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Sunrise: Fox Studio Classics

Fox Home Video

Starring George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

Written by Carl Mayer
Directed by F.W. Murnau

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Silent is golden

It may be too much to say that the worst thing that ever happened to the movies was sound technology. But it might have been nice if that little sensation in 1927 had waited a few more years. It seems like a cruel jest that the "talkies" arrived at a point when the silents had reached a pinnacle of artistic expression, thus whacking the kneecaps of Hollywood cinema just when it was running with a power and grace that had to be learned all over again. Compared to what we're used to at our multiplexes, silent cinema was such a different form of movie-making that it seems to be a different artform altogether. After the universal adoption of sound changed everything both technically and aesthetically, some artful dodgers (Chaplin, for one) held out as long as they could. The writing was on the wall, though, and with changing technology came the audiences' changing tastes. Not that newfangled sound techniques were a bad thing in and of themselves. But sometimes it seems like, say, everyone told Michelangelo to put away those old-school chisels because now power sanders were all the rage.

One of the finest examples of cinema's artistic flowering at the cusp of the silents-to-sound transition is Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1927 masterwork, Sunrise. Its blend of European Expressionist techniques with Hollywood production values makes it one of the best foreign films ever made in Southern California.

Known as "the German D.W. Griffith," Murnau had built an international reputation on the horror creeper Nosferatu ('22), the comedy The Last Laugh ('24), the Infernal visuals of Faust ('26), and other achievements that demonstrated the maturity of cinematic technique, design, and narrative. His best films were offsprings of German Expressionism, and that remained true even after his move to the U.S. When studio mogul William Fox brought Murnau over to work in Hollywood, then gave the director an enormous production budget, complete creative control, and a promise of no studio interference, it was his intention to have Murnau create a prestige production full of that European aesthetic, not just another "American movie."

What Murnau delivered may have been more than what Fox had bargained for. Sunrise was immediately recognized as a testament to what filmmaking could achieve. By the magic-hour year of 1927, directors such as Griffith, Chaplin, and Keaton had proven that American movies could make entertainment into art. Sunrise took all that to a new level as the most elegantly expressive and visually sophisticated Hollywood film to date. So when the first Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Blvd., two "Best Picture" statues were handed out. Wings, a pulpy World War I airmen opus, took the award for "Best Picture, Production." Sunrise won the prestigious other Best Picture award for "Unique and Artistic Production." However, although Sunrise was acknowledged as the moviemaking exemplar, audiences stayed away. It was a commercial failure while Wings brought in the box office bucks. (Sunrise won two others as well — the very first award presented at the ceremony went to Janet Gaynor for Best Actress, and the first Academy Award for Cinematography was shared by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss.)

Sunrise was also the first feature film to employ sound-on-film techniques. The Movietone track that held Hugo Riesenfeld's extraordinary musical score also carried fully synchronized sounds of automobiles, church bells, crowds, and other effects. However (again), Warner Brothers' part-talkie The Jazz Singer was released almost simultaneously with Sunrise. It wowed audiences with the first synchronized dialogue. Alas, that was enough to make an otherwise humdrum piece of work a smash hit. The paying audiences went there instead of to Fox's far more expensive film, so the studio took a bath financially.

Today, Al Jolsen's creaky melodrama is damn near impossible to sit still through. Even then the Academy didn't feel obligated to nominate it for Best Picture, instead giving it a special award for its milestone sound work. Likewise, the popcorn cruncher Wings is remembered almost solely for being the first Best Picture "Oscar" winner. Sunrise, on the other hand, is appreciated, studied, and enjoyed as a masterpiece. The influence its lush and atmospheric cinematography had on later films such as Citizen Kane is honored, and among the whole of Hollywood silent cinema it stands at the front of the crowd with few peers.

"...of no place and every place..."

Not that Sunrise is a dense, heady opus wringing Psychological Truths or High Art from the thick robes of Dostoevskian drama. On the contrary, its story — subtitled "A Song of Two Humans" — is as simple as a Sunday School fable.

An intertitle card tells us that "This story of a Man and his Wife is of no place and every place.... You might hear it anywhere and at any time." A farmer, known only as the Man (George O'Brien), is seduced by the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston, all slinky evil as she smokes cigarettes in her short, glossy black dress). He's literally mesmerized by the corrupt vamp's promises of carnal high times and low doings in the City, so when she suggests that he run off with her after murdering his Wife (Gaynor, whose wig is so country-mouse tight we fear her eyes will pop out) his initial burst of violent protest gives way to her spell. Wracked with guilt but committed to see the deed through, he rows his Wife out to the middle of a lake, where he plans to drown her. When the moment comes, though, he can't bring himself to kill her. After he rows back to shore, the terrified Wife runs away. She tries to escape him by boarding a trolley bound for the City. He follows, and the film's center section takes place in the City (a remarkable set complete with bustling streets and a Luna Park fun center), where the Man and the Wife seek out and, in a church where a wedding is taking place, find their reconciliation and redemption. While rowing back home that night, however, a fierce storm tosses the Wife into the turbulent black water. The Man washes up on shore and, with their neighbors, searches the lake and the surrounding marshes for her. The Woman from the City, thinking that he has successfully done away with the Wife, comes to the Man, who is seconds away from strangling her when he receives word that the Wife has been found alive. With the City temptress ridden out of town like so much refuse in the back of a wagon, the Man and the Wife reaffirm their newfound devotion as an art deco sun rises and fills the screen over their rejoined hearts.

Picture perfect

In lesser hands, this story of archetypes and Love Triumphant could so easily have become another hackneyed, treacly melodrama. What's beautiful about Sunrise is the sensuality, visual majesty, and tender humanity Murnau gives it.

The screenplay was written by Carl Mayer, an Austrian expatriate who had worked with Murnau on The Last Laugh. Mayer and Murnau aimed for a universal story ("of no place and every place") where words were superfluous. Instead of shooting a story dependent on the English language, Murnau gave the screenplay enough creative topspin to visualize the inner emotional and psychological layers of the Man and the romantic intensity he strives to rebuild with the Wife. When intertitle cards are necessary, even those evoke more than just written words: the temptress suggests that the husband drown his Wife, and her withering words melt and run down the screen. (This aspiration toward a purely cinematic language wasn't new to Sunrise. It's one of the distinctive virtues of silent classics, and in The Last Laugh Murnau required no title cards at all.)

Murnau, with his designers and cameramen, subordinated everything to the characters' emotions. In shot after shot, every tool of his filmmaking craft puts their feelings, memories, and desires physically up there on the screen. Through deliberate yet delicate use of unusual angles, pans, in-camera effects, montages, multiple exposures, and sinuously floating tracking shots (the trolley ride and the glide following George through the moonlit marsh are duly famous), the pathbreaking cinematography that won the Academy Award shows what the motion in "motion picture" could mean.

Rosher and Struss' painterly camerawork creates scenes so beautifully composed, lit, and photographed that comparisons to the paintings and portraiture of Vermeer and other Dutch masters are understandable. (In this respect Sunrise might have influenced Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast twenty years later.) There are shots so gorgeous and vivid that it's difficult to not pull back from the experience and admire the wonder of what's happening photographically.

The evocatively stylized sets reach their greatest scale in the mammoth City, which comes complete with a Coney Island-style amusement park. To maintain detailed control over the shape and scope and dynamism of the production, Murnau had every set — the couple's cottage, the lake, the moonlit marshes, the City, everything — constructed indoors. Forced perspective, miniatures (even midgets in the City crowd scenes), and stark design choices meld seamlessly with the camerawork to realize Murnau's visual metaphors. With their off-kilter angles and almost dreamscape dimensionality, the sets exist to reveal more about what's happening inside the characters than what's outside around them.

Thankfully, Murnau was such of an old hand at this that he doesn't bash us over the Film Technique 101 head with it. It says something about his mastery that every element on screen — and within the effective music and effects soundtrack — exists to accentuate psychological states and raw emotions, but nowhere in Sunrise do we feel swamped by the highfalutin' Artistry of it all. Sunrise is as finely honed as a perfect lyrical poem. But no more so. It's a "song of two humans" composed by someone who knew how to avoid "too many notes." It refines every device of classic German Expressionism, and does so as if Murnau targeted Sunrise to anyone who wants that ten-dollar phrase defined and clarified once and for all.

Every 10 years the British Film Institute seeks the opinion of more than 250 leading international critics and directors on the world's best movies. The institute compiles separate top 10 lists and publishes them in its Sight & Sound Magazine. In 2002, the list of Critics' Top 10 Films ranked Sunrise at #7 — between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Battleship Potemkin and in the company of such greats as Citizen Kane, Godfather Parts 1 & 2, and Singin' in the Rain (a musical that's about the "sound revolution" and set at nearly the exact date of Sunrise's 1927 debut). Among the top 10 favorite films of particular directors, Jim Jarmusch placed Sunrise at #5 on his list.


Fox's highly anticipated DVD release of Sunrise will not disappoint the film's appreciators. And it will likely go a long way toward introducing this little-seen work to a new audience of cineastes and ordinary movie-lovers alike. Murnau aficionados particularly are in for a treat. Not only was Sunrise transferred with care and affection from a restored print, and not only is the audio commentary track an informed and insightful one (it's also, thank heavens, a pleasure to listen to). This disc also serves up an array of extras that include an interesting reconstruction of Murnau's lost film, Four Devils.

In 1937, Sunrise's original negative was destroyed in a nitrate fire. For this DVD, a collaborative preservation effort by the Academy Film Archive, the British film Institute, and 20th Century Fox created a new negative from a surviving print. The black-and-white photography is especially well treated, with some nice deep blacks (the Woman's dress is utterly inky against the moonlight) and generally very good gradation and sharpness. It's not a full-bore restoration with digital polishing or enhancements, so expect minor signs of wear, a little wobbly contrast, and other indications that this is indeed a film from 1927. Nonetheless, the painstaking cleanup and repair of that old, fragile print give us an accurate presentation of the film as it looked and sounded in 1927. The Movietone sound strip occupied some frame territory, so Sunrise is presented here in its original 1.20:1 aspect ratio.

That primary audio track delivers Hugo Riesenfeld's original orchestral score, and it's a dandy. The restored audio is strong and clear in DD 1.0 monaural. The orchestration is clean and without hiss, and all those marvelous sound effects have good presence. Alternatively, there's the optional Olympic Chamber Orchestra score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock (commissioned by Fox for the previous Laserdisc edition). While it lacks the original's sound effects, the DD 2.0 stereo naturally possesses greater range and fidelity than the 1927 original, so its wider, fuller orchestration shines through beautifully. The Brock score fits the film to a tee, and stands on its own as a pleasurable listening experience.

A commentary track by ASC Cinematographer John Bailey offers a personal crash course in the arts and sciences behind Sunrise. Being a protégé of Sunrise cinematographer Karl Struss, Bailey's top focus is on the film's camerawork, lighting, design, and how all three weave together. He's quick to point out subtleties and details that we might otherwise miss. He elaborates on behind-the-scenes production info and provides background on Murnau, Struss, and others directly involved with what we're watching on screen. Bailey single-handed makes this release of Sunrise an item of special interest to all would-be DPs. Bailey is a well-spoken enthusiast who keeps the track briskly informative from start to finish. He's not shy about acknowledging when some of Murnau's choices leave him flummoxed — notably a couple of overlong and strained comic scenes in the City, bits that Bailey suggests might have been added by Murnau's higher-ups to broaden the audience appeal — and doesn't gush all over us through the kind of gooey adoration that classic films can foster in professionals and academics.

Bailey is also on hand for roughly ten minutes of outtakes with optional commentary. The snippets (also supported by text cards) include the entire opening scene of the miniature train passing through its City station, fuller shots of the City, and the lengthy complete tracking shot of George lumbering through the marsh brambles.

The original scenario by Carl Mayer with Murnau's handwritten annotations is available as a sequence of click-through images. So is the original Sunrise screenplay.

An especially welcome extra is a reconstruction, of sorts, of Murnau's still-lost circus film, Four Devils, which he made for Fox in '29. Around 40 minutes in length, this well-narrated video is built from original Four Devils publicity stills, art department drawings, behind-the-scenes photos, and even set blueprints. Until a surviving print of Four Devils is found in an attic or a vault somewhere, this impressive sequence will have to do, and it does its job well by integrating a small library of disparate illustrative images to the narrator's telling of its story. What's more, the Four Devils treatment and screenplay are here as click-through supplements.

Four behind-the-scenes and PR images for Sunrise make up the stills gallery.

The original theatrical trailer and seven click-through screens of Restoration Notes complete the package.

—Mark Bourne

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