Sincerity in cinema is a tough one. The collective movie audience - the collective human race, even - seems to have long ago fallen out of love with sincerity. Maybe it died with black and white photography. Maybe the knowledge of human venality destroyed the innocence needed to appreciate sincerity. Regardless, something surely pushed aside earnestness in favor of winking cynicism, and that unwanted evolution has made it difficult for many to enjoy the conveying of real emotion. It does still exist to a point, but entertainment for the masses abandoned anything that might even hint at stirring a humanistic response without any contrivances a good while back. Romanticism in popular movies is dead. The closest thing now to a torch bearer would probably be Pixar, though the sentiment we see in those films is often still manufactured to a large extent and there's a clear appetite for the fantastic which tends to downplay the necessary human connection.
My theory is that this reluctance to appreciate sincerity damages people's opinion of "old movies," with anything before, say, the French New Wave, taking an additional hit of indifference and silent cinema being all but impossible to tolerate for most. There's a really fun interstitial promo that recently began airing on the Turner Classic Movies channel in the U.S. which approaches how much of a specialized niche silents have become before presenting a small bright speck on the horizon in the form of several young people who really seem to enjoy these types of films, even regularly attending screenings with live music accompaniment (which can still be found on occasion in large cities if sought out). As we've seen with the advent of DVD and now Blu-ray, it doesn't take a massive group or fanbase to bring classic silent cinema to the curious and the converted. Folks in R1 have Kino and Flicker Alley, companies probably responsible for getting silents into the hands of the public more than any other in the history of cinema beyond the advent of talkies. The Criterion Collection, too, tends to take great care in its silent film releases, though they seem to be few and far between. Meanwhile, with nearly the entire output of F.W. Murnau, a great number of Fritz Lang's silent pictures, and various other efforts from G.W. Pabst, Joe May, Marcel L'Herbier, and Carl Th. Dreyer, Eureka's Masters of Cinema label must be seen as the finest proponent of silent cinema in the English speaking world. The newest release is an updated edition of Murnau's American-made masterpiece Sunrise, available for the first time on Blu-ray.
Moving back to the idea of sincerity on film, Sunrise is a picture which revels in, even depends on, its ability to honestly conjure up various emotions in the viewer. The many moods of Sunrise affect not just how we perceive the film but also how we perceive the world around us. If you can't accept the stunning darkness that accompanies the first third or so of the movie with open arms then it seems unlikely that you'll be able to then appreciate the deliberate shift in tone to bright, optimistic romanticism in the next segment. More darkness follows, but Murnau teases it out only so long before the reassurance of hope comes roaring back. Hope, as you may recall, is that despicable creature which distracts us from the horrific depression of living life each and every day. There's simply no reasoning with hope. It infects a person's innermost thoughts and makes him or her believe there really is something beyond short term pessimism. In Sunrise, Murnau takes hope and uses it not once, but twice to minimize the fears of a husband's mistakes.
Initially, the mood of the film is dark, bathed in the eroticism of night away from home. The man (George O'Brien) hears his neighbor, the woman from the city (Margaret Livingston), whistling from outside. She is vampish and available while the man's wife (Janet Gaynor) seems frumpy in comparison as she dutifully cares after their child each day. The woman wants the man to move to the city with her so that they can be together without the complication of the wife. Her solution to ridding themselves of the wife is a drowning at his hands. The way Murnau presents these early scenes is important. Having already made films like Nosferatu, Phantom and Faust, the director was comfortable dealing with horror and the supernatural, and that's the feeling here when the wife's death is plotted amid darkness and the glow of the moon. He portrays the thrilling fear of planning and, mentally, doing something that shouldn't be done. So often people label Sunrise as Murnau's best film and this surely must originate at least somewhat with it being a culmination of the director's finest work, merging the horror of Nosferatu and the emotion of Der letzte Mann with the fable-dependent humanity of Faust. These aspects tend to recur in many of Murnau's films, but none manage to align everything, including his technical brilliance, quite as well as Sunrise.
As O'Brien skulks away like a monster, there's a heightened sense of doom and foreboding. He's unhappy yet conflicted and those feelings are, in a way, projected onto the audience. When we see the sleeping arrangement of man and wife, with the two wooden beds drastically separate from each other to the point where pushing them together isn't an option, the frustration of the man, regardless of where the blame lies, becomes significantly clarified. He's humanized, to a point, in this reveal so that, sexual politics aside, he no longer merely comes across as an eager adulterer. Murnau then fleshes out Gaynor's role, showing her deep hurt and visible tears on the boat as her husband almost murders her. It's a fable, sure, but there's an emotional resonance in how Gaynor plays this scene. The betrayal and, above all else, disappointment she feels is palpable. Getting ready for an outing to the city and then an aborted murder attempt? It's a minor struggle to get past this detail and accept the wife's gradual warming again to her husband. The two lead performances and Murnau's direction are essential in establishing the man's quick recognition that he was wrong and subsequent shame for what he nearly did. Gaynor's performance of showing how deeply troubled and, particularly, hurt she was by her husband's actions makes for further confirmation.
The wedding ceremony which the man and his wife stumble into becomes the turning point in the film. This is when the two, more so the sobbing man, essentially recommit themselves to each other and quietly reflect on their togetherness. It allows Sunrise to then become a much lighter affair, shifting moods to show an appreciation of marriage and love instead of the stagnant union seen earlier in the film. From here, man and wife share drinks, enjoy a carnival, dance, and relish his capturing of an escaped pig. The comedic moments, including the pig but also the man who keeps moving the strap on a nearby woman's dress and the incident with the statue, go even one step further in establishing how light the viewer can accept after previously witnessing such dark moments. This isn't somewhat ominous eventually seguing into a dash of humor; it's almost attempted murder dangled prior to a heavily romantic kiss captured by a photographer. The tone is skillfully altered to an extent I'd dare say almost never occurs in film. Murnau's dandy treatment of moods later comes full circle by returning to more conflict, this time involving a storm which separates the man and his wife. If the man felt somewhat redeemed by again connecting with his wife, he's now shown to be horrified at her disappearance. The irony comes in both how she's threatened, though the perpetrator is now Mother Nature, and through her attempts to cling to survival.
That Murnau allows for a happy ending seems to encapsulate much of Sunrise. The film - further titled "A Song of Two Humans" - can be seen as sitting on the cusp of the silent and sound eras or as a technical marvel, but its ultimate accomplishment more strongly allows for hope and sincerity to win out in a simple, modest manner beyond the cacophony of the city or the flashy hunger of the vamp. It does seem, after all, designed as a message of optimism for love and monogamy. Beyond that, there might be questions of gender dynamics and the specific limitations allowed in a relationship, but those are for others to argue. Part of the strength of Sunrise is that, despite now being a film released just over 82 years ago, these are inquiries still worth exploring. Appreciating Murnau's film for its possible subtext or its more direct message seems equally encouraged. The thrill is there either way. Sunrise still feels vibrant and alive. It's remarkably accommodating to new viewers while unafraid to welcome back those already privy to its greatness. It is, too, blissfully sincere.
The saga of Sunrise on DVD has been a somewhat curious one. In R1, the Fox studio originally offered up its edition exclusively through a mail-in promotion before including it alongside three other Academy Award Best Picture winners in an affordably priced box set. Last year's massive and monumental "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" set also included Sunrise, but the flip side of that disc had the important addition of a more visually detailed, though shorter, Czech version. Strangely, there still hasn't been an official, readily available, and separate DVD release for Sunrise in R1. It's always been positioned as an additional enticement for buying something else when many probably just wanted Sunrise on its own. Eureka in the UK has had three bites at the apple. There was a release in early 2004 which had a couple of issues with interlacing and arduous menu controls. The Masters of Cinema series improved that edition the following year, also adding a nice booklet and serving as spine number 1 in the line. Now it's time again for a new release of Sunrise, though everything (almost) does seem to indicate this will be the definitive one for a long while. Again from the Masters of Cinema, F.W. Murnau's film is presented in both the full-length Movietone and the Czech silent versions, re-released on DVD, and, notably, available for the first time anywhere in high definition on Blu-ray.
When Sunrise was released to cinemas in 1927, there were two separate, though similar, versions. The film was shot as a silent, but Fox added synchronized audio consisting of a musical score with various sound effects. This Movietone version also had a narrower aspect ratio of 1.20:1 due to the presence of an optical soundtrack on the left side of the film strip. The primary source from which all copies of the Movietone version have derived is a 1936 di-acetate print, which was restored in 1995 and fully preserved in 2003 along with a restoration of the original soundtrack. This resulted in new preservation negatives, fine-grain protection masters and prints. A telecine, in standard definition, was then created for the first Fox DVD. That same telecine was used on the earlier edition from Masters of Cinema. A new high definition telecine coincided with the 2008 release of the "Murnau, Borzage, and Fox" DVD set and has also been used for this region-free Blu-ray.
While no surviving copies of the silent version of Sunrise are known to exist and the original negative for the film burned along with many other early Fox pictures in a 1937 fire, a print was discovered in Prague that contains Czech intertitles. This silent version differs in having more subdued and plain intertitles as well as being in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. There's also significantly less film in this variation, totaling just under 79 minutes whereas the Movietone version runs over 94 on this disc. The shots used vary between the two versions, as well. The aforementioned "Murnau, Borzage, and Fox" set released last year provided most viewers with a first look at the Czech version's superior visual quality. As with the Movietone version of Sunrise, Fox's 2008 high definition telecine also served as the master of the Czech silent for this Blu-ray edition from the Masters of Cinema Series.
The included booklet mentions that a "hands-off approach" was used on the Fox HD telecine in order to best respect the filmmakers and the patina of the image. This meant forgoing heavy digital restoration and grain removal, and allowing print damage to remain. The result (for both versions) looks very true and unmolested without overwhelming the viewing experience. Scratches are frequently visible. Indeed, the Czech version actually appears scratchier than the often darker Movietone print. A jitter is particularly prominent at times in the Czech print. It's also less cleanly edited, with the viewer's attention sometimes drawn to choppiness probably caused by missing frames. Otherwise, and aside from the important difference in running time, the Czech version is clearly more impressive in terms of detail, sharpness and contrast. It reveals additional brilliance in the film yet never threatens to strip away the magic of the various technical tricks done during production. The added depth of Blu-ray allows shots to more closely resemble still photography than the Sunrise many have known for years.
Even taking into account the visual superiority of the Czech version, it's still more of a curiosity or a supplement to the full-length Movietone incarnation due to how much is lost in the silent. The Czech intertitles fail to set the same mood as the more crafted English ones, but the key difference is the loss of over fifteen minutes from a film that's virtually perfect in its full length. It upsets the rhythm of the entire film, making it instead feel rushed. Part of the visual poetry seen in the Movietone edit is missing, and the Czech version just doesn't resonate to the same degree. Thankfully, even though it's not quite as appealing to the eyes, the Movietone version also looks reasonably good. In a comparison of screen shots, the Movietone obviously loses. The grain is heavier and details are more obscured. It's clearly less sharp. In motion, and reminding yourself that those extra fifteen minutes not found in the Czech version are absolutely vital, the Movietone version is more than acceptable. This is still certainly the best it has looked for home viewers and, barring a miracle of discovery, this transfer is unlikely to be improved upon in the near future.
As detailed above, Sunrise originally had a specific soundtrack which used the Movietone process. It's presented here in a Dolby TrueHD mono track. There's an alternate track composed by Timothy Brock and performed by the Olympic Chamber Orchestra which is in Dolby TrueHD stereo. While the latter is understandably more full and polished, the original Movietone track seems to fit the film better. It plays up the darker elements of the picture and, in short, contains additional personality lacking in the stereo track. Both can be heard well enough via the HD audio. The Czech version only has an approximation of the Movietone score which Fox did for its release of the film last year. It's presented in Dolby TrueHD mono. No problems were encountered in any of these tracks. Optional English subtitles are provided for the Czech intertitles.
It's understandable that all of the DVD editions released by Fox and Eureka and now this Blu-ray have included the same commentary by cinematographer John Bailey. It's an excellent listen, focusing on the technical aspects of the picture which would frequently be overlooked by most viewers. Bailey leaves very few moments of dead air and clearly approaches things from the photographer's perspective. He can also be heard as a commentary option on various bits of outtake footage (9:56). These are generally longer or alternative shots to what made the final cut.
Janet Bergstrom's documentary "Murnau's 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film" (40:56) is another carryover from previous releases. In what resembles a video essay, she uses portions of the script and surviving stills to give viewers an idea of F.W. Murnau's lost film 4 Devils, though she states at the beginning that the piece isn't intended to be seen as a reconstruction.
Also on the disc is an original trailer (1:50) for Sunrise.
The only disappointment in the excellent Masters of Cinema package comes from the booklet. First announced as having 120 pages then altered to 68 pages, the booklet for Sunrise ends up at just 20 pages. What's here is absolutely fine and needed, but it addresses only the restoration and the two versions of the film. I tried to condense and simplify some of the history earlier in this review. A long essay of analysis by Dudley Andrew can be accessed, along with the 4 Devils screenplay and both the photoplay and screenplay with inserts and shot list for Sunrise, on the Masters of Cinema website in a single pdf file. It's unfortunate that the Andrew piece couldn't have also found its way physically into the package for those who prefer reading things they can hold. Another small letdown is the absence of all of the writing from the earlier release's 40-page booklet (though R. Dixon Smith's essay can also be found online). If not quite a knock against the Sunrise Blu-ray still being the definitive edition of the film, excluding so much material does seem to make this a bit less definitive than it otherwise would have been.
Another voice praising Sunrise isn't really necessary to increase the film's reputation, but I do think it's still important to recognize and appreciate the film's continued impact on the modern viewer. This is a masterpiece of cinema and a key entry in the development of anyone's film literacy. While I miss the substantial booklets given to other Masters of Cinema releases, this Blu-ray is truly a cut above any edition previously available to home viewers. If you love movies, there's little reason not to add this to the home library.
*Images are from the Fox DVD edition of the Czech version.