F. W. Murnau
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Fox Studio Classics DVD
The plot of Sunrise can be told in a couple of sentences: A man from the country is tempted by a loose woman from the city to murder his wife, sell his farm, and move to the city. The man loses the nerve to go through with it all and, by way of a trip to the city and the accidental near drowning of his wife, remembers why he loved her in the first place. What appears simple on the page, however, is turned into an eloquent work of visual poetry by director F.W. Murnau, who successfully marries the unmatched technical proficiency and deep pockets of the Hollywood studio system with the distillation of particularly German strains of artistic and poetic Romanticism and Expressionism. The status of Sunrise as the finest silent film ever made is threatened perhaps only by Murnau’s own The Last Laugh.
The cinematography of Sunrise is some of the most sophisticated and technically skilled work of the silent era. The two cinematographers, Charles Rosher (who was Mary Pickford’s cameraman of choice) and Karl Struss (a fine art and portrait photographer), evoke a visual world that appears frozen in time and yet timeless. There are dozens upon dozens of spectacular superimpositions, matte shots, and montages in the film and what’s more amazing is that every single one of them was done in-camera. The set design is equally impressive, including elements of pastoral countryside straight out of a Caspar David Friedrich etching, severe Bauhaus-inspired architectural design, and fantastical Expressionistic interior spaces.
For a film that is over seventy-five years old and rarely seen, the critical reputation of Sunrise has never dimmed. This is largely because the themes of the film are so universal and the characters whose lives are subject to those themes are archetypal — so much so, in fact, that they are nameless. The primary theme of Sunrise, beyond the story itself, is the play of oppositions: city/country, night/day, vice/virtue, life/death — the list is endless. What makes Sunrise more than just a filmed morality play or just a schematic tale of good vs. evil is the way in which these oppositions bleed into one another and overlap and also the way these oppositions are not constrained into a strict moral dichotomy. For example, in Sunrise, the city offers pleasure and excitement, but also danger and loss of individuality. The country offers peace and tranquility, but also stagnation and backwardness. Many films of the silent era and of the period just after offer a didactic sermon on the fallen man or woman and how abandonment of their virtue and good nature led to an irreversible (or just barely so) decline. Sunrise instead explores the point of decision of the fallen man from an internal viewpoint. Sunrise owes its timelessness and stature as a classic to the sensitive way in which it explores a particular moral choice and to the way that exploration occurs in the psyche of the main character.
For this DVD, Fox has put together a package with a Criterion-like attention to detail. It is surprising not only that a major studio would devote this much attention to a silent film, but that they should do so for a disc that is essentially being given away for free. This is a disc I would have paid a lot of money for and that Criterion or Kino would have charged a lot of money for. Despite this incredible and generous gift, I still have a minor problem with the disc: the film is not tinted. Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with presenting a silent film in plain black and white (and original prints of Sunrise with the attached Movietone soundtrack would not have been printed, as I explain below), tinting of film prints was common in the silent era, particularly for lush, high profile features such as Sunrise; According to Paolo Cherchi Usai in his book, Silent Cinema: an Introduction, approximately 85% of silent film output was tinted. I have seen a restored and tinted print of Sunrise and can attest to the fact that the coloring added greatly to the beauty and richness of the film and in more than just a visual sense. It’s also clear from the way Murnau and his cinematographers shot the film that they always intended the film to be tinted. A few exterior night scenes in the film were quite obviously shot day-for-night: they are much brighter than the set-based shots that precede or follow that are lit as a night scene would be lit normally. It’s clear from the discrepancy that Murnau and the cinematographers would have relied on the tinting of the night scenes a deep blue to signal to the audience that the scene was taking place at night. Without the tinting, the exterior night shots look carelessly filmed and incongruous with the rest of the set-based exterior and interior night shots. Definitely not characteristic of a film that won the first Academy Award for cinematography.
Fox’s restoration notes on the DVD state that the DVD version “is an attempt to present the film as a North American audience would have seen it in 1927.” This statement is both correct and incorrect. There are actually two versions of the film, one that would have played in major cities and another that would have played smaller cities or theaters not yet equipped with sound technology. To explain more fully: the film on the DVD is the Movietone version, meaning it has the optical soundtrack on the actual film strip. There was also a silent version (prints made without the attached soundtrack) that would have been distributed to theaters that had not yet purchased the required Fox Movietone sound equipment. The theaters receiving the Movietone prints would most likely have been in large cities or at least have had a large enough customer base to afford the expensive switch to sound-equipped projection. At the same time, these prints would not have been tinted, as the dye would have interfered with the optical soundtrack. The silent prints, obviously, would not have had this problem. The addition of the Movietone soundtrack to certain prints of the film was most likely a business decision made by William Fox without the input of Murnau. As I stated above, it’s obvious from the way the film was shot that tinting was always intended. However, Murnau could not have foreseen during the production of the film that Warner Brothers would be premiering the first sound feature, The Jazz Singer, just weeks before the premiere of Sunrise. Because Fox’s Movietone technology was a competitor to Warners’ Vitaphone technology (and also the competitor that won), it was crucial for Fox to issue immediately a major film with a Movietone soundtrack. Sunrise was that film. The addition of the optical soundtrack meant that the film could not be tinted.
What Fox could have done for the DVD, however, given the ease of digital sound and image manipulation, is given us the best of both worlds — a Movietone soundtrack and a tinted print together. As with the decision not to restore the image beyond the repair of major print damage and to remove scratches and flaws digitally, the decision not to tint the image digitally was probably a conservative restoration decision.
There is an ongoing debate in the film restoration world about digital image restoration technology — some say that it should be used to restore films to the fullest extent, to make film elements as flawless as possible. Others say that that is going to far and that digital technology creates a false image — an approximation of something that perhaps never existed, such as a tinted print of Sunrise with a Movietone soundtrack. I’m inclined to side with the former argument because I don’t like the idea of treating films as museum artifacts. That’s not to say that I want Giorgio Moroder to add a disco soundtrack to Sunrise, but if we have the technology to restore the picture to the quality of a newly struck print, then we should use it.
To most people reading this, I probably sound like a kook. Well, I am, but that’s beside the point. Many people, even silent film fans, will say that tinting doesn’t matter. As viewers of films now approaching their centennial, we’ve become used to watching silent films under less than ideal circumstances. We’ve become accustomed to battered, incomplete prints; inappropriate projection speeds; wheezy, anachronistic or gratingly “modern” accompanying scores (if there is even a score at all), and the lack of tinting. Yet we would never put up with this with a contemporary film. A possible contemporary analogy to the lack of tinting in a silent film might be this: You don’t need a large, widescreen TV and a surround speaker system to enjoy The Matrix, but the experience is much richer and enveloping if you have it. Similarly, a silent film doesn’t necessarily need to be tinted for it to be enjoyable, but unless the cost of tinting would have been prohibitive (which in the case of Fox and Sunrise, it most certainly would not have been and could have been performed digitally), then why settle for less?