Sunday, January 03, 2010

Blu-Ray Review: Sunrise (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of two Humans (1927)

One of the things I love about cinema is that it's an art form that hasn't been around that long - just 100 years more-or-less. This makes it possible to follow the history and growth of the medium from its very beginnings.

Alas, too many of the early 'film studio' books that documented the early years have been out of print for years so that the main source of historical information these days tends to be in the form of DVD and Blu-Ray releases: either of the old films themselves, the best of which contain accompanying historical commentary tracks or small booklets, or of new historical documentaries made by the studios to celebrate an anniversary.

An excellent example of the latter is the 6 hour documentary on MGM Studios history, introduced by Patrick Stewart, that was put out as three two-hour TV documentaries in the United States and given away as a double-sided DVD with import sets of the Blu-Ray versions of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

One of my new year resolutions (again!) was to delve a bit more into older 'classics' that were made before I was born or which I missed as a kid when TV was the main way of catching up on old classics, in an era when video tape recorders and DVD players didn't exist. Fortunately Eureka's "Masters of Cinema" imprint has now started releasing some of the most important or interesting classics on Blu-Ray. Curiously "Title #1" in their Blu-Ray series is NOT their first Blu-Ray release, arriving at the tail end of 2009 when other titles came out in 2008, and I really haven't been able to work out how their odd title numbering system works, but "Title #1" seemed a good place to start. And "Title #1" is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans by the highly praised German silent film director F.W. Murnau.

I should be upfront here about the fact that I find many of the old so-called classics dull beyond words, and I've never really been a fan of the so-called wonderful 'silent era'. Even as a kid from the generation that returned home from school to find children's hour prefaced with 'Laurel and Hardy' episodes on BBC1, I tended to want to turn over to the other channel.

Sunrise has been described by several critics as 'the most beautiful silent film ever made', and won oscars for Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Actress in 1928 so seemed to be a good film to start with, even though the thought of watching a silent film that runs for more than 90 minutes doesn't sound like much of a treat. The film was originally released just two days before the first talkie, and, apparently, was commercially a flop, despite all the critical praise it's received over the years.

Fortunately many of these silent classics have been issued with new music recordings that improve the 'silent' experience, and Sunrise is just such a title with the original mono Movietone score being joined by an 'Alternate Chamber Orchestra Score' in stereo that really enhanced the viewing experience for me. If you're watching the film for the first time, and assuming you're not a film student who insists on seeing the film 'as it would have been seen in 1927', I'd recommend going with the new stereo recording soundtrack over the original Movietone one.

still image from Sunrise

The basic plot, adapted from a German-published short story, is a deceptively straightforward one. A farmer with young wife and child in a marriage that's going stale has an affair with a 'city girl' who tries to lure him away from his farm, suggesting that he arrange a boating accident that kills his wife so that he can sell his farm and join her permanently in the City. In the event, the farmer can't go through with the murderous act, and he and his wife re-find their lost love on a day trip to the big metropolis. A storm arrives as the couple head for home and the wife goes missing, presumed dead. Nevertheless, realising the error of his ways, the farmer tells the City girl he is not prepared to resume his relationship, just before rescuers find his wife alive and well. This last point is a 'happy ending' apparently forced on the director by the Fox film studio - it seems nothing much changes in Hollywood!

The set-up and failed attempt at the murder are dealt with in the first 20 minutes, and the bulk of the film is spent covering the farming couple's reconciliation trip to the big city, where they visit a church wedding service, get pampered at a hair salon, have a professional take their photograph, and visit a circus fair and dance hall - all in a city that looks rather futuristic for its time.

This probably sounds less than thrilling, but what makes the film work is that it's a story of emotions - a story that's incredibly well told and still works well today. If you're a fan of cinema, basic story-telling well put together, excellent acting and direction or just quite spectacular special effects (no, really!) then Sunrise really is the must-see that its 8.3 score on imdb indicates it to be.

It's easy for those of us who aren't film students to dismiss film of this era, with its implicit exaggerated facial poses, dated dress sense etc seeming so irrelevant to today's times, but films like Sunrise demonstrate that in reality human nature and story telling really hasn't changed one jot in the last 100 years - it's just the technology and fashion that's changed. Thankfully the over-exaggerated gurning that plagues most silent films is mainly absent from this film, and the performances from Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien are superb, even subtle at times. It's not hard to see why Gaynor won the Best Actress oscar for her performance in this film.

For me, there were some very pleasant surprises in the film. There was a lot more humour than the dark subject matter had indicated: from the farce of the couple accidentally breaking a photographer's sculpture and trying to cover it up by substituting a golf ball for its broken head, to the slapstick of a drunk and an escaped pig and a dress that has straps which won't stay up, to the naivety of the 'out of town' couple. 'Come again', the hair salon owner says (via cue card) to the departing couple. 'And you must come and visit us' says the farmer's wife, sincerely by way of response.

But what surprised me most about this beautifully put together film was the special effects. There are one or two back-projection scenes where one can spot the joins (eg where the couple are kissing in the middle of a busy street and the traffic backdrop 'jumps' but the couple don't) but there are other scenes, such as one where the farmer walks across busy traffic, where I still couldn't work out how it was done. Murneau uses special effects - most of them, amazingly, performed 'in camera' - to help tell a story that would otherwise need sound, and as a result is able to convince the viewer over 90 minutes that sound really isn't needed. Indeed I barely noticed that this was a 'silent' film I was watching! There's some wonderful dissolve sequences too, such as the opening title scene where a drawing of a train station dissolves into the real thing, or where 'The Man' is tormented by images of 'The Girl from the City' carressing him.

still image from Sunrise

You can view the trailer for Sunrise on YouTube. However note that this is not taken from the Blu-Ray and doesn't, in my view, give the best indication of what the film is like.

As for the picture quality .. well if you're expecting a million pound makeover look elsewhere. The original print was destroyed by fire in the 30's and the two versions presented here (a Movietone version, and a shorter, but better preserved, Czechoslovakian version) have been pieced together from various fourth or fifth generation copies. The accompanying booklet details the various sources and explains that it's impossible to tell what the 'definitive' or originally edited film looked like. Different copies of the film use different takes, and two camera's were used so that the Movietone score could be accommodated on US prints which meant some cropping of the picture to accommodate it on the film strip, vs the non-Movietone version that could use the full frame. No attempt at repairing print damage has been attempted and although there is a high throughput of about 26-30MB/sec on the 1080p restoration Blu-Ray I suspect that the difference for most between the DVD and Blu-Ray versions, at least on smaller screen-sizes, is minimal because of the softness of the source material. A few crazy people on Amazon are talking about this Blu-Ray featuring a pin sharp picture - they clearly need to make an optician's appointment - and quickly!

Sunrise is indeed the classic many have said it is. Masters of Cinema have produced an excellent, comprehensive Blu-Ray version of the film, complete with an informative booklet about the restoration and a 'must hear' historical commentary track from cinematographer John Bailey. I can't wait for their Blu-Ray versions of the same director's City Girl, and also the classic Fritz Lang's "M", scheduled for release on Blu-Ray on 22nd February.

More info on this title on the supplier's website: supplier's web site.

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