I remain impressed at 20th Century Fox for releasing wonderful Blu-ray transfers of their classic films. Sure, they’re in the business of dollars and cents, but their reverence for history by releasing movies which aren’t expected to outsell the millions of movies released to the home video market is admirable. At the same time, director F.W. Murnau is the director of the hour; I reviewed Kino’s release of Nosferatu a week or so back, and now we’re getting Murnau’s first American production on Blu-ray. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is old-fashioned in its ideals and presentation, but the amazing production quality for 1927 cannot be ignored, nor can the vibrant performances of George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor.
A married man (O’Brien) decides to murder his wife (Gaynor) in order to please a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston). However, when confronted with his decision the man decides he can’t go through with it and takes his wife on a journey where the two rediscover their love.
Sunrise isn’t a feel-good movie of classic film to me, although I can understand those who find it so. I felt conflicted with the story laid out by F.W. Murnau, although that could be cynicism talking; yes, much of it has to do with how poorly the story’s aged. Janet Gaynor is the angelic blond-haired saint who her husband desires to murder because she’s not sexually exciting. Instead, her purity and goodness compel him to spare her and realize why he loves her. This moment of revelation comes while the two watch a wedding ceremony. The minister tells the husband to protect his wife because she’s “inexperienced” to the world while our married man is moved to remember why he shouldn’t kill his wife in the first place. Of course, the ending isn’t complete without a moment where our hero believes his wife is truly dead only to have her resurrected through his grief; it’s a romance for men about men.
It’s not to say there can’t be enjoyment derived to modern audiences. This is a film where silent acting works to great aplomb. George O’Brien is an amazing lead as the married man. His face is expressive, enhanced with dark rings underneath his eyes before attempting to murder his wife, and through said expressions the transformation he goes through is witnessed. As the character’s love deepens for his wife his face loses the deathly pallor and becomes a human being again. I hated Janet Gaynor in Farmer Takes a Wife, and since this is the second film of her’s I’ve watched I’m making an early argument that silent film acting is where she should stay. Her angelic features and exuberance are infectious, and, without all the proselytizing, could be their own reason for changing her husband’s mind, although there isn’t anything to her character beyond that. The woman from the city, played by Margaret Livingston, is the female representation of the mustache twirling villain, complete with sulking walk and dark music, comical in her representation.
Its technical merits are why Sunrise continues to endure, and is proof of the mastery F.W. Murnau possessed in the cinematic world. The few title cards utilized – Murnau hated them – are in a ghostly scrawl, enhancing the movie’s feel as a parable and representing the fleeting nature of life and death. Murnau also used miniatures, forced perspective, and other elements to make his soundstage work look immense and on-location which is spectacularly fresh 86-years later.
I’m sounding like a broken record when it comes to Fox’s Blu-rays, but the presentation of Sunrise is beautiful! For 86-years it doesn’t look a day over 40! If you don’t own a Blu-ray player you can still buy this since it includes the film on DVD with both versions (the Movietone version released in the US as well as a silent European version). Cinematographer John Bailey provides audio commentary on the film’s look, as well as additional outtakes on certain sequences. There’s also an original scenario presented with Murnau’s annotations, the screenplay, notes on the restoration, and the original trailer. The amount of bonus content can feel one-note for those wanting a broader exploration of the movie, but the Blu-ray/DVD combo with two different versions provide their money’s worth.
Sunrise may show its age in outdated relationship dynamics, but the performances of O’Brien and Gaynor can’t be ignored. The movie is a masterpiece through Murnau’s direction and incredible special effects remaining fresh today as they did then. Fox’s Blu-ray/DVD combo is amazing and if you’re a silent film lover you should pick it up today!
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Another sweet review. Is it odd that Gaynor reminded me of Helen Hayes with her looks and demeanor in this one? Such a delicate little flower with talent the size of two giants.
Not at all, although I must confess I haven’t seen Hayes’ work.
I love this film to bits, but I can definitely understand the reservations you have with the story and characterization. For me the story is archetypal and redemptive, so the broad strokes are okay (though yeah, old-fashioned). I’m glad to hear the Blu-ray is so good – it’s one I should probably get at some point. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the film twice in theatres with live accompaniment, so I’m a little spoiled and haven’t sought it out to watch at home.
It’s a dream of mine to watch a silent film in a theater with orchestral accompaniment so you’re a lucky duck!
Try seeing Gaynor in “A Star Is Born,” “Change of Heart” and the 1933 “State Fair” (the latter unavailable on DVD, unfortunately). I think you’ll discover that she was superb in talkies.
I love the Garland version of “A Star is Born” so I’m definitely determined to watch Gaynor’s earlier take on the material. I haven’t heard of “Change of Heart” so thanks for the recommendation!
An interesting review, but I certainly have to disagree with your conclusions. “Technical merit” would have to be the least reason “Sunrise” continues to be considered a classic. A great many movies have been technically excellent but completely forgotten. Yes, the camera work and set design on “Sunrise” are amazing. That, however, is only part of the equation. There is also the acting and the story itself. Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien are both excellent. Though her role is rather brief, Margaret Livingston is perfect as the heavy. (Murnau brilliantly establishes her character in about 20 seconds with the shoe-shining scene.) And the story is as timeless as timeless can be. Love, Betrayal and Redemption. The power of these emotions, and the beauty of how these emotions play out, is what gives “Sunrise” its enduring status. “Sunrise” is uncomplicated and universal in it’s themes. Combine all those aspects and you get poetry on film.
I’ve watched this film with a roomful of 14- and 15-year-olds who were completely hypnotized by it. Moved to the point there was several minutes of silence after the movie ended. That type of emotional response doesn’t come from “technical merit.” Camera angles and special effects don’t leave people speechless. Emotions leave people speechless, and emotions are what “Sunrise” is about.
At the first Academy Awards, “Sunrise” was given the award for “Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production.” “Sunrise” was such an incredible film on so many levels, the Academy basically had to make-up an award for it. That can’t be said about any other movie.
It’s rather difficult to separate “emotion” from the filmmaking tools that convey that emotion. Camera angles, special effects, lighting, set design, composition – these are the language of the cinema, and they most certainly contribute to Sunrise’s poetic quality.
And I certainly have a newfound interest in the silence after our talk about it. I’m hoping to get into some Chaplin or Lloyd over the summer and revisit Sunrise. I’m also going to attempt a few more silent horror movies (I really liked The Man Who Laughs).