Review by Ed Nguyen
George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Director: F.W. Murnau
Audio: Original Movietone score (DTS HD Mono), Olympic Chamber Orchestra score (Dolby Digital Stereo)
Video: Full Frame1.20:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: See Review
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: January 14, 2014
used to be like children, carefree...always happy and laughing...now he ruins
himself for that woman from the city."
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!
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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. There is some noticeable grain and marks on the cels here and there, but given the age, that is to be expected. Frankly, this Blu-ray offers better clarity and contrast than any version previously offered, and shows how high definition can enhance even a nearly 90-year-old film.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Blu-ray has quite a healthy dosage of extras, as is befitting a film of Sunrise's
merit. For starters, the disc has both the
original Movietone version and the European silent version of the film. As
for the features, 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.
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.
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.
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
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 Blu-ray 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.
There is also a 2-sided DVD, which contains both versions.
- 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!