Sunrise (1927) Blu-ray Review: A Visual Masterpiece from the Silent Era

 At the very first Academy Awards, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise was the winner of the Unique and Artistic Production, considered a co-Best Picture at the time alongside Outstanding Picture, which went to Wings.  The following year the Unique and Artistic Production category was no longer included and Wings has gone on to be recognized as that year’s Best Picture winner, revealing that even from the very start, the Academy would get things wrong as Sunrise is the better film.

Sunrise tells a story so universal that the characters aren’t given names so they are identified by what they are rather than who they are.  A Woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) is vacationing on an island.  She gets all dolled up and goes to see a married Man (George O’Brien).  With a whistle, she compels him outside to meet her.  The woman wants him to run away with her to city, suggesting he kill his Wife (Janet Gaynor) so they can be together.

The Man takes his Wife out on boat one afternoon.  Hinting at what’s on his mind, the dog senses trouble and the music is ominous, but he can’t go through with it.  They head to the city, and the Wife tries to flee but the Man follows, begging for forgiveness.  Stopping at a wedding, the Man falls back in love with his Wife, who is much too accepting considering what took place on the boat not long ago. 

The city is shown to be a rather bizarre place, and this is likely the first time the couple have been there considering how in awe they are.  A pig gets loose from the Midway games and the Man is the only one able to pick him up and stop him, which seems is odd considering someone who can handle pigs is likely running the concession.  Another man is oddly obsessed with keeping the garments of a woman on her shoulders.  Their relationship isn’t clear, but if he isn’t a family member or date, it’s very strange.

While returning back to the island, a great storm hits and the Man loses his Wife and fears she’s drowned.  The Woman shows up thinking the plan is in place.  The Man is so angered he strangles her, but he had never told her the plan wasn’t happening, so how would she know?  This is just another example of why this love story is hard to care about when the Man is such a cad, shown as an abuser of women throughout. 

20th Century Fox’s recent Blu-ray release presents two versions of Sunrise.  The Movietone version (94 min) is accompanied by music and sound effects.  The European version (79 min) is silent.  The plotting and acting are quite heavy on the melodrama and light on the realism, but the film succeeds due to the brilliance of Murnau’s direction, Rochus Gliese’s art direction, and the award-winning cinematography of Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, all of which make it a visual masterpiece. 

For example, there’s a great sequence as the Woman talks about her future with the Man.  The captions are shown falling into water during the talk of drowning wife.  When the Woman suggests going to city, it plays out before as Murnau uses a splitscreen, a montage, and double exposure to convey their future.  The film is filled with many brilliant-looking scenes that reveal creative genius. 

The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.2:1 (Movietone) and 1.33:1 (European).  The original negative of the former was lost in a fire in 1937 and a new negative was made from a 1936 diacetate print.  The image looks good across the gray scale and the blacks are rich.  Naturally, there is damage and wear are apparent.  Lines and scratches are seen throughout, and soft focus abounds affecting detail and depth, all of which is to be expected.  The Movietone offers a DTS- HD Master Audio 1.0 and the Olympic Chamber Orchestra Score composed and conducted by Timothy Brock in Dolby Digital 2.0. 

Extras include a commentary by cinematographer John Bailey on the Movietone version, Outtakes with commentary by Bailey (SD, 10 min), and Outtakes with Textcards (SD, 9 min) taken from a 35mm nitrate workprint.  The Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with annotations by F.W. Murnau is a gallery that offers a variation of a shooting script.  The Sunrise Screenplay is gallery of the script, which was adapted from a theme of Hermann Sudermann’s “The Trip to Tilsit.”  Restoration Notes about how they dealt with losing the film in the fire, and the Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 min).

F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise is a silent-film classic.  Though its plot and acting have not aged well, the visuals remain impressive to this day.  Highly recommended.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site.

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