The Sound of Silence

27 Nov

We’ve come a long way in the 84 years since the success of The Jazz Singer signalled that the silent era was at an end. 1927 doesn’t seem that long ago but the world was a very different place before World War II, television, computers and the internet and to some people silent films now seem like museum pieces, works that belong more in a film studies class than in cinemas or on our television place. Who can blame them? Few people alive today were around during the heyday of the silent picture and there are few, if any, schools that teach the works of Chaplin and Murnau like they teach the works of Twain and Fitzgerald.

However, during the next few weeks Hugo and The Artist will be released into cinemas. In Hugo, the latest film from Martin Scorsese, the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès and Harold Lloyd are just some of the filmmakers paid tribute to in what amounts to a eulogy to film. However, Hugo is kitted out with all the modern tools of filmmaking – synchronised sound, colour and even 3D while The Artist – silent, black and white – is something that you wouldn’t expect to find in a cinema in 2011 and certainly not being touted as a potential Oscar winner.

Is silent film making a comeback? Not likely. But here are just some of the silent films that everyone should see…

Intolerance

Griffith’s earlier infamous epic The Birth of a Nation is something of a textbook in filmmaking but the blatantly racist content makes for uncomfortable viewing. In response to the backlash, Griffith made Intolerance as an apology and what an apology it was. The most expensive film made at that point (1916), it examines the effects of prejudice through four parallel storylines, each in a different historical era. The gargantuan sets and running time would be impressive for a film made today so to make it in 1916 must have been a monumental undertaking.

Sunrise

F.W. Murnau already had a pretty successful film career in Germany where he made Nosferatu (which is still one of the best vampire films), The Last Laugh and Faust but it wasn’t until he was invited to America that he cemented his position as one of the greatest directors ever. Voted one of the best films ever made in a critics poll in 2002, Sunrise is a fable of a film, telling the story of a married man who is tempted by a femme fatale from the city to murder his wife. In Sunrise the cinematic craft reached as near to perfection as it ever could. Murnau melded together terrific performances and beautiful cinematography give rise to a lyrical, romantic and emotionally uplifting experience. Sadly, he only directed three more films, one of which is lost – he was killed in a car crash in 1931, just four years after Sunrise was released.

Battleship Potemkin

The greatest propaganda film of all time, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin has such visceral impact that, 90 years on, it still makes you feel compelled to take up arms. A dramatised account of the mutiny on board the Battleship Potemkin that took place in 1905, Eisenstein used the film to experiment with his idea on film editing. Back in 1925, editing was used in a way that tried to make the film seem smooth and seamless but Eisenstein used editing to try and enhance the emotional impact in the viewer. Needless to say that this was as revolutionary as the film’s message itself. The Odessa Steps sequence, where this is most apparent, is one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history for both its power and its shocking images.

The General

Buster Keaton’s The General follows Johnny Gray who gets turned down when he volunteers for the Confederates due to being more useful as an engineer. He has two loves: The General, his train and Annabelle, who believes he’s a coward and when they’re both stolen by Northern spies, Johnny must try and get them back. Featuring stunts that are nothing short of spectacular, the film is hilarious and wildly entertaining in equal measure.

Metropolis

The granddaddy of the entire sci-fi genre, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was the most expensive silent film ever made. In the city of Metropolis, the workers are segregated from the ruling class and live underground, maintaining the machinery that keeps the city above functioning. The son of Metropolis’ founder, Freder, falls in love with a worker named Maria but behind the scenes a mad scientist is orchestrating a conflict between the two classes. Fritz Lang’s epic masterpiece is a gripping film with mesmerising visuals that have influenced every science-fiction film since and still hold up today. If someone were to ask me what their first silent film should be, I only need to utter one word: Metropolis.

City Lights

Charles “Charlie” Chaplin was the most famous film star in the silent era and even today his iconic character, the Little Tramp, is deeply embedded in popular culture. Chaplin was the greatest talent to ever grace the medium of cinema – acting in, directing, producing, writing, editing and composing the music for many of his films. Containing Chaplin’s timeless slapstick humour, City Lights shows the Little Tramp as he falls in love with a blind flower girl and culminates in one of the most moving scenes in cinema.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer basically invented the close up in his historical masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. A dramatisation of the trial of Joan of Arc using the actual historical transcripts, Dreyer filmed the majority of the film as facial close ups with haunting results. Renée Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc has been called the finest performance ever recorded on film and her facial expressions are filled with raw emotions that movingly convey Joan’s ordeal. Thrilling, heart-wrenching and horrifying – The Passion of Joan of Arc is reference material for demonstrating the power of film as a medium.

Safety Last!

In his time, Harold Lloyd was considered one of silent film’s three comedy geniuses along with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Today, the shot of Lloyd hanging from the hand of a clock is one of the most famous from cinema history but compared to Keaton and Chaplin, hardly anyone has seen Lloyd’s films themselves. The clock shot comes from Lloyd’s best film, Safety Last!, which follows a boy from the country who ventures out to the city to gain some financial security in order to marry his sweetheart. He gets a job as a clerk in a department store and sends her gifts he can’t really afford leading to her joining him in the city. The film’s thrilling conclusion sees him climbing a 12-storey building where it appears that Lloyd himself could have been in mortal danger – there were no special effects in 1923. Lloyd may not have the reputation that Keaton and Chaplin do but he is a sort of bridge between their two styles – the stunts and the melodrama – and Safety Last! in particular is just as entertaining as Keaton and Chaplin at their peak.

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One Response to “The Sound of Silence”

  1. davidzou January 1, 2012 at 11:35 AM #

    Silent Era is pure cinema,and only a few masters manage this style in the sound era.Sunrise is my first silent drama,when I watched the church scene,I was so deeply moved,and from that time,I decided to be loyal to my wife all my life.

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