In my years of studying and watching film, I’ve become quite a fan of the silent era. There are many great films—Metropolis, Pandora’s Box, and Charles Chaplin’s City Lights—are some of the most widely known. German F.W. Murnau was one of the most influential director’s of the silent era, and was greatly influenced by the works of Shakespeare and other prominent literary figure. Though he is probably best known today for his 1922 film Nosferatu, Sunrise (1927) won an Academy Award at the first ceremony for Unique and Artistic Production.
Subtitled “A Song of Two Humans,” Sunrise is a story of threatened love. An unnamed country husband (George O’Brien) is tempted to leave his innocent and faithful wife (Janet Gaynor) after falling under the spell of a city-wise femme fatale (Margaret Livingston). He leaves his dinner, causing his wife to cry—she believes he’s having an affair, and a neighbor remarks how the once happy couple has changed.
In contrast with the innocence of his wife, the city woman oozes sexuality. He gives into her seduction, and as they kiss, she implores him to murder his wife; she must have him all to herself. A simple plan is hatched—take her out in a rowboat, toss her overboard, and make it look like an accident. The question, will the husband continue on a road to destruction, or find a path to redemption? While his eventual choices are somewhat obvious, the execution, and plot twists make for a compelling watch. F.W. Murnau uses a series of unique shots and camera movements to visually express the characters thoughts with a surprising effectiveness.
The acting is some of the best I’ve seen in a silent film. Murnau doesn’t use many title cards; the actors simply convey what is going on, both with melodramatic movements, and subtle facial expressions. Special mention goes to Janet Gaynor, whose expressive eyes, and mouth so effectively express the sadness and fear her character feels when around her husband Gaynor rightfully won the Best Actress Oscar for her role.
The film is presented in its silent-with-soundtrack aspect ratio of 1.20:1 and is offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Sunrise has been taken from a surviving print which had it’s share of scratches and blemishes. Sharpness is above average, and the grey-scale is impressive, considering the film is nearly ninety years old. Whites are fairly strong, and never blown out.
The 1927 Fox Movietone soundtrack featuring a score by Hugo Riesenfeld is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 and was the sound mix I used for this review. Also included is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix with a score by Timothy Brock. Fox has cleaned things up rather nicely, resulting in a full, rich experience with solid fidelity.
Spanish and French subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- European Silent Version: This version can be chosen from the main menu, and runs fifteen minutes shorter than the American version.
- Audio Commentary with ASC Cinematographer John Bailey: Bailey discusses the film from a photographic perspective, espousing on Murnau’s use of light, shadow, different angles, etc.
- Outtakes (SD, 9:20) A montage of outtake sequences can be viewed with or without commentary from John Bailey.
- Original Scenario (SD, 3:07) Carl Mayer’s original story with annotations by F. W. Murnau. The time given is when viewed with automatic paging. The user can also page through manually.
- Original Screenplay (SD, 8:22) The script can be paged through automatically or manually.
- Restoration Notes (SD, 0:38) Notes on the surviving print and soundtrack.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 1:51)
- DVD: Both the original American and European versions of the movie are offered.