Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (1927)

Posted by Brandy Dean January 24, 2014 0 Comment 9309 views

Sunrise will be released on Blu-ray on Thursday, January 23, 2014. Order yours from Amazon via this link to watch a great film and help Pretty Clever Films keep the lights on.

There is an odd form of bias that simmers among even the snobbiest of film snobs when it comes to the topic of silent film. Many film fans – even hardcore cinephiles! – knee-jerk dismiss silent films as archaic, primitive, and limited. Silent film aficionados may be tempted to launch into a lengthy and detailed exegesis on the merits of the silent era, but I say we should just shut up and hand over F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans. Nevermind “the silent era,” Sunrise is one of the finest films in the history of cinema and offers it’s own argument to even the most passionate silent detractor.

Still image from "Sunrise"I’ll stipulate that the tale in this Tale of Two Humans is more than a little hackneyed, what with a man from the country torn between his Madonna/Wife and his Whore/Mistress. But – hey – cliches are cliches for a reason, and in every other respect Sunrise is a revelation. Not only is the cinematography (Karl Stuss and Charles Rosher), direction (Murnau) and performance (Janet Gaynor, George O’Brien and Margaret Livingston) all expert, Sunrise is a technical marvel – even today. Filled with tricky in-camera effects and equally tricky tracking shots, the film also features a soundtrack courtesy of Fox’s early Movietone system. There there’s the ineffable beauty of tone and mood, not to mention a dazzling proficiency in strictly visual storytelling. There are barley any title cards. Sunrise is enough to make a silent film fan weep with joy at the beauty of it and weep with woe at the profundity of what was about, apparently forever, to be lost in filmmaking.

Still image from "Sunrise"The story of Sunrise was adapted from the short story “A Visit to Tilsit” written by Herman Sudermann, but the narrative is skeletal. A farmer named as The Man has a mistress, known as The Woman from the City, despite his marriage to The Wife. The Woman from the City, of course, wants to lure The Man to the city and suggests he murder his wife and sell the farm. And the cad gives it a try, taking The Wife out on his boat with the intention of drowning her.

The Man, however, cannot go through with it, though The Wife understands what he was thinking and, once on shore, flees in terror by hopping on city bound trolley. The Man pursues her and the two manage a reconciliation in the exciting city. But when the pair set off for home on their little boat, a storm blows up and the boat capsizes. The rest is an epic, if somewhat trite morality tale and yep, the narrative is archaic, predictable, and even quaint. But that’s not what is important! Watch Sunrise and pay attention – note this shot, and that effect, and, especially, your own emotional involvement.

Still image from "Sunrise"

Like many films from the silent era, Sunrise: A Tale of Two Human could also be called Sunrise: A Tortured Tale of Lost Film. The infamous 1937 Fox Pictures vault fire that claimed most of the studio’s pre-1935 releases destroyed the original negative of Sunrise and thus there’s no such thing as a “definitive” version of the film. A recently resurrected Czech print (included on this Blu-ray) demonstrates the fate of many films distributed abroad in the silent era – it’s about 15 minutes shorter and is sourced from different prints, including entirely different shots. It’s fascinating to watch these two very different versions of the same film.

Until this iteration of Sunrise, the most definitive and extra-packed release was the 2009 Masters of Cinema edition. These two releases are fairly similar in quality and extras included, though the Fox Blu-ray features both the original Movietone score and a newly commissioned Olympic Chamber Orchestra score. It also comes packed with extras:

  • Commentary by ASC Cinematographer John Bailey. This is a totally captivating commentary and a must view for those who have seen this film a hundred times.
  • Outtakes with Commentary by Cinematographer John Bailey
  • Outtakes with Text Cards
  • Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnau
  • Sunrise Screenplay This is pretty much the same as the Original Scenario.
  • Restoration Notes This might sound a little dry, but it’s packed with both historical info about the film and info about the restoration.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Movietone Version
  • European Silent Version

Sunrise will be released on Blu-ray on Thursday, January 23, 2014. Order yours from Amazon via this link to watch a great film and help Pretty Clever Films keep the lights on.

About Brandy Dean

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films.

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