“Don’t be afraid of me!”
It has been somewhat forgotten that Sunrise did win an Academy Award for Best Artistic Quality in the first year (1927-28) that the awards were given out. Wings — a decidedly inferior film — was given the more commercial Best Production award and it is that film that tends to be remembered when best pictures of the year are listed. Nevertheless, anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Sunrise knows that they have seen something special. The film’s excellence must be attributed to its director, F.W. Murnau — a German director previously known for such films as Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1925), and Faust (1926). William Fox, then head of Fox Pictures, contracted with Murnau to direct a film for his company and basically gave him carte blanche to develop and complete the finished product. The result was Sunrise, which cost Fox considerable money as Murnau spared no expense in trying to put his conceptions on film. The film opened at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles and the Roxy Theater (which William Fox had just bought to serve as a flagship venue for his company’s films) in New York and was highly acclaimed critically, but failed to recoup its costs at the box office. So despite the film’s excellence (it also won Academy Awards for cinematography and best actress [Janet Gaynor]), its financial failure cost Murnau complete control on his succeeding films.
Fox has now made Sunrise available on DVD as part of its Studio Classics series. It cannot be purchased commercially, but can be obtained as a special offer promotion for a modest postage and handling charge with the purchase of any three other Studio Classics titles. The offer is only available to residents of Canada and the United States at this time.
A woman from the city who is on vacation in the country attempts to seduce a young farmer away from his wife. He falls for the city woman and is persuaded by her to drown his wife so the pair can be together. He goes back to his wife and invites her to go with him on a trip to the city. This requires a trip by boat, and it is during this trip that he will drown her. When it comes to the fateful moment, however, he is unable to go through with the drowning and realizes how much he loves his wife. The two of them continue on to the city where they find new hope and happiness in their relationship. While returning home to their farm, a fierce rain and wind storm catches them on the water and the boat capsizes, threatening to drown them both.
While the overall credit for the film is rightfully Murnau’s, the creative collaboration of cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss and the art direction of Rochus Gliese should be acknowledged, for their contributions were also key to the film’s success. It is also interesting to note that future director Edgar G. Ulmer (a number of whose films we have reviewed at this site) was an assistant art director on this film. With this team, Murnau created in Sunrise perhaps one of the most meticulously designed and lit films ever made.
Every scene has been thoughtfully composed and lit in such a way as to inform and enhance our emotional response to it. Murnau’s background in the light and shadow and oblique camera angles of German expressionism is frequently evident, but he also resorts to camerawork that conveys impressionism or stark realism at other times. The various nighttime scenes in the country village or on the adjacent lake are brilliantly realized through moonlit reflections on the water or bright shafts of light that stab out through open doors and windows. One of the justly praised sequences (sometimes claimed to be the longest dolly shot in film, effectively) is the tram ride into the city with the constantly changing images of the outside surroundings seen in virtually a point-of-view shot from behind the tram operator’s shoulder. The city is a vast, ever-busy kaleidoscope of people, cars, movement, and bright lights made both exciting and menacing through a set design that incorporates buildings with deliberately distorted perspectives both inside and out, small-sized structures in the background with little people walking in front of them to accentuate the illusion of depth, and camera work featuring multiple exposures. The rainstorm generates both excitement and tension as we see the city thoroughfares quickly empty as the rain intensifies and floods the streets while the idyllic boat ride home of the man and his wife is almost imperceptively affected at first by the slowly strengthening wind. Later, as the townspeople search the lake for the missing wife, there is a striking image of the man’s face as the camera gradually zooms in on it as he looks desperately out from the prow of a boat. Superimposed images are frequently used to convey the characters’ thoughts, but none is more effective than the image of raging water that gradually develops over that of the man recumbent in bed as he thinks of drowning his wife.
The principal cast members — George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston — all play their parts well, although Gaynor’s efforts hardly seem the stuff of Oscars. That year, one could have made more compelling arguments for Gloria Swanson’s work in Sadie Thompson or Mary Pickford in My Best Girl. George O’Brien had been a busy actor for much of the 1920s before gradually trending into work in a number of good B westerns for much of the 1930s and early 1940s. His last role was in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Margaret Livingston was also a busy actress in silent films from 1916 on. With the coming of sound, her work diminished and her last film appearance was in 1934.
One could go on and on about the film’s many delights, but you have to experience it for yourself to really appreciate it. Fox’s DVD presentation makes that a pleasure. The film’s original camera negative was lost in a fire in 1937, but fortunately a diacetate print had been made for the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. From this now fragile print, a new negative was created at the National Film and Television Archive and this served as the source material for the DVD. The image is presented in the original 1.20:1 ratio that was necessary to accommodate the Movietone sound and effects track on the film. It is characterized by considerable speckling, scratches and nicks, but their impact is minor. The glory of the film’s compositions and lightning is clearly preserved and after a while, you don’t notice the minor imperfections. Considering the age of the film and the history of its source material, this is a very good effort indeed. Those who have the fine laserdisc that Fox issued of this film will find the DVD transfer to be sharper and brighter, but somewhat darker overall resulting in reduced shadow detail compared to the laser.
Similar to the laser, the DVD presents us with two soundtracks — the original mono score by Hugo Riesenfeld and a newer stereo score written by Timothy Brock and played by the Olympic Chamber Orchestra with Brock conducting. Both scores have their merits. The former contains many fine sound effects that aren’t evidenced in the latter, but it is also subject to age-related hiss and distortion to some extent. The stereo effort sounds quite in step with the film and has a more expansive sound as one might expect. Either one provides an enjoyable way to watch Sunrise.
Fox has managed an impressive array of supplements for a film of this vintage. The package begins with a thoroughly entertaining and extremely informative audio commentary by cinematographer John Bailey. He provides detailed explanations of the lighting, camera movement, and set design decisions involved in nearly every scene of the film. Bailey also provides an optional commentary for ten minutes of outtakes from the film, including an extended version of the opening train scene and the complete master shot of the later tram sequence. These outtakes aren’t in as good condition as the film itself, but are fascinating to see nonetheless. The film’s screenplay and the original scenario with hand-written annotations by Murnau are also included. Of even more significance is a 40-minute reconstruction of Murnau’s missing follow-up film — Four Devils — using the original script, sketches, publicity stills, and set decoration photographs. This provides a real flavour of how this film may have looked. The Four Devils treatment and screenplay are also included. The disc is rounded out with four publicity stills and a theatrical trailer for Sunrise and some restoration notes.
Sunrise represents the silent film at its zenith. With no more than a handful of intertitles, the film presents a relatively simple story with such power and conviction that it never fails to stir one’s emotions, no matter how many times you see it. Fox’s treatment on DVD is simply a marvel. Very highly recommended.