Following his artistic successes with pictures like Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924), German director F. W. Murnau came to the United States to direct a film for Fox incorporating German Expressionist techniques at the behest of William Fox. The result is 1927’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which would take awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Janet Gaynor), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and most “Unique and Artistic Picture” at the first ever Academy Awards in 1929. And indeed, perhaps no two words better describe Sunrise than “unique and artistic.”
The story is that of a married couple whose relationship is threatened by the husband’s fling with a salacious woman from “the city.” Together, the city woman and her farmer lover plot his wife’s death, but when it comes time to act, the husband is overcome with doubt. What follows I won’t spoil because I’m not that kind of writer, but it ultimately proves to be an overwhelmingly exciting and beautiful picture, if not also, as a friend felt compelled to remind me today, “really depressing” to boot.
So now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, Jef. That sounds great and all, but the story here sounds rather familiar, so where do you get ‘unique’?” The unique and artistic both come in to play at the level of production, where Murnau’s Expressionist roots shine. With Sunrise, Murnau approached what we might now consider a rather straightforward exploration of love and loyalty as though it were every bit as deserving of artistic experimentation as any gothic horror picture he had previously undertaken. Sets, including an entire cityscape, played with forced perspective, incorporating curved floors, slanted furniture, and even some glorious miniatures. But what’s truly unique about this is the way that Murnau puts as much, if not more, effort into manipulating our emotions and psychological states through the mise-en-scene as the actors do in their performances. Simply put, it’s cinematic craftsmanship at its most pointed and masterful.
What’s more, although Sunrise was released in 1927 and doesn’t actually feature any synced dialogue whatsoever, the film is by no means what we would consider “silent.” Continuing his unique artistic experimentation in Sunrise, Murnau determined to employ the Fox Movietone sound system. This allowed him and his crew to design a soundtrack incorporating music and sound effects, if not actual dialogue, making the experience the picture that much more immersive.
Sunrise makes its Blu-ray debut on January 14, 2014 as part of the 20th Century Fox Studio Classics collection. The Studio Classics collection has, in the last year, brought us a host of other great titles such as The Fly (1958) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), but none have been so terribly important or exciting as Murnau’s Sunrise. The release includes the Fox Movietone version of the film, as well as the European silent version, and by way of special features boasts commentary by cinematographer John Bailey (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters), outtakes with commentary by Bailey, the original theatrical trailer, pioneering silent screenwriter Carl Mayer’s scenario with Murnau’s notes, the original screenplay, and notes on the restoration.