Esteemed from its release in 1927 as one of the greatest of silent dramas, Sunrise still astonishes with director F.W. Murnau’s visual inventiveness and energy, and its counterintuitive, character-driven story structure. Subtitled A Song of Two Humans, it tells an instantly mythic story of a marriage in three “sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet” acts: internal crisis, comedy of reconciliation, and external crisis. An archetypal young farming couple, named only as the Man and the Wife (brawny George O’Brien and mousy Janet Gaynor, with matching dimpled chins), are introduced in full-blown marital discord. His transparent affair with a worldly Woman of the City (Margaret Livingston) has set the neighbors to cluck-clucking, bankers to repossessing the livestock, and the Wife weeping at her toddler’s bedside while her husband is sharing a vampiric lip-lock with his lover on a moonlit marsh.
That nocturnal tryst, in which the flapper-mistress suggests to her illicit suitor a plot to drown his wife, features visions of a wild expressionist city rocking with tuba-honking bands and frenzied dancers as the adulterers’ putative future, along with an evocative set shrouded in fog and layered with mud. A horn of cinematic plenty continuously spills from Sunrise, not only in its production design and Murnau’s dreamlike images (rendered by a pair of American cinematographers in the German émigré’s first Hollywood film), but in an unswerving commitment to the varied tones of screenwriter Carl Mayer’s scenario. The pivotal rowboat scene, where O’Brien’s tortured strayer finds he can’t go through with the killing, is cut like a precursor to Hitchcock’s set pieces, while the Man’s stylized, cataleptic menace suggests a more surreal, Nosferatu-like aesthetic. The journey of the terrified Wife and her pursuing spouse to a bustling city center is soon followed, in an unlikely melodramatic arc, by the renewal of their own love as they witness a church wedding. Murnau and his collaborators make all of it transcendent, and seriously adult in its use of symbols (like a crucial, Freudian bundle of bulrushes) and small gestures to tell a story of common people.
After this proto-noirish first act, resolved with chiming church bells that would end most similarly wrenching tales, Murnau spends the next 25 minutes showing the Man and Wife as a functioning unit in what amounts to a resort comedy. Brief, lightweight interludes at a photographer’s studio and hair salon (where the Wife flies into an extreme panic when the staff understandably attempts to redo her severe coif) precede a major set piece staged on a mammoth arcade/restaurant set. A pig on the loose, getting drunk on kitchen wine; the rural couple dragooned into a peasant dance; and bit-player business centered on a young girl’s falling shoulder straps are all light years away from the grimness of the film’s first act. On paper, what could seem to be mechanical comic relief is Murnau’s canny way of making the protagonists cozy and charming to the audience.
That intimacy pays off in Sunrise’s climax, a storm that capsizes the reconciled couple’s boat and results in the Wife being presumed drowned, as the Woman of the City tidily imagines that her grief-stricken co-conspirator has gone through with the crime. O’Brien, an established leading man who had already played leads for John Ford and Howard Hawks, gives a performance that’s almost unimaginable in the talkie period of Old Hollywood; tearful, guilt-wracked, at times unhinged, his unfaithful young husband and father runs a gamut of extreme emotional states without ever inviting laughter. Contemporary audiences likely have the most trouble getting past the musty opposition of the Gaynor and Livingston characters as Madonna and whore, but there’s just enough ambiguity in the Wife’s virtue and the strumpet’s sensual hunger to make the Man’s dalliance entirely comprehensible. (Only a raging squall can let his spouse’s hair down.) Though its temptress is finally sent packing by the marriage’s new dawn, Murnau’s perennial romance shows a universal couple capable of thriving in both urban playrooms and their conjugal cabin, once they’ve found sufficiently generous space in their hearts.
The disc offers two versions of Murnau’s classic, but only the most careful viewing reveals how distinct they are. The Fox Movietone version, put in general release in 1928 after the film was shown with live music in its New York and Los Angeles premieres, was the first Hollywood release to have a recorded music-and-effects soundtrack on the film reel. (The original negative of this iteration was destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1937.) What Fox’s packaging calls the "European silent" version is derived from a recently discovered Czech print, which is not only 15 minutes shorter and has a slightly wider frame, but contains different takes (though largely the same scenes) than the domestic version. Short of a side-by-side comparison, the varying performances are essentially undetectable, but both versions have impressive depth and contrast in scenes shot on meticulously designed sets like the marsh and the amusement park and on location as in the pivotal rowboat scene. Because its elements were in overall better shape, some imagery in the Czech version is particularly sharp and vivid; both versions retain some scratches and other artifacts to be expected in a film from the late ’20s, but shouldn’t break the spell cast by Murnau’s craft.
The Fox Movietone track, with uncredited music by Hugo Riesenfeld, is wondrously ambitious for a pioneering mono effort, with a haunting love theme and versatility in following the film’s shifts between comedy and near-tragedy. A recent orchestral score composed by Timothy Brock is the stereo option, and while it’s perfectly fine and impeccably recorded, it can’t help but mimic some of the Movietone score’s agenda (the peasant dance, a traffic jam, pealing bells). A rare instance where both video and audio options should be sampled, though the Movietone version is more completely Murnau’s work.
The supplements have been taken from a 2009 U.K. Blu-ray for this edition. A commentary track by John Bailey, cinematographer for Groundhog Day and Ordinary People, discusses signature Murnau tropes like languorous camera movements, spare set decoration, and strong on-screen light sources, as well as the multiple-exposure shots and in-camera effects likely conceived by one of Sunrise’s two DPs, Karl Struss. Bailey also takes note of inclined and tilted sets that harken back to the German expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and shots of Janet Gaynor that evoke "Dutch master" iconography. He also avers that while studio chief William Fox imported Murnau’s talents for precisely the aesthetics on display, "he may have gotten more than he bargained for," as Sunrise wasn’t a box-office success despite winning critical acclaim and three Oscars.
Elsewhere, Bailey narrates 10 minutes of outtakes, including unbroken master shots of the memorable marsh and trolley sequences, while other unused footage is described via title cards (which occasionally contradict Bailey, as in whether shafts of light in the church scene were painted on the set). A reproduction of a portion of the film’s original scenario by screenwriter Carl Mayer has a still-familiar format of camera directions on the left, detailed action (instead of dialogue) on the right, plus handwritten annotations by Murnau (in German). A complete 102-page PDF of the full screenplay is very close to the story on screen, except for the farm couple having names, and the bits of comic business in the urban segment are not yet present. (Dollying or tracking of the camera is referred to as a "perambulator shot," and the text calls at one point for a "soft fancy transition.") Rounding out the set are notes on the restoration and a silent theatrical trailer.
Murnau’s Hollywood masterpiece is presented in close-to-ideal context and the best possible digital quality, while preserving the look and sound of its original incarnation.