Its conditional sexism and the immortal protestations of Oscar expert Tom O'Neil notwithstanding, I think we can all agree that F.W. Murnau's post-Expressionist paean to monogamy and such, Sunrise, is a motion picture that belongs in the personal library of every self-respecting cinephile. Hence, the two new versions of the film issued by the U.K.-based label Eureka!/Masters of Cinema constitute an exceptional event in our world.
The spine number on both the standard-definition and...wait for it...Blu-ray disc version of the film remains "1." Sunrise was the first picture released by Eureka!/Masters of Cinema and as such constituted a sort of Declaration of Principles for the label. The series now boasts over 80 titles and hasn't put a foot wrong. Their recent ability to license new materials—Fox's high-def telecines of both the domestic "Movietone" version and a shorter, sharper Czech print of the film—for a new disc version of the film led to a spectacular inspiration.
Even those among us who are enthusiasts of the high-definition Blu-ray format are concerned with what is going to get left out of a future high-def world. Film scholars and critics such as Dave Kehr have argued that older cinematic material, stuff that can't be scrubbed clean of every flaw and physical defect, is going to get the very short end of this particular stick. I've mentioned before that the fellows behind the Masters of Cinema line aren't just producers, they're polemecists, and the argument they put forward with their Blu-ray of Sunrise is a welcome one. "Yes," they are saying, "this material absolutely deserves, no, needs to be preserved in the highest-quality home-video format possible!" And, "No," they are saying, "such material should not be digitally manipulated out of recognition when being so preserved." In a note about the Blu-ray, they explain: "Heartened by Fox's U.S. release of these masters without any heavy-handed digital restoration, we decided against...[various] forms of digital restoration, or grain removal, after tests revealed noticeable disruption of the film's 'sfumato' qualities in many scenes. We used the same hands-off approach with our release of Carl Th. Dreyer's Vampyr, and we feel it is more respectful to the filmmakers and the patina of the image."
And so, even though in these versions we encounter a "level of damage..." The Fox restoration, the MOC standard def, and especially the Blu-ray, show incredible results. Very much so on the Czech version, which is in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, as opposed to Movietone's 1.20:1. Let's look at a shot:
Above is a screen cap from the Fox disc, included (and at this point only available) as part of the studio's largely wonderful Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set. For the improvement that's going to follow, pay special attention to Janet Gaynor's ring, the texturing of her hat, and the definition of the shadows on the wall.
These all get a boost, as you see, in the standard-def version of the disc from MOC.
I need to make some excuses for this image from the Blu-ray; it's a screen shot, made by myself with a camera, off of my plasma display. The brightness level is different from the above two direct screen caps, and there's some visible screen glare. But note the increased detail, particularly with respect to Gaynor's hat. The patterning of the shadows is a bit more definite. And so on.
(Incidentally, the scene depicted above always wrecks me, in part because, like George O'Brien's character in the film, I, too, am an idiot douchebag lug who's a too-frequent disappointment to his Lovely And Wonderful Wife.)
Need a further recommendation? Well, check it out: neither the standard-def nor the Blu-ray are region coded, so you needn't own a multi-region player to enjoy them.