After the American success of his earlier film The Last Laugh (1925), Fox Studios enticed F.W. Murnau, the legendary director of the silent classics Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926) over to make a film in America in 1927, promising him carte-blanche, whatever funds he required and complete artistic freedom to make whatever film he wished. The combination of a unique cinematic vision and US dollars combined to produce what is widely regarded as the greatest silent film ever made – Sunrise.
In a small lakeside village, the man (George O’Brien) is attracted and seduced by a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) who is visiting the village on vacation. The woman wants the man to run away with her to the city, suggesting that he arrange an accident where his wife (Janet Gaynor) is drowned. The man is appalled at the idea, but the attraction of the woman is too strong. Out on the lake, the man reconsiders the enormity of what he is about to do. He spends a day in the big city with his wife and realises what he could have lost.
The range of effects and ideas inventively employed in making the film rightly deserve every praise and award accorded to it. There are traces of German Expressionism in the forced perspectives of the sets (Oscar nominated designs by Rochus Gliese, art director on Paul Wegener’s Der Golem), reflecting the psychological states of the characters. The daring, technical effects and overlaying of images were all done in the camera during shooting making their achievement all the more astonishing. Far more important however to the film’s lasting reputation is the depth of treatment the film’s subject. The subtitle of Sunrise is "A Song of Two Humans" and within this film are a vast range of human emotions and experiences – love, hate, jealousy, lust, fear, anger, frustration, kindness, compassion, loss, guilt – each of them powerfully depicted and associated to characters known only as The Man and The Woman. Occasionally, the drama teeters on the brink of melodrama and into what appears to be incongruous slapstick, but the film tries to capture the whole spectrum of human emotions, not just those associated with love and sex. There is genuine warmth, sensitivity and humanity portrayed in Sunrise, and it is these characteristics that keep the film vital and relevant today.
The 1927 film has been fully and beautifully restored and presented by Eureka on a 2-disc Region 0 set, presenting the film with a choice of soundtracks as well as a substantial number of extra features and supporting material. Some of the menu designs can be seen here. You will need to make your menu selections very quickly, as the sound effects reach an unbearable pitch after a few seconds.
The capabilities of restoration of Sunrise were limited due to the loss of the original negative in a 1937 fire, but the restored print here looks amazing. Some sequences look as if they have been heavily treated to remove scratches and numerous tramlines, while others look beautifully clear and sharp. There is quite a bit of light flicker throughout and some wavering of the image in early scenes. The overall impression though is of a very fine looking print with very little restant damage. A few lines remain here and there, some dust marks are visible, but the film has been very well restored. The range of tones and grey-scale is impressive.
There are two audio choices for the film. The Original Score is superb, presenting the original Movietone score complete with the original sound-effects. Sunrise doesn’t make use extensively of intertitles, and while not exactly a talkie, it is not strictly a silent film either. The score composed for the film is practically an audio narrative, filling in for sound effects, for emotions and dialogue, giving the film tremendous power and depth. There is occasional waver but the restoration has been good and this remains a very effective and evocative soundtrack. The Olympia Chamber Orchestra score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock is fine, much more reliant on woodwind and brass arrangements, and is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo but is no match for the original score. All soundtracks seem to be encoded for Pro-Logic.
The film uses the original English intertitles, which are blended into the film, sometimes even animated, rather than traditional black intertitle screens.
ASC cinematographer John Bailey provides a superb and highly informative commentary for the film. As a cinematographer he focuses on the camera work of Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, drawing attention to lighting, composition and technique, but he also provides a lot of background information on Murnau and the making of the film. The highest praise I can give is that this commentary opens up a whole different way of looking at the film, especially if you are not familiar with the language of silent cinema, which can be very different from how we view modern films.
Murnau’s 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film (40:00)
Made in 1928, a year after the success of Sunrise, there are no longer any prints of 4 Devils in existence. Presenting text from the programme, quotations from the script, sketches and numerous publicity stills, this feature attempts to piece together how the film would have looked.
Documentary: A Song of Two Humans (12:39)
Ever present on Eureka silent classic releases, R Dixon Smith’s essay, narrated by Russell Cawthorne over footage from the film is interesting and informative, only overshadowed this time by the fine commentary track on the feature.
Some additional unused footage is presented with commentary by John Bailey (9:31) or with descriptive intertitles (8:51). There are a couple of long master takes without the intercutting in the film, some unsuccessful shots and other shorter bits of footage. The quality is not as good here, but the picture is still reasonably clear with not a great deal of print damage.
Theatrical Trailer (1:44)
The trailer is presented visual only with no sound.
This provides information on the restoration of the Movietone sound-on-film process used in the film, and information on alternative negatives and prints.
The Stills Gallery is made up of ten images including a colour movie poster.
The first few pages of the original scenario by Carl Meyer are presented on the DVD, fully descriptive of the shots and the action. Some pages of the text in German with Murnau’s annotations are also presented.
Sunrise DVD-ROM Original Photoplay
The full screenplay is also available as a 176 page Word Document on the DVD-ROM material.
Sunrise DVD-ROM Screenplay with Inserts and Shots List
A Photostat of the original screenplay is also presented in a 156 page Adobe Acrobat document in the DVD-ROM material.
4 Devils Treatment
A full detailed narrative treatment of the lost 4 Devils film is included on the DVD.
4 Devils Screenplay
The actual full screenplay for the 4 Devils is presented on the DVD-ROM material as a 238 page Word document.
Not a popular box-office success when it was released, Sunrise however won 3 Oscars at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929 for Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Unique and Artistic Production (a one-time only award). Its reputation has continued to grow since then although it has been rarely seen. It is not the easiest silent film for a modern audience to appreciate – some of the themes and performances seem simplistic and over-played and the visual language is very different from modern films, but with the useful and informative extra features on the DVD and a superbly restored print, the film will reach a new audience and its status can only continue to grow.