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Fox Home Entertainment presents
"Then overturn the boat...make it look like an accident."
DVD ReviewFor some reason, Wings gets all the positive press about being the first Best Picture Academy Award® winner. But what most people don't know is that for that first ceremony there were two winners: a second statuette was given for "Most Unique and Artistic Production," and the winner of that Oscar® was F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, still recognized widely as one of the most beautiful films ever made.
The subject matter doesn't seem promising for that distinction. Subtitled "A Song of Two Humans," the picture centers on the marital strife of The Man (George O'Brien) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor, who won the Best Actress Oscar® for her performance here). When the Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) vacations in the country, she meets and seduces O'Brien, and convinces him that he needs to take Gaynor "out of the picture" by drowning her. Despite misgivings, O'Brien makes an attempt to do so, but finds that he cannot go through with the murderous scheme. Surprisingly, this creates an even stronger bond between the spouses, but that is put to the test when they are faced with the even more deadly forces of nature.
Murnau was one of the foremost directors in Germany, and was lured to the United States by William Fox's promise of creative freedom. Unfortunately for Murnau, that turned out not to quite be the case, for his other work for Fox involved substantial studio meddling, some of which may also be seen in Sunrise. But the initial freedom demonstrated here is obvious, beginning with the very odd structure. In traditional dramatic story-telling the characters are introduced, a struggle is created building to a climax and then there is a resolution. Here, the most dramatic struggle is set up and occurs in the first few minutes of the picture; the second third of the picture is practically bucolic as the couple rediscovers their affections for each other. Only in the last third is a traditional structure revived. There are also many instances of German Expressionism alive and well in this film, from weird angles to dramatic lighting to odd point-of-view shots. The lighting in particular aids in the storytelling, such as when the couple is shrouded in shadow as they enter a church to symbolically renew their wedding vows; as they leave they are bathed in light to indicate the redemption of their relationship.
Gaynor turns in a fine performance, despite being saddled with a most hideous wig designed to make her appear as frumpy as humanly possible. O'Brien holds his own against her, though, with a difficult portrayal of a not-quite-sympathetic husband. As he moves toward the attempted murder of Gaynor, he adopts a curious plodding gait that evokes that of a man already condemned to death. The other characters are little more than ciphers, as befits a film that is a song about two humans. Only Livingston gets something more, and even then she's completely shallow and self-obsessed.
Charles Rosher and Karl Struss shared the cinematography chores here (and they too won Oscars® for their work). The lighting as noted above is a vital part of the film, and the camera work is often astonishing, with highly complex effects accomplished purely in the camera (although a matte shot transitioning from the city to the country is rather clumsily executed). Murnau was renowned for his moving camera in Germany, and here he ups the ante even further with some bravura shots that plunge through underbrush and cross fences in a manner that must have been shocking to 1927 audiences, fifty years before the Steadicam®.
Presently Sunrise is available only as a free promotional item from 20th Century Fox. It may be obtained by providing proofs of purchase with receipts (and $2.50 shipping) for three titles in the Fox Studio Classics series. The titles thus far issued are the special editions of All About Eve, Gentleman's Agreement, How Green Was My Valley and The Day the Earth Stood Still, with numerous other discs in the series to be issued throughout 2003. The offer is technically open only to U.S. and Canada residents and expires January 31, 2004. The Studio Classics series is individually numbered; the Sunrise case is uniform in appearance with the series, but in place of a number merely states, "Limited Edition."
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Sunrise was issued in the very narrow gauge of 1.20:1, as a result of having to provide room for the sound-on-film Movietone score and effects track. Since it was apparently shot with this track in mind, however, the framing and composition does not appear compromised in the least. The compression job by DVCC is first rate, with deep blacks, fine greyscale and plenty of detail when appropriate, without any visible artifacting. However, since the negative was destroyed in a 1937 fire, the existing elements are less than optimal. The film is plagued throughout by speckling, nicks, scratches and scuffing. However, they are all fairly minor, without significant chunks of picture missing or damaged. While a complete full-scale restoration would be nice, it's probably prohibitively expensive, especially for something that's being given away free. The transfer is light years ahead of the VHS edition of Sunrise that I've seen before, so this is well worth upgrading.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Happily, two different music scores are provided for listening depending on the viewer's inclination. One can choose between the original Movietone score by Hugo Riesenfeld, or a newly-recorded score by the Olympic Chamber Orchestra. While Riesenfeld gets definite points for authenticity, there are the obvious limitations of a 1920s soundtrack, with hiss, noise and muffled sound. Furthermore, since much of the score is just snippets from the great (and copyright-free) composers, it's not as if most of the score was composed expressly for the film. This makes the modern alternative quite acceptable, and it suits the film well, with an appropriate moodiness. The sound is quite clear and actively engages the surrounds throughout. Nothing to complain about here.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by cinematographer John Bailey
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 00h:59m:16s
Bailey also provides a commentary to a set of outtakes that runs a bit over nine minutes. There's nothing earth-shaking here, but it's interesting to see the different choices that were made and efforts that didn't quite come off as well as the version in the finished picture. These can also be played with title cards that provide slightly different information, without the commentary. As referenced above, the entire screenplay is here, which includes a much more abbreviated second act; it's complete but not a reproduction. The first few pages of Carl Mayer's original scenario are reproduced, both in English and in German, with the German version bearing Murnau's annotations. Alas, Murnau's handwriting is difficult and there is neither a transcription nor a translation of his commentary. There's also a text essay on the restoration of the film.
A trailer (sans music) is provided, and in many respects it's in better condition than the feature, although there is a little nitrate decomposition visible near the end. A gallery with a poster, a lobby card and two stills rounds out the package as far as Sunrise is concerned. Oddly enough, many of these text items and the photos are presented in anamorphic widescreen format.
But wait! That's not all! The year after Sunrise was completed, Murnau directed the now-lost circus film Four Devils. Although it's gone, the disc includes is a 39m:59s documentary about it by Janet Bergstrom, with a partial reconstruction using stills, lobby cards and excerpts from the script. A complete scenario and screenplay for this lost picture are also included, providing a wealth of information about this missing gem. Its inclusion here is particularly appropriate, since it echoes Sunrise's theme of the seduction of a good man by a scheming vamp who cares nothing for the life and death of others. It also happens to star Gaynor as one of the four trapeze artists who are the titular (dare)devils. Fox reshot the last two reels and gave it a happy ending (without Murnau's knowledge or approval), and the less said about that (also lost) version, the better.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsAn essential part of any film library, this disc is a very fine special edition that is well worth clipping proofs of purchase to obtain. Recommended.
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