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I finally got a hold of the 'Sunrise' DVD, which is only available in
English-speaking America (for free) by buying three titles of the
excellent Fox Studio Classics line and sending in proofs of purchase. I
urge everyone to get this DVD either by sending your three coupons to
the promotion or by dealing with someone in the province of Québec
since it appears to be the only place in North America where this
contest is void and one can buy it directly off the shelf.
I have heard about 'Sunrise' all my life but the closest I ever got to see a part of it was, as a quote, in Martin Scorsese's 2-DVD made-for-the-BBC lecture with illustrations 'A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies' (1995). Nobody told me the following:
It is a pioneering, overwhelming piece of cinema that still manages to move me (ME!) after I thought I had seen everything. It is a profoundly human film which made me cry for 15 minutes solid in its first part (a reconciliation scene that has to be seen to be believed). This film has more special effects than Terminator 3, all in the service of a thoroughly poetic, bucolic, pastoral, personal, contemplative, idiosyncratic, lyrical, late romantic and expressionist vision of humanity. Its love story, poignant and comic elements have inspired, in no specific order, René Clair ('Le Million'), Jean Vigo ('L'Atalante', 'Zéro de conduite'), Charlie Chaplin (all his subsequent films), Fellini ('La Strada', 'Nights of Cabiria') and even James Cameron ('Titanic').
The camera is extremely mobile (more so than in most of today's films, except maybe The Matrix) and the acting is superb. I finally understand why Janet Gaynor was such a big star and a big deal in her time. Her co-star George O'Brien would be hunk-o-rama of the month at the box office today if he was still around. Margaret Livingston (who she?) is also quite realistic as a believably enticing city girl vamp (of modest means) who tries to lure the hero away from his deserving wife.
The DVD has more extras than a Criterion issue, including a tentative reconstruction of Murnau's missing American masterpiece 'The Four Devils' (a circus love story) and the entire shooting scripts of both 'Sunrise' and 'The Four Devils'.
'Sunrise' is presented with two soundtracks: the original (mono) Movietone (i.e. optical track) anonymous composite soundtrack cobbled together from several sources (think Wagner's Siegfried Idyll) and a newly written and recorded (stereo) score with all-original themes, that closely follows the original in spirit but not in melody.
Both soundtracks try to add an intimate, poetic dimension to the film, which is subtitled 'A Song of Two Humans'. The music is an integral part of the experience as the film is conceived as a tone poem and, as such (my theory) is a kind of transcription for the masses of Schoenberg's 1900 string ensemble tone poem 'Verklärte Nacht' (Transfigured Night), a late-Romantic/early expressionist attempt to describe musically the 'truly profound and authentic' relationship between a man and a woman who have problems (the music follows a poem of the era).
Both soundtracks succeed admirably, my preference going to the new one, despite the original's polish, historical value and magnificent preservation. And that would be because, although in the silent era there was no stigma attached to accompanying silent movies with a score made up of public domain and rather recognizable pieces, as long as they fit the mood, times have changed ('2001, A Space Odyssey' notwithstanding) and this practice is more distracting than anything for a contemporary, moderately educated spectator.
Murnau had very highbrow ambitions but his film is totally clear and populist and made to reach the widest popular audience thanks to the incredible sums of money and artistry that Fox poured in the project. 20th Century Fox basically imported a genius from Germany, gave him a ton of money and told him: 'Make us a movie that will be the most prestigious ever made in this town and that will win us the first Oscar'. And that's just what he did!
Needless to say, that was a long time before Rupert Murdoch took over the Fox Corporation...
While some film critics disagreed in the late fifties, giving the nod to
Murnau's equally brilliant "Last Laugh," this in my view is the crowning
achievement of the German genius. Many polls rank it as the greatest silent
film ever made and many rank it very high on the all time list of great
The plot is melodramatic, the acting in places heavy handed, and the action seemingly non-existent, at least in the eyes of the "Terminator 3" generation,yet "Sunrise" is so captivating a film that it can be watched over and over again and deliver the same punch every time. In fact, like the other greats,including "Citizen Kane," you can probably get something new out of "Sunrise" every time you watch it, no matter how many times you watch.
Murnau takes barren sets and dark, hallow rooms and turns them into treasure troves of lighting and nuance. He creates something as simple as a railway depot or a big traffic intersection and makes it a story all by itself.
"Sunrise" stands today as one of the most visually fascinating films ever made. Murnau's cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, got an Oscar for their work and surely deserved it. Janet Gaynor won the Best Actress award for her body of work that also included "Seventh Heaven" and also richly deserved the prize. Her face expresses her inner emotions so perfectly that some of her scenes are achingly beautiful.
And the film itself received an academy award for "Most unique and artistic production," an award never given out again, maybe because no picture could live up to the standard set by "Sunrise."
The new DVD version being marketed on the quiet by Fox is marvelous, with a wonderfully restored print that seems just as bright today as it must have in late 1927 when the film was released. The DVD includes an interesting commentary option by cinematographer John Baily and no film is better suited for this, since it tells its story brilliantly with pictures alone, so the commentary option is not a distraction.
One of the great tragedies of the cinema in my view is that few people alive today have seen "Sunrise." They have no idea what they are missing.
This one ranks among the five best films ever made.
I am a big fan of the silent era, especially the German expressionist films,
and I would have to say that although there are many great silent films--
Metropolis, Pandora's Box, The Wind, etc.-- this film is my favorite. I
feel that it is Murnau's greatest film. While it does not have the social
implications of his films such as "Nosferatu" or "Faust," the
cinematography, acting, and Murnau's unabashed belief in the power of love
helps this film to rise above the rest.
The acting is sterling, with a 21-year-old Janet Gaynor looking incredibly similar to Drew Barrymore, and delivering a layered performance that reveals her character's strong but tenuous emotional state. I suspect that George O'Brien wasn't exactly what Murnau wanted for his lead actor, due to the lengths that Murnau went to to extract O'Brien's performance, but credit is due the actor for a performance which was brave at times and never ego-centric.
Murnau's use of symbolism and metaphor are suppressed compared to the standards of his other films. In this film their use is more to augment the story rather than actually being the story under the narrative. One example is the fish nets waving the wind as O'Brien returns home from his tryst with the dark seductress, a terrific metaphor for his entrapment and helplessness.
The story itself is one that can appeal to many audiences, as it has its fair share of melodrama, comedy, sap, and suspense. I saw this film with my 17-year-old nephew, who is your typical disaffected digital generation teenager, and he was awful quiet during the dramatic sequences and awful loud during the comic portions. It is amazing how I my own emotions were manipulated by the film without Murnau ever being manipulative or obvious.
The true star of this film, of course, is the cinematography. It is simply awesome. I have done a lot of work with old film cameras, and I have no clue how Strauss managed some of the shots he did. Murnau was one of the first directors, if not the first, to use camera motion during a film. This was no small feat in the days where the camera was not motorized and had to be hand-cranked. The camera movement is amazing. There is a shot where O'Brien moves through the swamp, with wet, muddy, and uneven ground, to meet the woman from the city, and the camera tracks along with him. It looks like a steadicam shot! No track could have performed this shot as it exists, and I have no explanation on how he did this other than that he must have suspended the camera from the ceiling of the studio. Shooting a swamp scene with fog and a full moon in a studio is a feat in itself. There are also other feats of cinematography. There are several shots where the city is the typical cardboard cutout, there are people milling around in the street, yet the trains and trolleys are obviously models. HOW????? If you are able to get the DVD with the cinematography commentary, it is well worth the investment.
To the king of the silents... 10/10
This is one of the few movies that fully deserves all the raves that it
gets. Some movies are artistic masterpieces more to be admired than
enjoyed, leaving the viewer feeling a little distant; other movies can be
enjoyable and satisfying to watch, but with obvious artistic defects.
"Sunrise" is a nearly perfect movie that is impressive in every detail, and
it is also a joy to watch, offering moments of suspense and tension and
other moments of humor and humanity.
The story provides a very thoughtful look at the importance and the fragile nature of human relationships. Janet Gaynor is wonderful as the wife - she is always believable, endearing, and completely sympathetic. George O'Brien is also good as the husband, and both of their performances are enhanced by director Murnau's use of their body language. There are also many minor touches in the settings and action that help guide the story and the mood, and it is all complemented by some fine camera work. The first time you watch the film, your attention is fixed on the leading couple, as you hope against hope that things will work out all right for them. Repeated viewings reveal many of the other fine details that make everything work so well.
The movie also has plenty of variety and a masterful structure. The first part and the last part are tense and full of suspense, but they sandwich a very enjoyable series of lighter vignettes in the middle, which make a perfect complement both to the story and to the tone of the movie.
It is very difficult these days to track down this movie, which is a real shame, and even when you do find it you generally have to make do with a rather fuzzy or defective print. But it is well worth the trouble, and "Sunrise" is highly recommended to any silent film fan or to anyone who can appreciate a movie made the way that movies ought to be made. It is not only one of the great masterpieces of the silent era, but is as good a film as any made since.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Put simply, not only the greatest silent film ever made, but one of the 10-15 perfect films. Sunrise, to me, is the definitive moment in silent cinema. Not only is sound unnecessary, but so are words -- indeed, there are remarkably few title cards. Instead, Murnau trusts in the ability of his images to convey his story; he doesn't need words. The story itself is simple, archetypal. It functions primarily as a frame onto which Murnau fastens scene after scene of breathtaking splendor. In particular, the first shots of the City are dizzyingly complex and layered. Additionally, it's impossible to come away unimpressed by the Storm which tosses the characters during their return journey. Murnau is one of the few filmmakers, and perhaps the first, to truly embrace the possibilities of film as its own medium, rather than as a novelty or, alternatively, a convenient way to preserve a stage play. Though he is better remembered for other films, most particularly Nosferatu, Sunrise is his crowning achievement.
Before the movie starts properly, Sunrise professes that life is
sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet, and that is exactly what this
film is; a bittersweet symphony of life and love. Flamboyant German
director, F.W. Murnau directs this film with a great love and
precision, his direction in the movie is flawless. Sunrise features
very little story cards, and it almost totally told with just visuals
and music. This is a testament to Murnau's talent for storytelling; to
portray a story without dialogue is something that all silent films
have to do, but to tell a story without many story cards either is
something that many directors would struggle to do. The music in
Sunrise is simply sublime; it fits what's going on in the film to a
tee, and also succeeds in making the visuals' power more potent.
Sunrise is a groundbreaking film, some of the techniques used by Murnau
to tell his story are amazing, especially for the time. Techniques such
as his use of flashback have had a major impact on cinema as a whole.
And the film isn't just a technical marvel either; there is more than enough substance here. The plot isn't massively substantial, but it's the subtext that is important. It follows the story of a man who, tempted by a woman from the city, gets talked into murdering his wife. Him and his wife used to be madly in love, described by their maid as 'being like children', but the love has since stagnated and so the man is easily taken in by an offer from a beautiful to move to the city. However, when it comes to doing the act; he can't do, and so the film moves into following the two falling back into love. Like life itself, the film is never plain sailing and that seems to be it's central message, along with the fact that love is more powerful than anything that life can throw at you. And those are welcome messages in any film, especially one as brilliant as this.
Overall, Sunrise is a masterpiece. It easily ranks as one of the best, and most important silent films ever made and it is as brilliantly technically as it is on the substance front. A must see for all fans of cinema.
This Murnau work comes from the end of the silent era,and the miracle
is that it needs nothing:it has everything.There are hardly a dozen of
subtitles for a ninety- minute movie,and that's enough.The rest is the
actors'sublime performances and Murnau's flawless directing. George O'
Brien and Janet Gaynor do not speak,and however,we can hear them,with
all our heart ,with all our soul.Their faces reflect what they
endure,suffer and enjoy.Because this is not only a drama.Sometimes it
turns to a true comedy.For me the scene in the church climaxes the
work:the husband,desperate to a fault,and his wife ,who saw her sincere
love atrociously betrayed ,"get marry" again and the priest's words
will drive you to tears.
Unlike "Nosferatu",which took place in dark places ,and before "tabu" which would be an hymn to the nature -in every sense of the word,and probably the key to WF Murnau's entire canon"-,"Sunrise" is a diurnal movie,beginning with a meeting with the husband and his mistress at the break of dawn,and ending in the deep of the night,but the very last picture brings back sunrise,which epitomizes a new beginning, a new christening,a redemption.And the man ,crying and begging for pardon,it might be Murnau who thought his homosexuality was a crime -Nosferatu might be a metaphor as well,as the hero who abducts a priestess he's in love with in "tabu" -A true auteur opens up in his movies,if we can read between the lines.
Murnau was,along with Fritz Lang,one of the two most influential forces of the expressionism .
I have no words. This is cinema. This is not a story, this is not a plot. This is THE STORY, this is THE PLOT. Murnau can describe the human beings, the men, the women and the fast blind society. The woman of the city seems to be a post-modern nosferatu. She is a vampire, she moves like Dracula, she is like a witch around a tree. This film holds the tragedy and the comedy, the laughing and the crying. "Sunrise" doesn't belong to the past, but It belongs to the story, to the time. Sunrise, yes...the sunrise of the modern cinema waiting for "Citizen Kane".
I found this movie at the library the other day and I had to rent it after being aware for the longest time that it's the highest film on the Sight & Sound list that I have not seen yet. After seeing it, can I say that it deserves its honor? I would say so, it's the polar opposite of modern film and that gets my interest since it reveals so much that cinema has gained and lost in 75 years. It tells a simple story while getting the most out of my reaction as opposed to movies that utilize technology, over character and story development, even though this is a movie that has time to be showy and flashy with its beautiful city sequences. After seeing Abel Gance's Napoleon, a film from the same era, I would consider this movie on par for its technical angle, which I think is half the selling point for the critic's circles. It employs a magic realism that you will not find in any modern film today, a movie where you don't care if it takes them a minute to travel from the forest to the city .
A lot of film historians will tell you that Gone With the Wind was the first
film that has the leading man crying on film. Clark Gable was said to be the
first actor to do this.
This is not so.
In fact, George O'Brien is the first actor to do so. In the famous wedding scene, O'Brien breaks down in tears in front of his wife when he remembers back to the vow he took with his wife.
Sunrise is one of the last great silent films that is filled with so many wonderful moments which helped it win the first and only Academy Award for Best Silent Film.
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