Most people these days know F.W. Murnau for his silent classic Nosferatu, but many have argued that his best work came after he emigrated to America and went to work for Fox. Specifically, Sunrise: a romantic melodrama concerning love lost and found, stands as perhaps the greatest cinematic expression of the Silent Era, and remains a treat not only for film buffs but for anyone interested in strong storytelling. Fox has just released a new Blu-ray edition of the film, and while it’s not the Criterion Collection, it should prove more than enticing for fans and casual viewers alike. Hit the jump for my full review.
Among its other notable aspects, Sunrise was one of the first movies to use an integrated soundtrack, though it remained dialogue-free and only music and audio effects were included on the film. In many ways, that’s a selling point, since its haunting narrative needs no further embellishment. Murnau’s camerawork does most of the heavy lifting, creating an elegant gliding POV that moved the medium forward in leaps and bounds. Film classes enjoy using Sunrise as a comparison between the Silent Era and early talking pictures, and it’s not hard to see why. The movements, framing and give-and-take between the camera and its subjects are absolutely sublime, a perfect ballet that couldn’t be matched by any other medium. Compare that with some of the infamous “motionless pictures” that came out a few years later, with their unmoving cameras and paralytic casts. Murnau’s artistry was lost on audiences at the time, though the Motion Picture Academy (for once) knew greatness when they saw it and showered the film with affection during the first-ever Academy Awards.
He storyline never confuses simplicity for profundity, and stripped of our modern cynicism, it becomes one of the most touching ever put on film. A country farmer (George O’Brien) is seduced by a visiting city woman (Margaret Livingston) who convinces him to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor). He comes close to committing the deed, but can’t bring himself to finish her, and pursues her to the city when she flees. Over the course of a long evening, he begs for and receives her forgiveness, and they spend hours together at a nearby fair, reminding themselves of why they fell in love.
It’s the sort of story where any embellishment at all would reduce it to melodramatic tripe. Murnau, however, is too strong a filmmaker for that, and renders their journey as heartfelt and pure rather than contrived and heavy-handed. The sparkling cinematography adds a dream-like atmosphere to the tale, already prominent in many silent movies, but rarely so powerful as we see here. Murnau never sets a single foot out of place, and the broad strokes of the narrative hide surprising depths beneath their straightforward presentation.
Above all, it’s a reminder of the director’s abundant talent, cut short too soon when Muranu was killed in a car accident just a few years after completing this film. His work survives him, of course, and for that we should be eternally grateful. This new Blu-ray is another chance to acquaint ourselves with one of the great masterpieces of the medium, its strength undiminished by time and just waiting or another generation to discover it.
The Blu-ray itself definitely caters to the scholarly crowd, and unfortunately lacks the bells and whistles that one might expect from, say, Criterion. The highlights include an audio track from cinematographer John Bailey, the original trailer and screenplay, and notes on the restoration. Film nuts will likely be more interested in the two separate versions of the film – the Fox Movietone Version and the European cut – which are both included on the Blu-ray set. A dual-sided DVD with both versions is in the set as well.