Film is now most often perceived as a vehicle for telling stories, but that was not always the case. Despite the fact that key aspects of the narrative film such as scripts, sets, and acting ensembles, had existed for centuries on the stage, silent cinema’s leap toward narrativisation was somewhat delayed. The earliest period of filmmaking (roughly 1896-1907) featured very few narrative films and the ones that did get produced were often one shot shorts that barely fulfil any modern expectation of a narrative. These very early, non-narrative films are called actualities and often depict little more than real people doing real things in real places. Louis Le Prince, a French inventor, is attributed the honour of directing the oldest surviving film, a two-second actuality titled Roundhay Garden Scene filmed in 1888, incidentally beating more famous inventors the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison by nearly a decade. The object of these films, as academic Tom Gunning famously put it, was “to show something”, wherein the capacity of the medium to depict things in motion was enough to solicit excitement among early audiences. I will be the first to argue that Gunning’s position is both interesting and limited. He characterised this practice of ‘showing something’ as ‘the cinema of attractions’ in which film itself, not the content of the films, was the primary amusement. There are many, including myself, who would argue that such an approach undermines the forms and content of films that played vital roles in establishing cinematic technique and iconography.
This early period saw the rise of noted French filmmaker George Méliès whose use of illusion and primitive visual effects in such films as Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) is still celebrated within the discourse of film criticism. Of all the early American innovators of film two are perhaps most responsible for the medium’s move towards narrative filmmaking: Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith. Both filmmakers ascended whilst producing actualities in New York City during the early period. Porter’s famous film The Great Train Robbery (1903) was, for a time, regarded as the medium’s greatest accomplishment, at least until the arrival of Griffith’s controversial masterpiece The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Even for its time, The Birth of a Nation’s depiction of Klansmen as saviours of America was ideologically challenged, yet its importance as a pioneering work of technique and storytelling is undiminished. Griffith’s other masterpiece, Intolerance, a three hour epic consisting of four different plots, was released the following year.
The ten or so years that followed Griffith’s evocation of film’s unyielding potential proved to be a watershed period in European filmmaking, particularly for the films of Sergei Eisenstein, F.W. Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Weine, and Fritz Lang. Collectively, these three filmmakers litter most ‘Greatest Films’ lists; Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Murnau’s Nosferatu and Sunrise (1922, 1927), Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Lang’s Metropolis (1927) represent, alongside Griffith and some of the silent comedy stars I’ll discuss shortly, the pinnacle of silent filmmaking. To this day, these films remain among the greatest works that the medium has ever had to offer and their silence has allowed them to transcend the language boundaries that still thwart the global reach of more recent examples of world cinema. Individually, these film represent filmmaking at its most innovative – consider the cinematography and production design of Metropolis, Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the editing and shot techniques of Battleship Potemkin, Falconetti’s central performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc, or the narrative techniques of Sunrise – collectively, however, these films represent the birth of the twentieth century’s most important artistic medium.
Many of these filmmakers did, at one point or another, come to work in Hollywood which was already starting to take shape by the 1920s. Big studio hits such as Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and MGM’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) paved the way for Hollywood’s global dominance of the emerging industry. The pre-sound Hollywood period also witnessed comedic geniuses such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton who both proved that slapstick comedy could also have heart; the universal appeal of masterpieces such as Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times (1925, 1931, 1936) and Keaton’s The Navigator, The General, and Steamboat Bill Jnr. (1924, 1926, 1928) ensured that their legacy within silent cinema and cinema in general shall never diminish.
The silent period of filmmaking is often overlooked as the realm of stuffy academics, and yet if one chooses to venture into that historic realm of film there they will find a treasure trove of cinematic delights that continue to inspire awe.
Five to Watch:
(Note: I could not dream of putting together a ‘top five of silent cinema’, if such a thing even exists; instead, here is a collection of great and important films spanning the era to get one going, so to speak. I would, given the opportunity, recommend all of the films mentioned above, and many, many more besides.)
Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) – Méliès’ greatest, most iconic accomplishment. His work was recently made popular again as the subject of Martin Scorsese’s excellent Hugo (2011).
Intolerance (1916) – I could not heartily recommend The Birth of a Nation here, so I’ll insist on Griffith’s other masterpiece, a time-spanning epic that incorporates an ancient Babylonian tale, a Biblical story, the French renaissance, and a modern American crime melodrama.
Battleship Potemkin (1925) – Eisenstein’s masterpiece is often regarded as the greatest propaganda film, capturing a mutiny onboard the eponymous battleship. The ‘Odessa steps sequence’ is regarded as one of the most important sequences ever filmed.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – Dreyer’s sublime masterpiece is a masterclass in performance and atmosphere. Despite Dreyer’s controversial techniques to draw out the performance, Falconetti’s portrayal of Joan is breathtaking to behold; a true triumph of early film.
City Lights (1931) – I could fill a dozen ‘must watch’ lists with the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were it not for the sake of variety. Chaplin arguably never bettered his famous combination of humour and empathy than in City Lights, and the film boasts one of cinema’s most heartbreaking climaxes – incidentally, Chaplin’s finale inspired the ending of Woody Allen’s 70s masterpiece, Manhattan.