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).