Ten silent films you may not have seen (and may want to)

Talkies took over, but as a form the silent movie stands the test of time.

The recent popular and critical success of The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’ almost wordless homage to, and critique of the Hollywood star system as sound threatened the world of silent film, did not come as a surprise to those who knew how rich was the period in terms of subject matter, social commentary and, above all, style. Al Jolson’s utterance of the words “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first film with synchronised dialogue, thrilled audiences but caused great consternation to writers and film-makers who feared that the arrival sound might undermine the internationalist spirit of cinema and replace the visual artistry of directors such as Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton and Sergei Eisenstein with something less experimental, closer to traditional theatre, leading their classic works to be rejected.

The critics were wrong to be so pessimistic – underground film artists continued to make works without sound, as did Chaplin until the Forties – and Sight & Sound magazine’s recent Top Ten films of all time included three silent films, and another by Yazujiro Ozu, who began his career before the coming of sound. Besides A Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer) and Sunrise (F. W. Murnau), many other fascinating silent films have been released on DVD, catering for an ever-growing market – one that the British Film Institute aims to exploit with this week’s re-release of Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928), a love story set on London’s Tube network and a minor classic of British cinema.

With this in mind, this list looks beyond Metropolis, Nosferatu, Battleship Potemkin and the ‘established’ canon and presents ten silent movies that you may not have seen.

1. Fantômas (directed by Louis Feuillade, France, 1913)

D. W. Griffith’s technically remarkable, politically repulsive Birth of a Nation (1915) is often cited as the foundation of feature film as an art form, and Griffith’s contribution to the development of American cinematography was hugely important. In Europe, however, directors were already creating longer narratives, using more than one or two reels of film as the first film-makers had done, creating epics such as Enrico Guazzoni’s adaptation of Quo Vadis and serials such as Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas, about a sociopathic criminal who held Paris in his grip.

Made in five parts, all of which ended in cliff-hangers, Fantômas was popular with French audiences and with avant-garde artists. The Surrealist painters, particularly René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, were impressed by Feuillade’s idiosyncratic camera angles and economic creation of suspense – and the anti-authoritarian sentiment behind Fantômas’s consistent success in eluding the incompetent, Clouseau-esque cops. Feuillade’s follow-up, Les Vampires, invited its audience to follow a whole band of outlaws, but heavy criticism of the morality of his films forced Feuillade to make the protagonist of his final major series, Judex, a more wholesome character. A hundred years later, Fantômas stands as Feuillade’s finest work, and one of the cinema’s first full-length masterpieces.

If you like this, try: Cabiria (directed by Giovanni Pastrone, 1914); Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924); Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915).

2. The Dying Swan (Evgenii Bauer, Russia, 1917)

Think of Russian silent film and you most likely recall the Odessa steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, or maybe Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. But there was a thriving film culture before Russia’s two revolutions of 1917, its leading director being the recently rediscovered Evgenii Bauer, who made nearly eighty films in four years.

The Dying Swan featured Ballets Russes star Vera Koralli as Gisella, a beautiful mute dancer, spurned by Viktor, the man she loves. In despair, her father secures her the lead role in ‘The Dying Swan’, a dance choreographed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in 1905: this attracts Count Valerian Glinski, an artist who wishes to paint the perfect image of death, which he sees in Gisella’s dance and melancholic disposition. Glinski’s portrait does not impress his peers, so he demands that Gisella return. However, before Glinski is finished, Viktor comes back and asks to marry Gisella, who returns to Glinski’s studio rejuvenated. Glinski realises that his model has become full of life, so he strangles Gisella, positions her and completes his painting.

A satire of the self-absorbed darkness of early 20th century Russian art, which looked increasingly absurd amidst the bloodshed of the First World War, The Dying Swan was one of Bauer’s final films – he died in June 1917. Lev Kuleshov appeared in Bauer’s last work, For Luck before beginning the great tradition of Soviet montage.

If you like this, try: Coeur fidèle (Jean Epstein, 1923); A Life for a Life (Evgenii Bauer, 1916); The Young Lady and the Hooligan (Evgenii Slavinski & Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1918).

3. From Morning to Midnight (Karlheinz Martin, Germany, 1921)

Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr Caligari caused a sensation upon its release in Germany in 1920. Its ambiguous, anti-authoritarian plot, about a wave of murders in a small town following the visit of a carnival with a somnambulist, aided its popularity in a nation traumatised by its World War One defeat, but what ensured Caligari’s success was its stridently anti-naturalist sets, with their distorted shapes and unusual perspectives, designed by artists from Expressionist journal Sturm.

Encouraged by Caligari’s popularity, German directors tried to test the boundaries further. The most intriguing, and ill-fated, effort was Karlheinz Martin’s From Morning to Midnight, adapted from Georg Kaiser’s play about a Cashier who embezzles 60,000 Marks and tries to find a transcendent experience in the city before realising, fatally, that individual satisfaction in a capitalistic society is impossible.

Martin replaced Kaiser’s long, ecstatic monologues with visual innovation. Most of the film’s sets consisted of two-dimensional cut-outs with words such as ‘Bank’ explaining their function, with cyclists in a race signified by flashes of light and characters’ emotions by painting on their faces and clothes. It was this avant-garde aesthetic, rather than its political radicalism, that caused German cinemas to refuse to screen From Morning to Midnight, claiming that audiences would not understand it: Martin’s film had a limited release in Japan but was rarely seen before its DVD release in 2011.

If you like this, try: Der Golem (Paul Wegener, 1920); Joyless Street (G. W. Pabst, 1926); The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1925).

4. Salomé (Charles Bryant/Alla Nazimova, USA, 1923)

In 1922, Alla Nazimova was a huge star. After a distinguished theatrical career in Russia, she came to New York and introduced Ibsen plays to Broadway, before moving into film aged 37. Compensating for the loss of her beautiful stage-trained voice with her command of mime and balletic movement, Nazimova signed for Metro Pictures in 1918 for an exorbitant $13,000 per week, mainly in dramas such as Camille (1921), in which she co-starred with Rudolph Valentino.

Then, Nazimova put $350,000 into an adaptation of Salomé by Oscar Wilde – who, less than twenty years after his death, was far from rehabilitated. Aged 43, Nazimova played the fourteen-year old Salomé, who demands that her stepfather, King Herod, gets her John the Baptist’s head, but the film owed more to Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations than to Wilde – its sets and costumes were designed by Natacha Rambova, lover of Valentino and Nazimova, and consumed most of the budget.

Salomé went unreleased for a year whilst United Artists tried to work out how to market something so queer – several courtiers were men in drag, and it was rumoured that the entire cast was gay. Another problem was that it was desperately short of action: as underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger noted, its climactic Dance of the Seven Veils featured just one veil, a disappointing pay-off for a ‘succession of tableaux’. Salomé turned Alla into box office poison, starting a decline steep enough to inspire Sunset Boulevard, but it remains one of the silent screen’s most fascinating failures.

If you like this, try: He Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjöström, 1924); Lot in Sodom (J. S. Watson & Melville Webber, 1933); The Tell-Tale Heart (Charles Klein, 1928).

5. Ballet mécanique (Fernand Léger & Dudley Murphy, France, 1924)

Several of Europe’s avant-garde art movements were interested in the new medium of film from their inception. The Italian Futurists published their manifesto on cinema in 1915, and the post-war Surrealists were enthused by the potential that film offered to create dream-like scenarios, laden with visual symbols (more on this below).

Between these two movements, the Dadaist artist Fernand Léger teamed up with Dudley Murphy and American composer George Antheil to make Ballet mécanique, which was intended to be screened with Antheil’s composition soundtracking it. Léger and Murphy’s film, made with the assistance of Man Ray, was nearly fifteen minutes shorter than Antheil’s music, and its first screenings went without the intended accompaniment, whilst Antheil’s Ballet mécanique premiered in June 1926, without the film. A print which combined image and sound was not produced until 2000, as the technology to play Antheil’s score as intended did not exist until then.

If you like this, try: Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (Dziga Vertov, 1931); Everyday (Sergei Eisenstein & Hans Richter, 1929); Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982).

6. The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, UK, 1924)

In 1910, photographer and filmmaker Herbert Ponting followed his friend Robert Falcon Scott on the Terra Nova, bound for New Zealand and then the Antarctic, hoping to document Scott’s success in becoming the first man to reach the South Pole. Between 1910 and 1912, Ponting filmed almost every aspect of the expedition, from the crew’s play with the ship’s cat to the daily re-pitching of the tent as the five remaining men inched towards the Pole, sending them back to Britain to be screened as single-reel films as part of longer cinema programmes.

After the catastrophic failure of Scott’s mission, Ponting dedicated himself to ensuring that his friend’s bravery would not be forgotten. In 1924, he collected his films into a feature-length documentary, The Great White Silence. The realisation that there will not be any more film, as Ponting could not accompany Scott’s team to the Pole and planned to rejoin them on their way back, is one of the saddest moments in silent film history: Ponting completes the narrative with photographs, shots of model sleds moving across snow and extracts from Scott’s diary, which capture that point in early 20th century, just before the First World War, when patriotism replaced religion as the cause for which certain men risked their lives. Simon Fisher Turner’s score for the recently restored edition heightens the sense of epic tragedy – the BFI’s DVD also includes a sound version of the material, 90° South, created by Ponting in 1933.

If you like this, try: Drifters (John Grierson, 1929); Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922); The Open Road (Clause Friese-Greene, 1926).

7. Bed and Sofa (Abram Room, USSR, 1927)

Another preconception about Russian silent film is that Soviet directors were only permitted to write scripts that addressed obviously revolutionary themes. Whilst the cinema was subject to considerable censorship long before Stalin imposed the official doctrine of Socialist Realism in the early 1930s, post-revolutionary Russian filmmakers were able to explore themes as diverse as Ukrainian folk tales, the popularity of chess and, in Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa, the limits of traditional sexual morality.

Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky had written the scenario for Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, adapted from Jack London’s story about American gold prospectors in the Yukon, and produced another script that boiled human relations down to three people, set mostly in one room, this time in overcrowded Moscow. In Bed and Sofa, a husband and wife allow a printer, played by Vladimir Fogel to sleep on their couch – his intrusion disrupts their marriage, the husband becomes aware of his wife’s affair, and when she discovers herself to be pregnant, considers an abortion before decided to leave both men without a woman ‘to wash and cook for them’.

Bed and Sofa’s claustrophobic setting provides a wonderful combination of comedy and drama, and a great illustration of how the scarcity of words in silent film, usually presented via intertitles or other written forms (such as letters shown in close-up) increases their value – the moment when the husband and the printer see that the wife has departed and realise that “You and I are scoundrels!” is one of the most quietly heart-breaking in silent film history.

If you like this, try: Aelita: Queen of Mars (Iakov Protazanov, 1924); The New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1929); Storm Over Asia (V. I. Pudovkin, 1928).

8. The Seashell and the Clergyman (Germaine Dulac, France, 1926)

In the late Twenties, Surrealist film reached its height. But before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) with its notorious eyeball-slicing scene, or Man Ray’s L’Étoile de mer (1928), made with poet Robert Desnos, there was The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac from the scenario by Antonin Artaud and released in 1928.

Surrealist writers and artists interrupted its first screening in Paris, angered by what they felt was the gap between the intentions of Artaud’s script about a priest who lusts after a general’s wife and Dulac’s treatment of it – even though Artaud recorded his satisfaction with Dulac’s work in October 1927. After André Breton hurled obscenities at Dulac, the Surrealists were ejected, smashing the house mirrors as they went, but time has been kind to Dulac, whose Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) has subsequently been recognised as one of the first feminist films.

In the UK, the film was soon banned by the British Board of Film Classification, who wrote that ‘The film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If it has a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.’ Now, The Seashell and the Clergyman is readily available via the magnificent Ubuweb, so you can watch it yourself and try to decipher its message, objectionable or otherwise – and if you have Artaud’s Collected Works: Volume III, you can compare the finished film to the original treatment.

If you like this, try: L’Âge d’or (Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí, 1930); Les Mystères du château du dé/The Mysteries of the Castle of Dice (Man Ray, 1928); Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943).

9. Borderline (Kenneth MacPherson, UK, 1930)

British silent film has a terrible reputation, partly because there was no UK equivalent to the German Expressionist, French surrealist or Russian montage traditions that helped to invent the language of cinema. (We should remember, however, that two incredibly influential silent-era filmmakers, Hitchcock and Chaplin, were Londoners, even if they made their most important works in the US and, in Hitchcock’s case, with sound.)

The most vociferous contemporary critics of British cinema wrote in Close Up ‘the only magazine devoted to film as an art’, founded by Kenneth MacPherson, US émigré poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and novelist Bryher, and published from 1927 to 1933. The Close-Up team idolised Eisenstein and Kuleshov, Pabst and Lang, longing for a British equivalent, but they did not merely criticise – as POOL films, they tried to initiate a movement that would attract writers, artists and intellectuals like those on the continent.

They made several short films, which were not screened publicly: their only full-length film was Borderline, made for £1,000 and released in 1930, when silent film was, they feared, already starting to look anachronistic. It starred the legendary singer Paul Robeson and his wife as two corners of an inter-racial love triangle, alongside members of the Close Up team. A progressive treatment of race and sexuality, with lesbian and effeminate male characters, Borderline was poorly received when shown in Film Societies, but benefits from being available on DVD, as its fragmented narrative makes more sense after more than one viewing. Like Salomé, it’s an intriguing experiment that doesn’t always work, but its sentiments, aesthetically and politically, were admirable.

If you like this, try: L’Argent (Marcel L’Herbier, 1928); La Glace à trois faces/The Mirror Has Three Faces (Jean Epstein, 1927); Piccadilly (E. A. Dupont, 1929).

10. Decasia (Bill Morrison, USA, 2002)

Downbeat filmmakers and critics predicted that silent film would be discontinued and disregarded, but they did not anticipate that it might dissolve and disappear. The nitrate stock on which most silent film was recorded was highly flammable and prone to decay, and a great many works made before 1930 have been lost.

New York-based artist Bill Morrison spent two years searching archives for the most haunting examples of degraded film stock, releasing the 70-minute documentary Decasia in 2002, with a symphonic score by Michael Gordon of the Bang on a Can ensemble. The result was a brilliant study of mortality – the boxer punching at a fissure of white light where his opponent once featured is particularly memorable – but also offers plenty of idiosyncratic visual pleasures, not least when the film of a burning wooden hut is consumed by fire just as the structure collapses to the ground.

If you like this, try: Film Ist. (Gustav Deutsch, 1996-2002); L’Arrivée (Peter Tscherkassky, 1998); Film Before Film (Werner Nekes, 1986).

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser