I finally got a hold of the 'Sunrise' DVD, which is only available in English-speaking America (for free) by buying three titles of the excellent Fox Studio Classics line and sending in proofs of purchase. I urge everyone to get this DVD either by sending your three coupons to the promotion or by dealing with someone in the province of Québec since it appears to be the only place in North America where this contest is void and one can buy it directly off the shelf.
I have heard about 'Sunrise' all my life but the closest I ever got to see a part of it was, as a quote, in Martin Scorsese's 2-DVD made-for-the-BBC lecture with illustrations 'A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies' (1995). Nobody told me the following:
It is a pioneering, overwhelming piece of cinema that still manages to move me (ME!) after I thought I had seen everything. It is a profoundly human film which made me cry for 15 minutes solid in its first part (a reconciliation scene that has to be seen to be believed). This film has more special effects than Terminator 3, all in the service of a thoroughly poetic, bucolic, pastoral, personal, contemplative, idiosyncratic, lyrical, late romantic and expressionist vision of humanity. Its love story, poignant and comic elements have inspired, in no specific order, René Clair ('Le Million'), Jean Vigo ('L'Atalante', 'Zéro de conduite'), Charlie Chaplin (all his subsequent films), Fellini ('La Strada', 'Nights of Cabiria') and even James Cameron ('Titanic').
The camera is extremely mobile (more so than in most of today's films, except maybe The Matrix) and the acting is superb. I finally understand why Janet Gaynor was such a big star and a big deal in her time. Her co-star George O'Brien would be hunk-o-rama of the month at the box office today if he was still around. Margaret Livingston (who she?) is also quite realistic as a believably enticing city girl vamp (of modest means) who tries to lure the hero away from his deserving wife.
The DVD has more extras than a Criterion issue, including a tentative reconstruction of Murnau's missing American masterpiece 'The Four Devils' (a circus love story) and the entire shooting scripts of both 'Sunrise' and 'The Four Devils'.
'Sunrise' is presented with two soundtracks: the original (mono) Movietone (i.e. optical track) anonymous composite soundtrack cobbled together from several sources (think Wagner's Siegfried Idyll) and a newly written and recorded (stereo) score with all-original themes, that closely follows the original in spirit but not in melody.
Both soundtracks try to add an intimate, poetic dimension to the film, which is subtitled 'A Song of Two Humans'. The music is an integral part of the experience as the film is conceived as a tone poem and, as such (my theory) is a kind of transcription for the masses of Schoenberg's 1900 string ensemble tone poem 'Verklärte Nacht' (Transfigured Night), a late-Romantic/early expressionist attempt to describe musically the 'truly profound and authentic' relationship between a man and a woman who have problems (the music follows a poem of the era).
Both soundtracks succeed admirably, my preference going to the new one, despite the original's polish, historical value and magnificent preservation. And that would be because, although in the silent era there was no stigma attached to accompanying silent movies with a score made up of public domain and rather recognizable pieces, as long as they fit the mood, times have changed ('2001, A Space Odyssey' notwithstanding) and this practice is more distracting than anything for a contemporary, moderately educated spectator.
Murnau had very highbrow ambitions but his film is totally clear and populist and made to reach the widest popular audience thanks to the incredible sums of money and artistry that Fox poured in the project. 20th Century Fox basically imported a genius from Germany, gave him a ton of money and told him: 'Make us a movie that will be the most prestigious ever made in this town and that will win us the first Oscar'. And that's just what he did!
Needless to say, that was a long time before Rupert Murdoch took over the Fox Corporation...
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