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Masters of Cinema Blu-ray #1: Sunrise,
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This review is from: Sunrise (Dual Format Blu-ray+DVD) [Masters of Cinema]  (Blu-ray)
For those that aren't aware, Sunrise (or to use its full title Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) was a silent film released in 1927, and is widely held to be the best silent film ever released. Indeed, in Sight & Sound magazine's influential once-a-decade Top 10 films poll 'Sunrise' came in at number 5 in the 2012 version of that list, the best placing of any silent film. So why is this such a well-regarded film? I think that the main reason is to be found in the subtitle - it's simply a very human film. The Man (there are no character names to be found at all in the film) begins an affair with a Woman from the City (yes that's her credit), and is persuaded by the woman that he should drown his wife and make it look like an accident. The joy on The Wife's face when he announces that they are going for a picnic, this man who has recently shown her so little interest, is shown very tenderly and accurately, all the more tragic because of the fate we know The Man has in store for her. Sunrise is full of such moments, like when the Man breaking down in church as he watches another couple marry, as he realises what he has done (or considered doing). Much of the film is then spent as they venture into the city, with huge sets constructed under the direction of F. W. Murnau. Though the story is very simple, it is hugely effective, and some of the shots Murnau uses are breathtaking even today.
F.W. Murnau, one of the greatest of all silent directors, began his filmmaking in Germany at the very beginning of the 1920s, in this time he made such classics as Nosferatu, the first great Dracula film, The Last Laugh in which he did away with intertitles completely to adopt a purely visual filmmaking style (a style that he returned to in Sunrise when the Man and his Wife are in the city), and his unforgettable adaption of the legend of Faust. The high quality of these German films ensured that by late 1926, America and Fox Studios came calling and Murnau was offered a contract to make films in America. His main stipulation was that he was left alone to make the kind of films he wished to make, with no interference from the film studios. The first film of this partnership, where Murnau was permitted both the finance and the freedom to be as creative as he wished, was Sunrise. Tragically, Murnau was never able to continue his films into the sound era - after completing his 1931 film Tabu he was fatally injured in an automobile accident.
This is spine #1 in the Masters of Cinema collection on Blu-ray. It was also, in a previous version, #1 on their DVD collection, but this more recent restoration replaces that edition. In the box you will find both a Blu-ray disc containing two versions of the film, as well as 2 DVDs which contain the same versions. First, we get the longer (at 94 minutes) Movietone version. This has a slightly more square aspect ratio (1.20:1), as the original print was part of a primitive sound experiment where the rest of the film's frame held the sound information. This optical soundtrack has long been lost, and we get the option of two scores here, either the original 1927 score (in mono) or a newer one (in stereo) by Timothy Brock.
The other version is based on the only surviving print of the film - a Czech copy found in Prague. Though it is only 78 minutes long, it has a wider screen ratio at 1.33:1. This also has Czech intertitles with English subtitles. It's difficult to know which one to watch first if you've never seen the film. My suggestion is that if you've never seen a silent film before, watch the Czech version, despite the distracting subtitles. Though this version is slightly shorter, it doesn't lose any of the main story, and maybe easier to follow for those unused to silent cinema. Also, the picture here on the Blu-ray is absolutely stunning. You can expect damage, with some small scratches inherited from the print, and there is a heavy layer of grain. But most importantly, this is entirely natural, and as the booklet rightly says, "the level of damage still present is exactly what you would see if you were to project the same 35mm film restoration theatrically". The detail shown here really is stunning and it's refreshing to see a silent film so sympathetically transferred.
The Movietone picture is still very strong, but is slightly softer than that of the Czech version. If you've seen a few silents before, I'd say this is the version to go for as you get the full cut here.
The film has also been given a few extras - there's a two-minute silent trailer for Sunrise, as well as a surprisingly informative and interesting commentary on the Movietone version by cinematographer John Bailey. There's also a 9-minute collection of 'outtakes' (in silence), with an optional commentary. The main extra here is the 40-minute 'Murnau's 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film'. 4 Devils was an American Murnau film from 1928, which is now considered a lost film. This excellent looks to give an overview on the story of the film as a reconstruction. 4 Devils is probably the most-wanted lost film which still tragically evades discovery. Finally, all extras are duplicated on both the Blu-ray and DVDs. There are no other subtitles on the disc.
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Initial post: 5 Jun 2013 12:37:23 BDT
D. T. Looser says:
It isn't the case that the original print was "part of a primitive sound experiment", by the time the Movietone version of Sunrise was released the optical soundtrack had pretty much reached its final form. A 1927 print of Sunrise (if any still existed) could be run on any modern 35mm cinema projector and the soundtrack would play just fine. It is true that the 1.20:1 aspect ratio was the result of the loss of part of the picture area to accommodate the soundtrack; audiences didn't like this squarer aspect ratio and so the practice soon arose of cropping the top and bottom of the picture to return the aspect ratio to around 1.33:1. In 1930 this practice was standardised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create the so-called "Academy format" which actually had an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, slightly wider than the 1.33:1 of silent film. This Academy format remained the standard for cinema releases until the early 1950s.
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