The Joy of Watching Silent Movies

By Alan Mattli

An actor is moving his mouth but no sound emerges, yet you don’t turn around to glare at the operator’s box. An actress is signalling distress, perhaps a little too emphatically (“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces”, as Norma Desmond put it so expertly in Sunset Boulevard), yet you don’t put it down to a lack of talent. Chances are you’re watching a movie that was made between 1895 and 1930. There is no sound because the technology wasn’t invented until 1927. It would probably be safe to bet that you don’t go to a screening of this kind on a regular basis, simply because silent films are not, to put it lightly, a standard feature in most cinemas and because they still attract only a marginal audience. Here’s why this shouldn’t be.

Admittedly, making the case for silent movies isn’t a particularly easy task. Modern cinemagoers, even those who do like the occasional silent, me included, are used to characters being able to audibly talk, to background noises registering, that being greeted by nothing but music – and sometimes not even that – is bound to come as a small shock. Another problem is that while most people do have a notion of silent cinema, this notion is oftentimes restricted to the knowledge of the classics of speechless slapstick shorts by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or early Laurel and Hardy. Complex dramas told entirely through imagery and intertitles, a significant number of them clocking in at over 150 minutes, are not what most people will have in mind when you mention silent films to them.

The appeal of pre-1927 cinema is not easily described, not least because “silents” aren’t actually a genre the way comedies or dramas are. It is a technical term that refers to the way of how movies are made. Within that framework, however, you can still make out the inherent virtues of silent cinema. As the American critic Matthew Lucas has put it, it is perhaps the “purest form” of filmmaking as it merely relies on technology that is able to capture – and subsequently reproduce, i.e. project – movement, nothing more. Thus, it allows one to get an idea of how stories can be told without the use of excessive expository dialogue and atmosphere-enhancing sound effects. Indeed, it is the most immediate way of catching a glimpse of the past. Historical implications aside, there is the aesthetic and cultural aspect to be considered as well. By watching silent movies, you can track a generation of artists asserting themselves, coming to terms with the new possibilities. The evolution of an independent art form unfolds before our very eyes, a unique occurrence in human history so far. If that isn’t both revolutionary and fascinating, what is?

Of course, it’s an acquired taste, but if you give it enough time, you will be rewarded. The best way to get into the huge canon of silent cinema is, not surprisingly, through what you already know. Before tackling the great epics it is both useful and enjoyable to give the era’s essential comedies a watch: be endeared by Charlie Chaplin’s pathos as well as his impeccable comedic gift in The Circus, City Lights, and Modern Times – all released after the arrival of talkies –; be amazed by Buster Keaton’s breathtaking stunts as well as his hilariously unyielding “stone face” in the civil war adventure The General; witness one of the most iconic images in movie history – you’ll certainly have seen its reproduction in Back to the Future – in Harold Lloyd’s legendary Safety Last.

Then, aptly versed in the feature-length format, you might want to check out the medium’s early milestones. Browse for the Lumière brothers’ early camera experiments on YouTube. Be entranced by Georges Méliès’ – Ben Kingsley from Hugo – early masterpieces; Le voyage dans la lune, L’homme à la tête de caoutchouc, Voyage à travers l’impossible, and others. Watch the most famous early western (The Great Train Robbery), one of the first raunchy mainstream movies (The Kiss), and a mission of what might have been Lassie’s great-grandfather (Rescued by Rover).

If you actually were in need of such an introductory phase, now would be the time to get to know silent cinema’s intricate classics, pillars of the medium itself, but also its oddities, its dark horses, its controversial pieces. D. W. Griffith’s gargantuan set pieces in Intolerance will take your breath away, as will his epic staging of the Civil War in The Birth of a Nation – both pioneering works of montage – while his depictions of racial stereotypes will at times confound you. See the humble beginnings of the iconic Hollywood star system as Asta Nielsen establishes herself as a staple of German and Scandinavian film in the early 1910s. Experience how the Soviet Union used cinema to build its identity in the films of Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, October, Strike) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (Mother, The New Babylon), and how Dziga Vertov took Russia’s political filmmaking to a whole new level in Man with a Movie Camera. Enjoy the efforts of German expressionism, sometimes weird (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), sometimes creepy (Nosferatu), sometimes rousing (Der letzte Mann – a “true” silent without intertitles). Be stunned by some of the greatest performances in cinema history; Maria Falconetti in La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Max Schreck in Nosferatu, Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann. Be educated as well as entertained by the emancipation of the documentary feature as an independent genre, championed by Nanook of the North and Häxan.

Incidentally, the latter one has become a cult classic, not just for arguably being the first documentary (it slightly preceded Nanook), but for being a glorious and deliberate mess of a film, mixing serious teaching ambitions with seemingly gratuiotous nudity – it is also considered to be the first exploitation film – and scenes reenacting medieval witch hunts. The reason I am singling out Benjamin Christensen’s curious little gem is that this one is publicly screened this week. Although I may not be an ardent fan of its free jazz live improv soundtracks, the “Institute of Incoherent Cinematography” is gracing Zurich with its “Marathon of Femininity”. Starting next Thursday, 22 November, at 6pm and continuing until Sunday, 25 Novemner, 11pm, the instutute will show thirty silent films, ranging from Häxan to Afgrunden, another Scandinavian classic (starring Asta Nielsen), to D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, to Buster Keaton’s Go West and German classics by the likes of Die Büchse der Pandora, Genuine, and Der müde Tod. You can find all the relevant information on Give it a try. Silent cinema not only needs more fans, it deserves them too.

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