Looking Back at Cinema Classics 'Nostalghia' and 'Sunrise'

In the early '80s, director Andrei Tarkovsky left his native Russia behind and devoted his first film shot outside the Soviet Union to looking back. Nostalghia, remastered for a new home video release by Kino Lorber (DVD, Blu-ray; streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes), extends the elliptical spiritual questing and deeply personal film language he perfected in his two preceding masterpieces, The Mirror and Stalker, though it can't escape the retrograde air telegraphed in its title.

Tarkovsky's scenario, co-written with Tonino Guerra, centers on a poet named Andrei (Oleg Yankovskiy), who has traveled to Italy as part of his research on the life of an ill-fated Russian composer who once made the same trip. While visiting a fresco-lined convent, his voyage ebbs to stasis as he banters with flirty blond translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) and encounters local eccentric Domenico (Bergman stalwart Erland Josephson). While the exile flashes on black-and-white visions of the wife and home he longs to return to, Domenico tasks Andrei with nothing less than saving the world through an unlikely devotional act.

Tarkovsky's mature work defies simple plot-summary encapsulation, but Nostalghia represents the closest it ever veered toward a mere cluster of auteurial obsessions and tics. The decay and ruin of Stalker reappear here, and while the destroyed elegance he captures is visually sumptuous, the rain dripping into every other building through the ceiling distracts with its unlikely pervasiveness. The somber Andrei and the antic Domenico feel less like characters than stand-ins for the concepts (and perhaps autobiographical aspects) with which Tarkovsky was wrestling. Eugenia's attempts to throw herself at Andrei begin to make her seem as mad as Domenico. The Mirror prepared the director's fans for the thin air of Tarkovsky's filmmaking at its most intensely intuitive and oblique, but Nostalghia dawdles and tacks right up to the threshold of tedium. (His 1986 follow-up, The Sacrifice, also starring Josephson, would represent a return to plot, and to his previous form.)

Still, even the biggest misfire by one of the greatest filmmakers who ever put eye to viewfinder contains unmissable moments: shots of fog-wreathed beauty; beguiling revelations in the dim recesses; a self-immolation that plays like live suicide rather than a mere stunt; and a pair of film-ending sequences that absolutely boggle with their inscrutable poetic genius. Tarkovsky was dead at age 54 just three years after Nostalghia debuted. If only he could have made a few more like it.

Just as more film fans know Tarkovsky for Solaris than for Nostalghia, so more film fans know German director F.W. Murnau first and last for his silent 1922 classic Nosferatu (reissued on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber late last year) than for 1927's Sunrise, out now in a new 20th Century Fox DVD and Blu-ray edition. While Murnau's vampire-flick cornerstone will likely always cast a longer shadow over the popular imagination, Sunrise is arguably a greater achievement.

Subtitled "A Song of Two Humans," Sunrise focuses on an unnamed young farmer (George O'Brien) and his demure young wife (Janet Gaynor), who, once happy, have hit a rough patch. The man has fallen under the spell of a vacationing minx, identified only as "the Woman From the City" (Margaret Livingston). The usurper tries to convince the man to take his wife out on their boat and drown her, making it look like an accident, so they can be together. And the man, erotically besotted, agrees to the plan. But this is no James M. Cain pulp fiction, and from there Murnau unspools a lyrical testament to love, fidelity, and the enduring value of married people going on the occasional date.

To be sure, Sunrise channels a bit of the melodrama that sometimes turns off newcomers to films of the era, but this is no jerky one-reel trifle. Murnau was one of the great imagemakers of silent cinema, and here he outdoes himself. Essaying tricky tracking shots that impress all the more for the primitive technology at his disposal, he follows the wife as she stumbles through the streets of the city, distraught and unseeing as cars whiz all around her. His use of superimpositions delights as well, as the Woman From the City's clutches literally settle around the man's shoulders in a moment of weak resolve and angels orbit over the heads of lovers in mid-swoon. (Oh, and keep in mind that all the scenes set in the city were not filmed on location, but on a giant set. Mind = blown.) Not that Murnau needed rough FX to make his point, as when his camera comes upon the Woman From the City twirling a flower in the moonlight, or when he catches the man's pained face as he searches for his lost beloved on the dark waters.

The technical skill with which Murnau works is fascinating on its own, but it wouldn't mean much to contemporary viewers without the charm and freshness he brings to everything he shoots here, even this old-fashioned romantic fable. Don't miss.