In 1928 Sunrise
won Oscars for Janet Gaynor as Best Actress and cinematography as a "Unique and Artistic Picture". In 1967 it was declared "the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema" by key French new wave magazine Cahiers du Cinema
. Released with a synchronised score and effects soundtrack but no dialogue, it is a cinematic landmark from the transition period between silent cinema and the talkies. Beginning as a prototype film noir in which a farmer (George O' Brien) plans the murder of his wife (Gaynor) with his vacationing lover from the city (Margaret Livingstone), the film develops from tense thriller into a story of reawakened love and redemption.
Anticipating Orson Welles's artistic freedom on Citizen Kane (1941), German expressionist director FW Murnau was given carte blanche following the huge American success of The Last Laugh (1924). The result was this poetic fable making inventive use of every technical device then available, including in-camera multiple exposures and superimpositions, long elegant tracking shots, forced perspectives, complex miniatures and synchronised sound, as well as the largest single-street-scene set ever built. The result is a film that influenced everything from Hitchcock suspense to Titanic (1997) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Murnau summons powerful performances from his principal players--Gaynor would later headline A Star Is Born (1937) and O'Brien would take important roles in several classic John Ford westerns--while the transcendent finale evokes and reworks the ending of the director's earlier classic, Nosferatu (1922). Though now inevitably dated Sunrise remains essential for anyone seriously interested in the development of cinematic art.
On the DVD:Sunrise is presented on an immaculately produced two-disc special edition. Though restored to full length and presented in the original 1.2:1 ratio with the complete music and effects soundtrack, the film has been taken from a print made in 1936, the original camera negative having been destroyed in a fire. As a result this is the best possible modern presentation of Sunrise, though the print, while perfectly acceptable, is very grainy, lined and flickery by contemporary standards. The mono sound has been superbly restored and is remarkably effective for its vintage; an alternative stereo musical track recorded for recent reissue sounds excellent. The film also boasts a commentary by John Bailey: apart from talking a little too much about how beautiful the lighting is, Bailey offers seriously in-depth knowledge about the film and about Murnau that really puts everything into historical context and explains the constant technical ingenuity.
The second disc presents the useful A Song of Two Humans, a 12-minute visual essay by film historian R Dixon Smith, and almost 10 minutes of outtakes with optional commentary by John Bailey, as well as a trailer, stills gallery and notes explaining the nature of the restoration. There is also an excellent 40-minute documentary Murnau's 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film, telling the story of the director's lost follow up to Sunrise. Microsoft Word and PDF files available via DVD-ROM present various incarnations of the screenplays for both Sunrise and 4 Devils. --Gary S. Dalkin
F. W. Murnau invited to America by William Fox, the promise of complete artistic freedom, and a blank cheque made Sunrise on the cusp of two eras: it represents the silent film at the peak of its poetic sophistication, and the sound film in its infancy. Fox told Murnau to take his time, to make any film he wished, and Sunrise was completed without any studio interference as though with a dying flourish in a medium which at that moment had achieved a startling richness of expression. It was the swan song of the era.