Sunrise (Masters of Cinema Series) Review

Similar to his own The Last Laugh in 1924, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise was a cinematic failure, despite generating a wealth of praise. It’s not too surprising given the content of the latter, which was either too diverse to entice audiences or nobody cared when the “talkies“ emerged toward the end of 20‘s. Both films at the time were hailed as masterpieces, with The Last Laugh being purely responsible for Hollywood’s sudden interest in the great director. William Fox found his genius in Murnau and offered him a rare opportunity - to direct any kind of film, on his own time with complete control and no studio interference. In addition his funds would be limitless, which would allow him to communicate his ideas through the best technology being offered during the period of 1926/1927.

Based upon Hermann Sudermman’s “The Excursion to Tilsit”, Sunrise tells the story of a man (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor); farmers living in a small village situated by a lakeside, who have had to struggle through poverty whilst raising a young child. For a while the man has been seeing a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) and life back home has been far from joyful. The seductress asks him to run away with her, and then instructs him to murder his wife and tailor a story around an apparent accident. So the man arranges a pleasant day out for his wife - a trip to the lake which naturally surprises her. However his intent becomes obvious; as he stands up and walks over, ready to pick her up and throw her into the lake his emotions take over and he takes hold of himself, realising the graveness of his actions. When they reach shore his wife runs off and catches the tram into the big city. Following her, the man does his utmost to convince her that there’s nothing to worry about, that he‘s sorry for what he did. At the big city the couple soon go through a series of emotional events, which will test their relationship and prove that the greatest thing that they have in the world is each other.

While the film’s premise is indeed simple, Murnau carries it purely on human condition; the complexities of the human heart serve as its own emotional narrative, as two people go through their ups and downs, in the end to discover the importance of life and love. Not many films manage to convey quite so much in terms of this, least of all those which barely rely on intertitles to forward the story along. Sunrise is descriptive purely on its wonderful visuals, while the few intertitles that do appear lend their own unique sense of drama to the picture. This shows that Murnau wants everything to move; that the titles, photography and acting are all running along in perfect unison. Seeing as Murnau and his crew painstakingly designed the entire film in Berlin prior to shooting it’s no surprise then that Sunrise is the perfect example of filmmaking done right. Also worth noting is that Sunrise is very much an expressionistic piece, with deep ties to German expressionism in the form of its sets, which Murnau undoubtedly wanted to bring overseas; As the silent era filtered out so did this captivating method of storytelling which would culminate with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

It’s alright to have unlimited money, but when it comes to filmmaking this is just about useless without talent. Murnau’s Cinematographer, Charles Rosher masterfully coordinates the look and feel of the film. Sunrise is bathed in glorious shades, many of which are as much a special effect as they are simple highlighting measures. With Caligari and later, Metropolis utilizing light sources for various artistic effects, whether it be surreal dreamscape or future echoes, Sunrise nests itself comfortably as being a perfectly natural blend that is further enhanced by the playfulness of Rosher’s immaculate set-ups. Furthermore, as the film takes us on its journey it gradually opens up and explores the medium, whereby several stunning tracking shots take place; from the man’s walk to the seductress through a dark marsh, to the couple’s dizzy run through congested traffic. This is where we can thank Karl Struss though, who worked alongside Rosher and came up with many of the camera solutions. In addition to these Sunrise also heralds innovation in terms of transition through illusion. There’s an example which may look slightly crude by today’s standards (though saying that I’ve seen my fair share of awful blue screen effects) which sees the man and his wife walk through a field and into a street for the second time; where cars and people move around them, before they stop and kiss in the centre of traffic. The most impressive thing about this shot is that it had to be done within the camera, like every other technique, which included collages, forced perspectives and layering, to name but a few. Rosher and Struss would go on to pick up the Oscar for Best Cinematography at the first Academy Awards in 1928.

Tagged “A Song of Two Humans”, Sunrise makes no mistake about what it ultimately sets out to achieve. As it proclaims at the beginning this isn’t any particular tale about any particular people, but rather it could happen to anyone. Likewise nobody in the film carries a name, because on reflection they don’t need them. It in fact becomes far easier to identify with any of the main characters because of this decision. And so the basic structure of the film is set around an emotional game, which goes through the motions via several chapters if you will, each one representing a particular feeling. To begin with we witness loneliness as a result of a destructive marriage brought on by betrayal from a man fallen for a lustful woman‘s charms. It then follows through with rage and befuddlement, fear and remorse, before carrying us away with its idyllic, playful romanticism. Finishing up with happiness and redemption the myriad of ideas on offer is no less than astounding, particularly when executed so well. It’s interesting in that many view the film’s humorous elements as being a hindrance to the plot. It’s even suggested that Murnau was asked by the studio to include them so that it would go down better with audiences. I’m a little perplexed as to why this is suggested, particularly when Murnau was given free reign. Whatever the case I find them to be charming and effective. It’s commendable that Sunrise isn’t subject to melodrama either, but genuinely heartfelt sentiments which are greater complimented by two superb performances; notably that of O’Brien and Gaynor (she having earned Best Actress in that year). Sadly O’Brien lucked out, but his portrayal is as - if not more so - effective as his co-star’s.


We knew this was coming; it just had to be number 1 didn’t it? The question is though “How does it fare, and is it worth the upgrade from Eureka’s previous 2-disc collection?” First of all you get a really great 38-page booklet, complete with facts and essays, and secondly the film and extras have been fitted onto a single DVD-9.


I was initially impressed by Eureka’s original menus, which featured an animated marsh complete with crickets and croaking. While it looked nice it was cumbersome and could have done with being friendlier. Eureka have gone back and redesigned the menus so that they load up quicker and prove to be much easier to navigate. The main screen consists of a photo gallery which changes every few seconds, while the original Movietone score plays in the background.


Sunrise had a difficult time over the years. As is explained in Eureka’s brilliant supplemental booklet the best surviving elements were two di-acetate prints complete with the 1936 Movietone soundtrack. Due to decomposition the UCLA print was destroyed, but the NFTVA lived on. This print was a fifth generation copy which was then restored and put together with the help of a fourth-gen loan, which was then completed in 2003. A lot of work clearly went into it, which involved taking care of the worse off damage and correcting the low contrast levels through an expert consultant.

So it seems that this transfer comes direct from newly created preservation negatives. As such don’t expect the kind of results that could realistically be achieved through digital restoration, such as erasing flaws. There are still plenty of marks, but they’re not distracting and it looks as good as you could wish for. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.20:1 it shows some fine detail, while colour levels are spot on. The blacks are very deep and shadow detail is strong. Contrast looks very good, which I should hope so considering. Edge Enhancement appears minimal, so in all this scores well. Below is a comparison between this new release and Eureka’s previous outing:

Old Eureka

New Eureka

Old Eureka

New Eureka

The differences are negligible. Contrast and grain are the obvious noticeable change here; the original exhibits boosted contrast levels while the new release shows a marked improvement in this area. You’ll also notice that the film’s lovely grain is far richer, which also gives it an ever so slightly sharper look but still the margin is slight. However, the deciding factor here is that this new release is progressive, whereas the original was interlaced.

For sound we have a choice of the original Movietone score in mono and Timothy Brock’s Olympic Chamber Orchestra version in stereo. Hugo Riesenfeld’s Movietone score is the best way to hear this film; it captures the emotional intensity far greater than Brock’s score manages to do, and in addition you won’t find the sound effects on the latter, as heard in the original. Brock’s version is pleasant enough, with its windpipes aplenty and so forth; however its more experimental approach leaves it without as much an effective poignancy. A perfect example comes from the scene in which the man and woman enter the church and watch the wedding taking place; as Riesenfeld’s score kicks in it delivers one of the film’s most beautiful melodies, which immediately gets the heart going. Brock’s score on the other hand is a little better refined in the audio stakes, which is no doubt due to it being a latter recording, with everything having tremendous clarity. Both tracks have been well mastered though, with the first exhibiting no major defects and I suspect the viewer will make up his or her mind about which track they prefer.


Audio Commentary by John Bailey
Cinematographer ACS, John Bailey provides us with a brilliant commentary; not only does he talk at length about the production and design, but also he goes into incredible detail with relation to its technical side. He points out so many bits and pieces which are easily overlooked if you were watching the film for the first time. Being technically minded most of this track covers that portion of production and its crew, including Rosher and Struss, and rarely gets into the history of its actors. There are a few pauses, but nothing which proves to be annoying.

Trailer (1:50)
This is entirely silent, presumably because of lost or unknown musical compositions. A nice addition all the same.

Outtakes (9:56)
These can be viewed silently, with intertitles or with John Bailey’s commentary. The scenes include the opening train shot in full, the woman from the city’s walk to the house and the far less successful marsh tracking shot. The quality here isn’t very good which is entirely understandable, but it’s great that they even survived.

Murnau’s 4 Devils (39:59)
Sadly a lost film, 4 Devils is given a documentary treatment by Janet Bergstrom. This is nicely narrated as Bergstrom informs us that in no way is it meant to be a reconstruction but simply some insight into the very little which survives today. It begins by showing us the film’s programme and then introduces portions of the script, along with intertitles, blueprints and storyboards. There are also plenty of gorgeous publicity stills, which don’t convey any particular scene exactly but help to give us a good understanding. Granted, it is difficult to enjoy this as if we were watching a film, and it intercuts betweens various elements but it’s still a valiant attempt at presenting us Murnau’s departed work. Also included is the script.

Easter Egg
By going to the “Outtakes” section and pressing left to reveal a question mark on Murnau’s clapper board, you will find a single photograph which shows Murnau lying in his coffin.


When judging a film a like Sunrise one has to take into account various factors. As a product of its time that shows key influential ideas, not to mention its sheer importance within the world of cinema we could ask if it deserves full marks in terms of its importance alone. I’d say it deserves them for many reasons; not only is it a monumental production on a technical scale, but it is also one of the finest examples of storytelling through simple means. It becomes more engaging on subsequent viewings, and believe me there is always something new in relation to Murnau’s brilliance to see onscreen with each visit. Sunrise is littered with details and nuance , backed by two memorable performances and Carl Mayer’s splendid script. To be perfectly honest my words do it little justice and trying to sum up Sunrise and explain its worth is no easy task; Suffice it to say that there’s a reason it’s regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

A fitting tribute alone, Eureka’s number 1 entry into the hall of fame is a recommended purchase. It’s great to see that they have taken onboard previous comments and have rectified previous flaws. This may well be the definitive release of the film, which is as great a compliment to it as anything.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:34:29

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