World Cinema: In appreciation of silent cinema

Inspired by the recently restored theatrical release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, we look back on an era of classic silent movies…


A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the recently restored ‘complete’ version of Metropolis, with a live score provided by a full orchestra. As the opening music swelled in perfect time with the film’s opening, and the hairs on the back of my neck tingled, I thought to myself that film doesn’t need clever dialogue and intricate sound effects to thrill. It just needs incredible visuals and in this case, an evocative score.

It was a thought which I returned to throughout much of that evening, especially during the powerful destruction of the machine sequence. Film just needs visuals to convey its sense of power. That is what brings us back time and time again, and is why film succeeds on its basic level.

We take as standard that it will now contain characters interacting with each other verbally, but for many, cinema is at its most purest and perfect when it is silent.

Indeed, if you compare the late silent films to the early talkies, there is no comparison. One is the apex of an art form, with camera technology matched by expressiveness of performance, while the other is static, often boring and frequently over reliant on its novelty value. I’ll leave you to guess which one I mean.

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The era of silent cinema was also a more democratic time, at least in the distribution of geographical film power. My example of Metropolis above is proof of this, one of the masterpieces of cinema, and it was a German production. Sure, Hollywood produced more than its fair share of classics too, but it wasn’t the be all and end all.

The reason for Hollywood’s ascent and everywhere else’s decline is quite simple. With silent cinema there is no language barrier. The few intertitles can easily be written in the native language of wherever the movie is being exhibited. Physical action has no need for translation. What you see is literally what you get.

This encouraged films to be made and shown between many countries, a true transnational cinema of the world, which only the Internet has made possible again.

Look at the history of the invention of cinema and you’ll see it was both a competitive and collaborative effort from inventors of many countries. As soon as spoken dialogue came in, first introduced in 1927, non-English films were doomed in the biggest market for film, America. But, before that, co-development was rife, as with the example of the 1925 film Madame Sans-Gêne. Starring Gloria Swanson and produced by Hollywood’s Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, it was directed by Frenchman Leonce Perret, featured a mixture of French and American actors, and was based on Napoleon and the French Revolution.

As noted above, this wasn’t the first time that France had made an impact on cinema. The most celebrated early pioneers of cinema are French, with the Lumiere brothers actualities of the 1890s considered the first examples of film, and direct descendants of documentary (see such work as Repas De Bebe and L’Arrive D’un Train En Gare De La Ciotat) in their depictions of real life and events from the current world.

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Also active in this early period was George Melies, perhaps most well known for An Impossible Voyage/Le Voyage À Travers L’impossible (1904). His was a cinema of attractions, special effects and wonder. People would come and view his work, not for the thrill of a new technological wonder, which like most new things had quickly worn off, but to be transported by this newfangled cinema to places they had only dreamed of, to the far reaches of space and to the inhospitable landscape of the moon. We can clearly see Melies’ antecedents in the modern day blockbuster.

The early, silent days of cinema were a time when film form as we know it was developed. The earliest films seem alien to us because we view them through the lens of how we expect cinema to look and behave to our modern sensibilities. Instead, they should be looked at in their own context. Each separate innovation can be seen to point the way to where we have ultimately ended up, the above two example included.

We can take from a film like Rescued By Rover (1905), which depicts a dog showing his master where a kidnapped child is, the basics of linear editing and storytelling. The dog follows the baby from A to B to C. He then retraces his steps, and allows the audience to do so, before taking his master back again. The audience will have figured out which location is coming next from the film’s previous logic. It sounds simple, but at the time was a revelation. Films had previously featured unconnected, constantly changing locations in their action.

In much the same way, the famed Soviet montage of Vertov and Eisenstein paved the way for passages of time and storytelling to be shown in a collection of related images. If a picture tells a thousand words, then a montage must tell millions!

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It was D.W. Griffith who is credited with taking these disparate working practices and melding them together into what we today would recognise as a movie, earning himself the moniker ‘the father of film’. However, without the influence of World Cinema, he would have been lost, and cinema as we know it today could have been quite different.

This has only been the briefest of descriptions of silent cinema. It is an inexhaustible subject, and one I am immensely enamoured with. On a final note, for those living in London or who are also interested in silent film, The Barbican is beginning a season in January of silent film classics with a live score. If you have never had the pleasure, I thoroughly recommend you go.

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