film with both scores.  The original score has a very vintage quality to it, whereas the new score has musical stylizations which will probably sound more contemporary and pleasing to a modern audience.  I prefer the original score during the first act of the film, as it is better than the new score at conveying the dark, conflicted nature of these early scenes, but otherwise, both scores are equally fine.  

The third audio track is a commentary track by John Bailey.  As an ASC cinematographer, he points out a lot of the details concerning the composition of Murnau's images and the construction of the scenes.  He is especially enthusiastic about discussing scenes where in-camera effects were meticulously created (in an era long before optical printers) or other cityscape scenes where midgets, miniatures, and forced perspective shots fool the eye.  He also has quite a lot to say about the photography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, who both won a Best Cinematography Academy Award for their fine work on Sunrise.  All in all, an informative and fun commentary!

Features *** 1/2

The DVD has quite a healthy dosage of extras, as is befitting a film of Sunrise's merit.  John Bailey participates in a couple of them, the first being the aforementioned commentary track and the second being a short 9-minute segment of outtakes.  Derived from a 35mm nitrate workprint in the collection of Harold Schuster, the film's editor, these are mainly alternate or long shots of scenes already included in the film and do not represent much new material.  They may be viewed with Bailey's commentary, but I prefer the alternative option of title cards.  These title cards provide greater details and secrets about how some shots were constructed.

Next up is a segment of the original scenario by Carl Mayer.  It is annotated by Murnau.  Unfortunately, the font used in the text is quite difficult to read (as is Murnau's handwriting), so this segment is only of historic interest.  More interesting and much easier to read is the original screenplay.  There are literally endless pages and pages in this very long screenplay, so it is an incredibly detailed breakdown of scenes from the film.

The shorter extras include a stills gallery with four photographs and an old theatrical trailer, which is heavily damaged but does reveal the praise garnered by the film in reviews.

The most interesting feature is a 40-minute documentary on Four Devils, Murnau's lost film.  Murnau's American period consisted of four films.  Three were for the Fox Studio, while the last, Tabu, was an independent co-production with another acknowledged master director, Robert Flaherty.  Four Devils was the second of these four films, created after Sunrise and before City Girl.  It was originally envisioned as a silent film, but after Murnau completed it, the film was re-outfitted with sound dialogue and a happier ending by the studio.  Although Murnau had complete artistic control over Sunrise, the blatant tampering by the studio with his two subsequent films was a source of much irritation which eventually led Murnau to break with the Fox studio to film Tabu outside of Hollywood altogether.

Today, Four Devils is a lost film, which is to say that no film elements survive from the film itself.  It was the tale of four orphans (two girls and two boys) who grow up together under the guidance of a circus clown to become a successful trapeze act.  The appearance of a femme fatale threatens to break up the trapeze act, with tragic results by the film's conclusion.  The documentary attempts to follow the original screenplay (also presented on the DVD along with a treatment for Four Devils) to re-construct what the film may have looked like, using existing publicity stills and production artwork.  The re-construction does not actually include any film footage (because none exists!) but it is the only thing available unless a miraculous print of Four Devils surfaces somewhere.

Trivia - California residents may be interested to learn that the bucolic village setting for Sunrise was filmed around Lake Arrowhead near Los Angeles.


Sunrise is a touching and simple love story about betrayal and forgiveness.  It is also the crown jewel of the silent era and no silent film enthusiast should be without a copy in his film library!

Special Note:

Sunrise is currently not available for purchase from any retail stores.  A few on-line auction sites may have private copies for sale (if you don't mind seriously hemorrhaging cash), but otherwise the only way to obtain this DVD is directly from 20th-Century Fox.  Buy any three of the fourteen films in the Fox Studio Classics Series, send in the mail-in order included with any of those films, and Sunrise is yours...free!  Yes, free!  This Fox mail-in offer is good throughout 2003.  While Sunrise may eventually become available in the unperceivable future for retail purchase, there is no guarantee of when that may occur.  So, silent film aficionados who wish to add this film to their DVD library but do not possess otherworldly patience should take advantage of this Fox deal while it lasts!

As of this writing, the available films in the Fox Studio Classics Series include:


The remaining films, to be released on the first Tuesday of every month, are:

TITANIC (1953) (September 2nd)
THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) (October 7th)
LAURA (November 4th)
THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (December 2nd)