DVD of the Week – Review and Disc Commentary Track for Sunrise (1927)
by NIR SHALEV
Director F. W. Murnau is mostly remembered today for Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926), but his first American film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, is his best film and also one of the greatest films ever made.
The plot is simple: A farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor) used to be the most loving and happiest couple until a city woman (Margaret Livingston) enticed the man away with her seductions. One night, while embracing one another in a nearby swamp, the city woman convinces the man to murder his wife by drowning her in the lake and making it look like an accident; that way they can move to the city together and be happy forever. The man contemplates the notion all night and the following day he attempts to follow through with drowning his wife. However, in the last second he decides not to go through with it and instead rows the boat to shore. There the couple ride a tram into the city and the man manages to apologize to his wife with true sincerity and heartbreak. Then they have the most wonderful time of their lives.
So what makes this one of the greatest films ever made? Well, everything. For starters, it’s one of the most beautifully and masterfully shot films that I’ve ever seen. Having come off of a background in German Expressionism, Murnau utilizes a magnificent mix of expressionistic art direction alongside Vermeer-like imagery. The use of black and white cinematography adds grit while the dreamlike quality of the film reminds us that we were transported to another universe.
The unnamed city, where the second half of the film takes place, was entirely built on soundstages and a mix of forced perspective shots utilizing miniatures is used throughout. The cinematographers are Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, and their use of forced perspective and deep focus compositions provide the film with tremendous detail and are chock full of wonderfully imaginative sets. When the couple celebrates in the city at night, we see a wonderful, fictitious city that comes to life before our eyes and titillates our senses. Everyone is happy, of course they can afford to be, and drinking never seems like a bad idea there. There is something wonderful about revisiting the film; every time that the couple arrive at the city I feel like I’m there with them, and I love revisiting places that make me feel good.
The performances by Gaynor and O’Brien speak volumes on how to act in silent films without overdoing it. Janet Gaynor, who received an Academy Award for her performance in Sunrise brings a frail kind of sadness to her character and a lot of tenderness. When she’s sad, I feel sad; when she’s happy, I feel happy. Her expressive face is key to the greatness of her performance. George O’Brien at first brings a menacing Count Orlok-like performance; staggering slowly like a troll, fists tightening. Eventually however he opens up like a flower and showcases that his character is truly a loving husband, after all. There is magic to the look, feel, sound, and performances in this film and it’s a complete and perfect package.
The film was nominated at the first ever Oscars ceremony in 1929 and won 2 other awards aside from Gaynor’s: Best Original and Artistic Production and Best Cinematography. Some shots in the film, like a long tracking shot in the swamp, still mystify with their originality and technical wonder.
The film’s terrific commentary track features a great cinematographer named John Bailey. Some of his credits include American Gigolo (1980), The Big Chill (1983), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Silverado (1985), and Groundhog Day (1993). Bailey goes into deep details from the start to the finish of the film. He speaks of every shot in detail, explains what the lighting signifies and how some of it was done with trick photography (like painting the light onto backgrounds), and also speaks of the terrific performances and character arcs. Every single aspect of what makes a film is talked about in the commentary track and in detail, and it’s never monotonous. I’ve heard many other commentary tracks where the commentary simply repeat what is being seen on screen. Bailey in contrast, explains the meaning of everything that we see, how everything was designed and put together, and even how Murnau directed his actors. It’s the most in-depth commentary track that I’ve heard, is infinitely fascinating and informative, and well belongs to a film of this caliber.
When I saw this film for the first time a few years back, after wiping away my tears I re-watched it immediately it with John Bailey’s commentary track. I’ve just revisited this colossal masterpiece, again with the commentary track playing, and it somehow felt fresh. And yes, I wept even more the third time around. But I also felt invigorated, almost as if I’d forgotten what Bailey had spoken of the first time around. And hearing everything again from the beginning was an absolute pleasure.
To me Sunrise stands side by side with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as the two greatest films ever made. They share the spotlight and the step numbered “1” and can never be taken down from that step. It’s impossible to dislike a film containing such aching beauty, such tender performances, and such a gorgeous fictitious city. This is a film that I love, cherish, and will never forget as long as I live.
The DVD can be bought as standalone, but I initially bought a box set containing three other classics just so that I could own Sunrise. The Blu-ray can be bought from the UK, released as part of the Masters of Cinema collection. It’s a region-free disc so it plays on every Blu-ray player. I recommend the Blu-ray version as the ideal version to own because it also contains a slightly shorter Czech-release version of the film that used alternate camera angles, plus all the bells and whistles from the DVD release.
New releases this week: Apollo 18, Brighton Rock, Final Destination 5