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Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans
cast: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, and J. Farrell MacDonald

director: F.W. Murnau

91 minutes (U) 1927
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
There have been some wonderful DVD packages from Eureka over the last 12 months. Equally praiseworthy was I of Metropolis and Münchhausen, but this is a little different. Though full marks could well have gone to those German films even had they been released without any supplementary material, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans as a story told is less successful and is bumped up considerably by a supreme supporting programme. That is not to say that Sunrise is not a feature film without its wonders, it is more of a case that it works only as a purely aesthetic experience. Until, that is, it is given over to the accompanying information, particularly the fascinating commentary track by cinematographer John Bailey.
   The incredulous tale revolves around a married couple, referred to only as The Man and The Woman, laden with a child and a farm that is not paying its upkeep. A Woman From The City, a pouting and fashionable bit, is exacerbating things by taking more than a fancy to this particular bit of rural rough. A moral void she wants to take her shag machine back to the city with her and proposes a boating accident that will remove the wedding vows problem completely. The tortured Man forges ahead with the plan, but is in the crucial moment unable to see it through, whereupon she flees and he with follows, both mounting a tramcar that transports them to the city, the visiting harlot has tried to woo him with. They begin their day in the city in a crushed state but witnessing a wedding they decide to renew the vows and enjoy the treats of the city. They are invited to manicure, have their photograph taken, take in all the fun of the fair and find themselves the star attraction at a dance. The unlikely series of diversions come to an end and they must be homeward bound. As they boat it back a storm whips up and they are sunk. He washes ashore but she is nowhere to be seen. Was the audience of the day forced to go home with a terrible tragedy to weep over or were they to hum and haw as the loving couple are reunited before the sun can rise? I'll bet you are ahead of me on that one.
   "Sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet," Sunrise is full of surprises, the visuals terrific and the narrative ridiculous, but the main problem is the uneasy shift from bleak beginnings, albeit in lovely settings, through melodrama into unbearably light relief back into preposterous melodrama. It is less a song of two humans than it is an ode to the crass importance of the city. But whatever the faults the magic is built upon by the generosity of supporting material. A 75-year-old film is going to have a struggle finding reliable witnesses, but with the expert and educated contributions of the aforementioned John Bailey, nothing, not one trick in the book, need be missed. To whit, this commentary alone is priceless and of immense usefulness and importance to anyone interested in cinematography, and might even divert and impress a few novices in the direction of that profession.
   He takes us through the film and points up the cinematographic highlight, a difficult tracking shot across the misty studio-set moors following the lead, George O'Brien, anticipating his path, dodging naked brush, sidelining the Man further and finally forced through more branches onto a beauteous view of land's end, ocean and full moon. In the outtakes, also given a choice of John Bailey coverage, I had to disagree with the professional this once, when he criticised the unused version of the same shot for a middle clumsiness and the indiscernible rippling in the ocean at the close of the long pan. To me this was never meant to be more than a near attempt, a fact-finding run-through given the daring difficulty of the travelling shot. Bailey's knowledge of the film and observations beyond the known, keep you ensconced and he quite rightly accredits the most spectacular images and daring photographic effects to Karl Struss, billed secondarily to Charles Rosher in the film's actual credits. Struss' superior touch was to add immeasurably to many horror noirs over the next couple of decades.
   The narration is far more preferable to what is on the disc addressed as the "original Movietone score" which often comes across as ignorant of the action it purports to aid. When the boating excursion is proposed, the nefarious plot underway, the Wife is excited and skipping, the grim score weighing too heavily on the deed, unwilling to modify and switch between the scowling husband and the merry wife, it music comes over as mismatched. The 'alternative score' by the Olympic Chamber Orchestra can also be irritating. It has a little bit too much trumpet and oompah, though the cornet is a perfect accompaniment to the comedy later in the film. At the same preparation for a boat trip scene, when one switches to the alternative score it too fails to recognise the missus joyful ignorance, intoning the moody also. Yet this is successful, being less ponderous than the Movietone version, more benign, morose and surrendered to the potential impending tragedy. The Movietone score also incorporates sound effects that idiotically include voices, gasps and yells, honking horns and other unwelcome noises. One bizarre noise purports to be a pig.
   O'Brien is a hardy presence, intense when need be, slipping into the mantle of the romantic adoring husband more than he credibly should do, given the earlier murderous intentions. His body language is heavy yet carefully choreographed so. It is at no wonder that he was one of the few silent actors capable of surviving the silent screen and is, indeed, better known for his contributions to sound film. Janet Gaynor is Chihuahua-faced, as perfectly dim a pretty peasant girl as you might wont to find, and, ultimately, aggravatingly winning. As the Woman From the City, Margaret Livingston is an incredibly potent sexpot and an understandable draw to the sticks farmer. When she talks to him about the thriving city and pushes his face into her lower abdomen (read 'crotch') there's little need to wonder why he is drawn away from his dull doll of a wife.
   There is far too much to account for in this film and on these two discs, from languorous but special tracking shots, film tricks with midgets exposed, extras dicing with death in the traffic, the painterly dark of the Dutch master painters in the composition of some scenes and the tramcar that magically appears in the forest, bringing to mind the identical tramcar in Spirited Away and its own incredible route. The discs boast a glutton of extras including a reconstruction of Murnau's lost film The Four Devils, told in behind the scenes shots, press stills, conceptual art and poster details, with scripts for both films furthermore available in DVD-ROM. The menu design has to be one of the quaintest also. Go find this DVD and discover the rest for yourself. There is a whole lot of learning on board this astonishing package.
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