Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Masters of Cinema 2-disc edition) Review

Following the international success of The Last Laugh, William Fox (of Fox Studios) invited the director F.W. Murnau to the USA and gave him carte blanche. In a nice example of a corporation aiming to create art instead of simply commerce, they allowed Murnau to make any film he liked, and they would fund it. The result was Sunrise, one of the great films of the late silent era.

Based on a story “The Excursion to Tilsit” by Hermann Sudemann. The story is simple enough, and made archetypal by not naming its characters, A man (George O'Brien) lives in a small village with his wife (Janet Gaynor). However, a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) tries to seduce him and to persuade him to let his wife drown in an “accident” on the lake. However, the man cannot go through with this and he and his wife go to the city in an effort to reaffirm their love.

A simple story, but one made into cinematic poetry by the technique of Murnau and his crew, particularly his two cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. Watching the film now, we need to realise that they were working before zoom lenses and optical printers were invented, and the effects they produced were done in camera. Fox didn't want Murnau to make an “American” film, and indeed he didn't: Rochus Gliese's production designs bear the influence of German Expressionism (the film's scenarist, Carl Mayer, had also written The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). The film has the fludity of camera movement – including some strikingly intricate dolly shots – and the paring down of intertitles that had influenced filmmakers worldwide, including Hitchcock and Asquith in England. (Sunrise doesn't do away with intertitles altogether, as Murnau did with The Last Laugh and would do again with his final film Tabu, but they are notably reduced, especially in the second half.)

When Sunrise was released, The Jazz Singer had premiered, and Hollywood was rapidly making the transition to sound. Sunrise was released in the US with a synchronised music and effects track, though a silent version was released elsewhere. The film was Fox's third-highest grosser of 1927, but it struggled to turn a profit. At the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony, it won Oscars for Gaynor (for her performances in 7th Heaven, Street Angel and this film), for Rosher and Struss's cinematography and a once-only award for “Unique and Artistic Production. The actual Best Picture winner was Wings. I haven't seen Wings (it's one of several major silents yet to see a DVD release), while Sunrise has had several DVD editions already, but I certainly suspect that that was only the first injustice the Oscars have perpetrated over the decades. Sunrise is a truly great film.


Eureka Video, via their Masters of Cinema label, have released Sunrise on DVD before and there are previous reviews on the site by Noel Megahey from 2003 and Kevin Gilvear. This new two-disc edition comprises two discs encoded for all regions. Please note that the discs are in the NTSC format, despite this being a British DVD release. There is also a Blu-ray edition.

The first disc seems identical to the previous single-disc release, reviewed by Kevin. However, the Easter egg identified by him appears no longer to be present or at least I wasn't able to access it. The first disc contains the US release (the Fox Movietone version) of the film plus some extras. The second disc has a somewhat different silent version, from a Czech archive.

Given the presence of a soundtrack on the US release, the DVD transfer is in the early-talkie ratio of 1.20:1, while the Czech silent version is 1.37:1. In his article on the restoration of Sunrise included in the booklet provided with this DVD set, David Pierce suggests that the side of the image was cropped, having an adverse effect on the film's compositions. However, elsewhere in the booklet is evidence that this may not be so: compositions appear to be equally centred in both versions, with the 1.20:1 version cropped on both sides. As with many films of the era, it's known that at least two cameras were used on sets producing separate negatives for domestic and export versions. It's possible, but unlikely to be confirmed more than eighty years after the fact, that Rosher and Struss may have composed their shots with both ratios in mind.

Sunrise was extensively restored in 2003, and that is the basis of the US version on this DVD. This was given a new high-definition telecine in 2008, as was the Czech silent version. With current technology, this is as good as a film like this, over eighty years old and once thought lost and only surviving in fifth-generation elements, is likely to look in SD DVD, with good contrast and greyscale and not unreasonable sharpness. The Czech version has fewer faults, but its shorter length and different shots make it an alternative version rather than a replacement. Scteengrabs follow from the same sequence, the US version first.

The US version has two soundtrack options, both presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The Fox Movietone soundtrack, with some sound effects as well as music composed by Hugo Riesenfeld, is in mono, while a later score, composed by Timothy Brock and played by the Olympic Chamber Orchestra, is in stereo. The Czech version is silent, so for this DVD the relevant parts of the Movietone soundtrack have been used.

The US version has English intertitles. The alternate version has Czech intertitles, naturally, though optional English subtitles are available.

The US version also has a commentary available, provided by cinematographer John Bailey. Bailey began his career as camera operator for Nestor Almendros (on Days of Heaven amongst others), for whom Sunrise was a favourite film. Bailey's commentary is highly detailed – and devotes much time to Rosher and Struss and their contributions to the film.

Also on the first disc are a (silent) trailer for Sunrise (1:50) and some outtakes (9:15). The latter are presented with either a commentary by Bailey or explanatory intertitles.

The next film Murnau made for Fox was 4 Devils but unfortunately it has been lost. A short documentary, Murnau's 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost FilM (40:50). reconstructs the film through production stills and extracts from the surviving screenplay. There is no need for English subtitles on this piece: the narration is provided as text written on the screen as well as read aloud by a female voice. All lost works (film or TV) are maddeningly out of reach, especially if they were shown during your own - or in this case my grandparents' - lifetime, and this short piece gets us as close as we are likely to be able to get.

The remaining extras on Disc One are three files available for download. These are the original photoplay for Sunrise and the 4 Devils screenplay, and a Sunrise screenplay with inserts and a shots lisr. The first two of these are read-only Word files while the third is a PDF.

The only extra on Disc Two is the theatrical trailer, as above.

Master of Cinema's booklet contains an article on the 2003 restoration of Sunrise, a comparison between the Movietone and Czech versions, and notes on the DVD.

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