For the majority of modern-day moviegoers, the silent era is not a period that holds much interest, and while this is a sad truth, it’s not one that is particularly surprising. Even though the image of Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp in The Gold Rush, or a rocket hitting the moon in Georges Méliès’s seminal A Trip to the Moon are some of the most famous in cinema, they are also images that are over a century old. These days it can feel like the world of silent cinema to meant to be less enjoyed and more admired, a major steppingstone in the development of cinema that now only holds interest to film historians and theorists.
But the silent era deserves better. It’s a format that demonstrates cinema at its most cinematic, where visual storytelling trumped all and directors exhibited some of the most inventive filmmaking ever caught by a camera. The belief that these films are too primitive for modern audiences is tragic, a misconception built from stereotypes and a lack of understanding of the medium. No doubt there is a barrier to entry, but those willing to go beyond their usual comfort zones will find a slew of cinematic masterpieces that can still hold their own against anything Hollywood produces today, and the following are seven such examples.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Georges Méliès’s science-fiction short is one of the most important films ever made. The plot, loosely based on Jules Verne’s classic adventure novels, concerns a group of astronauts who travel to the moon, only to make a quick escape after encountering its insectoid inhabitants. Despite running for little over twelve minutes, its emphasis on storytelling when most films were little more than single-shot experiments that lasted barely a minute guaranteed it would be an immediate hit with audiences.
Besides its aforementioned running time, A Trip to the Moon also boasted a great many other revolutions, most notably its complex visual effects. All of them use rather crude technique by modern standards, but they also lay the groundwork for the entire century’s worth of special effects that followed. The stylized presentation and stationary camerawork can make A Trip to the Moon feel more akin to theatre than film, but its legacy is undeniable. Its an aesthetic that ensures it is still an entertaining piece of science fiction after all these years, and it is debatably the first film in the modern sense of the word.
This 1916 epic boasts some of the most impressive filmmaking of its era. Directed by the influential but controversial director D. W. Griffith, Intolerance tells not one but four storylines across its colossal runtime: the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, the Crucifixion of Jesus in AD 27, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, and a melodrama about a reformed criminal in 1914. The theme of intolerance connects all the storylines, illustrating just how little has changed despite covering approximately 2,500 years. The image of a mother (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle serves as a recurring image throughout the film, serving as a moment of respite between the storylines.
Unsurprisingly, Intolerance is a staggering film to watch. The lavish production values and the cast of thousands showcase a level of filmmaking that remains impressive to this today, with the iconic image of Belshazzar’s feast during the Babylonian section exemplifying this perfectly. But Intolerance can be appreciated for more than just its scope, with its quartet of storylines still managing to captivate over a hundred years on. Its release coincided with cinema breaking away from its theatrical origins in favor of naturalistic performances and elegant camerawork, with films becoming a more fully-realized medium in the process. Intolerance is one of the greatest examples of this. Its length may deter some people, but for everyone else it makes for an unforgettable experience.
The image of Count Orlok (Max Schreck) ascending a staircase to feast on the blood of the unfortunate Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder), his shadow silhouetted against the concrete wall, is one of the most iconic in all of horror. It’s a shot that defines F. W. Murnau’s expressionist classic, a film that chills its viewers with a subtle but eerier atmosphere that continues to torment long after the credits have rolled. An unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film largely adheres to the novel’s plot, but with just enough changes to give it its own unique flavor.
What sets Nosferatu apart from future vampire films comes from how elegantly it is constructed. It’s a prime example why simplicity is far from a dirty word, and the efficiency with which Murnau tells his story is something all filmmakers should admire. Count Orlok has none of the charm or seductive qualities that other renditions of Dracula have. Instead he’s a far more stripped-down character, existing solely to quench his never-ending thirst for blood until someone puts him out of his misery. Nosferatu knows exactly what it is, and its supporting cast of cliché characters form the perfect structure with which to tell the definitive vampire story. It’s a simple story well told, and its terrific use of lighting to create some of the most haunting shots in cinema exemplifies why Murnau is one of silent cinemas greatest directors.
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
No article about the silent era is complete without mention of one of its greatest comedians, the always delightful Buster Keaton. His trademark slapstick comedy would see him performing death-defying stunts that would make Tom Cruise wince, and when combined with his eternal deadpan expression, he had all the makings of the greatest physical performer of his time, and nowhere is that more evident that this 1924 classic. Sherlock Jr. sees Keaton in the role of a movie projectionist who is wrongly accused of theft while trying to win the affection of the woman he loves. Heartbroken, he retreats into the fantastical world of film where he imagines himself as the detective Sherlock Jr., enacting revenge upon those who have wronged him.
Continuing with a philosophy that our previous film exhibited, Sherlock Jr.’s greatest strength is its efficiency. This is a film where not a second is wasted, with Keaton trimming this story down to an immaculate 45-minute runtime. Every scene has the best gag yet, every frame is either paying off the previous joke or setting up the next, and with special effects that still look impressive there are plenty of moments where you’ll be left baffled how they pulled all this off. At the center of everything is Keaton himself, whose stone-headed commitment to dangerous stunts ensures there’s never a dull moment.
The Gold Rush (1925)
In the 1920s two actors were competing for the crown of slapstick humour, the aforementioned Buster Keaton and the man whose name has become synonymous with the silent era, the great Charlie Chaplin. His Tramp persona is one of cinemas defining images, and he remains one of the most celebrated minds in the industry. While it’s hard to pick just one of his many classics for this guide, his 1925 masterwork The Gold Rush is an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with his work. Set during the Klondike Gold Rush in the latter half of the 19th century, the film follows The Tramp as he attempts to locate an enormous gold deposit hidden somewhere in the Alaskan mountains before the evil Jim McKay (Mack Swain) beats him to it, while still finding time to win the heart of Georgia (Georgia Hale), a dance hall girl from a local town.
Even though The Gold Rush takes place in one the most inhospitable locations on the planet, with large chunks of the story inspired by real-life tragedies that had occurred during this period, the film never forgets its comedic roots. It’s an ethos that defines much of Chaplin’s work, with the moments of levity appearing all the more hilarious when juxtaposed against such a miserable backdrop. The sequence where Chaplin performs a song and dance routine with a pair of bread rolls is one of the greatest in his career, rivalled only by the film’s ending which sees The Tramp and Georgia reuniting after a year apart. Chaplin was famously reticent about shifting to sound films, but for good reason. He knew the strength of his Tramp persona lay in him being an entirely visual creation whose exaggerated movements said more than words ever could, and watching him try to escape a cabin that is gradually tipping over a cliff’s edge during the film’s overdone but comical climax is the perfect showcase why.
Fritz Lang’s futuristic masterpiece Metropolis received a largely negative response when it first opening, but is now rightfully considered one of the crowning achievements in the science-fiction genre. The plot, a Romeo and Juliet-esc love story about two people on the opposite ends of society being kept apart by the powers that be, largely takes second place to the dystopian vision of the future that Lang has created, but the film’s technical achievements are more than capable of making up for any shortcomings.
Simply put, Metropolis is a stunning film to watch. Inspired by the first time Lang saw the skyline of New York City, the Art Deco informed architecture that populates the titular city ensures there is a haunting beauty to every shot, with gothic skyscrapers towering over the underground-dwelling workers like tyrants reigning over their inferior subjects. These monolith structures form the perfect contrast to the city’s shadowy depths where the workers reside, cursed to toil away at the behest of wealthy industrialists. It’s a theme that resonates across the years, and any criticism about its simplicity is silenced by the sheer anger Lang displays as he laments the state of both the fictional and real world. The Maschinenmensch, the gynoid whose iconic deathly gaze has become the defining image of the film, remains one of the greatest fictional robots in cinema, and serves as the crucial final piece to this nightmarish classic.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
The final entry in this guide sees the return of F. W. Murnau with a far different entry than his previous appearance. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans chronicles the affair between the well-meaning but easily deceived Man (George O’Brien) and the nefarious Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). The Woman convinces the Man to kill his wife (Janet Gaynor), and while he almost follows through with this, he backs down at the last second. The Wife is unsurprisingly terrified and flees to the nearby city. The Man follows in a desperate attempt to win her back, and after a heartfelt reconciliation, the two embark on a series of romantic escapades across the city.
Despite what first appearances may lead you to believe, Sunrise is simply the greatest celebration of romance ever committed to celluloid, an unashamed love letter to all things corny that even the most die-hard opponents of the genre will find hard to resist. The bulk of the movie is essentially plotless, with our central characters drifting from one whimsical adventure to the next as they bask in the glow of their rediscovered love. Murnau’s directing, which favors long tracking shots and minimal use of title cards, emphasizes the strengths of the silent medium. This is a romance conveyed through body language and meaningful glances, where the deepest emotions a person can feel are presented through clever lighting that mirrors the thoughts of our protagonists (see how the ominous lighting of the early scenes gradually gives way to a much brighter look as the story progresses). It’s a stark reminder that silent films are not just a relic of the past, but a reminder of what cinema can and should be. Sunrise is a contender for the format’s crowning achievement, and the perfect film to conclude this guide with.
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