Sunrise (a.k.a. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) (1927)
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Produced by William Fox
Screenplay by Carl Mayer, from an original theme by Hermann Sudermann
Titles by Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell
Cinematography by Charles Rosher, Karl Struss
Edited by Harold D. Schuster
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox Blu-ray
It really doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen a plethora of silent films or none at all before coming to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise; you’re going to come away from the experience impressed if not astounded. As Roger Ebert points out in his Great Movie column in 2004, early silent films contained little if any camera movement, mainly due to the fact that the cameraman was cranking the camera by hand, making movement next to impossible. Jump to the present, where you can literally carry your camera in your pocket and film anything anywhere. Sunrise and its camera movement manages to impress regardless of how you come to it: as a seasoned silent film veteran or a beginner.
Not only was the fluid camera work innovative and far ahead of its time, its visual experimentation was (and still is) extraordinary, using superimposed images (creating ghost-like characters), model trains, matte paintings and more. But where Murnau achieves greatness is in combining a visually engaging experience with a simple, yet powerful story.
George O’Brien plays a farmer who has fallen on hard times, but that hasn’t stopped him from having an affair with a seductress (Margaret Livingston) from the city. The dark woman encourages the man to do away with his wife (Janet Gaynor, winner of the very first Best Actress Oscar for Sunrise as well as Seventh Heaven and Street Angel – they often gave the award back then for a body of work, not for an individual performance). Not only that, the woman from the city has concocted a plan for how to kill the wife. All the man has to do is carry it out. A simple trip in a rowboat will do the trick.
I won’t tell you any more about the film because that’s really all you need to know. The beauty and genius of the film works on so many levels and – although it’s nearly 90 years old – it still looks and feels fresh. The film is filled with humanity without being sappy, melodramatic without becoming clichéd. Sunrise is literally one of the films you must see.
Ebert states, “I imagine it is possible to see Sunrise for the first time and think it simplistic; to be amused that the academy could have honored it. But silent films had a language of their own; they aimed for the emotions, not the mind, and the best of them wanted to be, not a story, but an experience.”
At the very first Academy Awards Ceremony in 1928, Sunrise also won Oscars for Unique and Artistic Production and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Art Direction.
You can find two Blu-ray editions of the film. I own the 20th Century Fox Blu-ray release from 2014, but the region free Masters of Cinema editions (2009 and 2011) received better reviews at blu-ray.com.
(Photos: The Red List, Blu-ray.com)