The One about F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”

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In 1927, German film director F.W. Murnau (known for his role in German Expressionism) was invited by William Fox to make an Expressionist film for Hollywood and in return, Murnau created a film that would simply become a true classic and a true masterpiece with “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”.

The film is highly regarded as a masterpiece and is featured in the American Film Institute’s “100 Movies List of Great Films” (#82) and the British Film Institute’s critic’s poll as the seventh best film in motion pictures.

The film won an Academy Award for “Unique and Artistic Production” at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 (including “Best Actress in a Leading Role” for Janet Gaynor and “Best Cinematography” for Charles Rosher and Karl Struss) and was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Although the film was highly regarded then and now, the film was not a success at the box office because of its creative and artistic interpretation while critics were calling it a true masterpiece.

“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” was the first film with a soundtrack of music and sound effects utilizing Fox’s Movietone souund-on-film system and for its creative and artistic style, the use of groundbreaking cinematography during that time would influence many filmmakers and even has been referred to as the “Citizen Kane” of American silent cinema.

Despite the original negative for the film being destroyed in 1937 due to a major nitrate fire (nearly 80-90% of Hollywood’s silent films by Fox Film Corporation’s created between 1910-1920’s were destroyed) at Fox’s storage facility in New Jersey.  Fortunately, a 1936 print held by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the NFTVA were still present (the UCLA print was later destroyed due to advance decomposition in 1992).

In 1995, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill of Photoplay Productions prepared a new print for the 1995 London Film Festival using the NFTVA print and in 2002, restoration talks for the film began.  A fifth generation 1940 nitrate negative print was found in 2002 and then a 1927 print loaned by the Narodni Filmovy Archv in Prague featured a Czech version of footage not featured in the American release.

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After watching the film, I can’t help but gush about how fantastic this film is. From the crowded streets in the city to the innovative camerawork and editing, I was simply amazed of what was accomplished back then. The film is literally gripping as the film has its share of action and drama and literally from beginning to end, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” manages to captivate you courtesy of George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor.

O’Brien plays the man from the country with such a great presence as Gaynor transforms from this sad housewife to this vibrant woman, especially in one scene with the crowd ask the two to dance. But the camera work and artistic presentation was just phenomenal.

The whole city sequence created on the Fox back lot with hundreds of extras and cars from that era in a traffic jam to the man and wife attending a fair. I don’t know how much was spent on this film but everything on camera just worked.

I was overwhelmed by how magnificent this film was but then watching the special features that came on the Blu-ray release, especially the slight differences from the Movietone and Czech version was quite interesting to see, especially to know that we will never be known of what was the final cut that Murnau had wanted due to the original print being destroyed in the Fox Warehouse and many other prints out there suffering from major deterioration.

Overall, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” is simply magnificent!


 

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Dennis A. Amith