When the Library of Congress released a study last December finding that only 25 percent of all silent films made by major American studios still exist (and nearly half of those not on their original 35mm prints), the results were at once unsurprising and stomach-wrenching. The idea that so much of the foundation of cinema should be, barring the occasional discovery of long-forgotten film cans, lost forever is hard to take, and it makes preservation (and simple appreciation) of the movies that remain all the more imperative.
With that in mind, Film.com is launching a monthly column dedicated to silent cinema, from artist profiles to artistic movements to spotlights on pivotal and neglected films. To start things off, let’s go over some silent films you can watch right now, provided you have a Netflix subscription. The 10 films below were made by some familiar names, but they might not be the film one first thinks when approaching the director. These movies cannot hope to give even a general overview of classic silent cinema (Netflix has allowed the streaming rights for far too many movies from the era lapse), but they nonetheless help illuminate what a fertile, uninhibited time it was as filmmakers effectively wrote the rules of their craft. These films aren’t just great examples of silent movies, they are crucial insights into the remarkable speed of artistic and technical growth and international cross-pollination that occurred as a gimmick matured into an artform. Happy streaming.
Fantômas (Louis Feuillade, 1913-1914)
I hope to cover “Fantômas” in more depth in a future post on Feuillade, but the availability of all five episodes of the unjustly marginalized French director’s smash serial is quite possibly the best offering Netflix Instant currently has for cinephiles (and should be watched with all haste lest it be one of the growing number of silents removed from streaming). I myself still have to get through the rest of it, but so far Feuillade’s style, rendered in nominally primitive sequences of master shots, has been so thrilling in its unfussy but evocative composition and pacing that despite its multi-part length I would without hesitation recommend it as a great way to get into silent movies.
Cabiria (Giovanne Pastrone, 1914)
A key influence on D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” Giovanne Pastrone’s “Cabiria” can sometimes seem like a run-through for its more well-known, more fully developed American progeny. For example, its pioneering tracking shots often exist for their own sake, rather than for the heightened dramatic effect for which Griffith would perfect the technique. Yet that drawback is but one of the film’s charms, the chance to see someone stumble upon an idea so obvious that its practical and aesthetic applications are not fully considered in implementing it. One must also marvel at the film’s gargantuan, staggering scale, recreating the history of Ancient Rome as decadent, triumphant mythology. True, that mythologizing carries with it some of the same nationalistic, racist undertones that would deeply compromise the achievement of “Birth of a Nation,” but if silent cinema showcases the medium’s history, it can also reveal the social history that informed it, for better and worse.
Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, 1919)
Though it features white American actor Richard Barthelmess in yellowface as a Chinese emigré who travels to London to preach the peace of Buddhism (billed, in one of the more unfortunate simplifications of elemental silent role designations, as “The Yellow Man”), “Broken Blossoms” is every bit as powerful as self-rejoinder to “The Birth of a Nation” as “Intolerance.” In one scene, Griffith ironically contrasts the Buddhists mission, one of nonviolence and philosophy, with that of a Christian about to depart for China, handing Barthelmess a pamphlet entitled “Hell” as dire caution.
More daring is Griffith’s restaging of “Birth’s” notorious climax, so that the innocent white woman (Lillian Gish in both cases) barricaded against an assailant is actually being attacked by her father for imagined interracial relations as the Chinese man rushes to save her. Produced on a more modest scale than the director’s previous few efforts, the film nonetheless loses none of his mastery of urgency, and Griffith’s revelatory use of shadow anticipates further lighting breakthroughs to come out of Germany. At once a callback to the more grounded (but no less technical) short films that led Griffith to his extravagant features and a further development of his undeniable skill, “Broken Blossoms” is the Griffith film for people who think they could not stomach Griffith.
Watch “Broken Blossoms”
The Wildcat (Ernst Lubitsch, 1921)
Ernst Lubitsch was, along with Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz, one of the great masters of cinematic dialogue, gossamer-delicate but with the tensile strength of steel (and just as capable of decapitating anyone who runs into it). But he was no less gifted a comic director, as his silent films bear out. “The Wildcat,” his penultimate German film before heading to America, is the first of his films to grow out of farce into more sophisticated satire, endlessly ribbing military life and decorum. Even so, it is Lubitsch’s patented approach to romance and sexuality that comes to the fore, be it as the assured scenarist who never loses the thread of his tangled romance of a rakish lieutenant and bandit princess, or with offhanded visual gestures such as irises shaped as puckered lips and feline eyes and visual gags like a jilted lover literally crying a river. It’s all farce, but even when working with Expressionist sets, Lubitsch already displays a subtler command of comedy, given less to physical acrobatics than cerebral ones.
Watch “The Wildcat.”
Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)
Fritz Lang’s two-part staging of the great German epic has become the film snob’s de facto “watch this instead” response to any discussion of Peter Jackson’s bloated, infantile “Hobbit” movies. But it’s not a comparison without merit: Lang’s film(s) plunder the same Campbellian hero storyline, achieving with far more primitive means than those at Jackson’s disposal a sweeping, gripping work of pure fantasy. One of the joys of watching these monolithic silents is wondering how on Earth things of that scale and sophistication were pulled off in the ‘20s, and “Die Nibelungen” features so many such moments that after a time the making of the film itself seems as worthy of mythologizing and speculation as its adapted poem.
Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film, made mere months before “Potemkin” was shot and released, lacks the total command that his more regarded sophomore effort displays, but if “Potemkin” is an exercise in brutality, depicting the tsarist system in its most naked aggression with a viciousness of its own. “Strike” may be slightly more lax, but it also digs deeper into the way that system normally operated. The film may end with a bloodbath not unlike that of the Odessa Steps sequence, but before that it shows the more subtle violence affecting the proletariat: long hours, low wages, agents hired to mingle with workers and report undesirables.
It’s all captured with propulsive images literal (one factory executive wiping his shoe with a list of strikers’ demands) and symbolic (the squeezing of a lemon intercut with workers, the final massacre depicted through cutaways of cattle being butchered). Its most evocative imagery, the richly silhouetted compositions of the vast factory at the heart of the film, is at once valorized as a show of good Russian labor and constrictive as a prison, and it helps make “Strike” as bitter an unintended comment on the eventual result of Stalinism as it is a compelling call to arms against the system that preceded Uncle Joe.
Faust (F.W. Murnau, 1926)
F.W. Murnau’s final German film shows him at the height of his Expressionist mastery even as it also demonstrates the director eclipsing the limitations of any one movement. Murnau pushes his style—wild angles, plunging chiaroscuro, unpredictable compositions—to such a degree that he bypasses the grounding element of Goethe’s story, that of evil at work on a single man, for its larger, allegorical struggle between Heaven, Hell and Earth. Its images, of a giant Mephistopheles spreading his winged arms to encircle an entire village, nightmarish auto-da-fés and more, burn into the memory forever once they have been seen.
The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926)
Comedy, too, could be epic in the silent era, and nowhere is that more evident than in Buster Keaton’s magnum opus, “The General.” The film is so huge, in fact, that Keaton threatens to be lost in the magnitude of its train chases and individual gags that rival the signature accomplishments of Keaton’s earlier features and shorts. One can almost understand, then, how the film baffled critics and audiences alike upon its initial release, a Keaton movie too big for Keaton. Now, it is the delicacy of the thing, how each setpiece logically flows and how Keaton coordinates his own and his actors’ movements to fit within a vast, moving canvas, that wins out, and like so much death-defying silent comedy, it is as engaging as a “How did they do that?” feat of impossibility as it is a work of ingenious wit.
Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930)
The info text at the top of Netflix’s stream of Kino’s transfer of “Earth,” explaining how the film runs counter to Soviet realist propaganda in favor of impressionistic ethnography, is somewhat ironic, evidently assuming that the American viewer will be perplexed by this movie as Soviet critics accused the film of being too aesthetic for its intended audience. But you can’t fault the text for inaccuracy, and “Earth” stands as one of the finest examples of a subset of 1930s films that complemented the ‘20s city symphony with rural bucolic, and a particularly risky example of such that honors the Ukrainian way of life that collectivization disrupted.
That is not to say that “Earth” is a subversive attack on Stalinism (for one thing, Dovzhenko lived to die of natural causes), but that the film, as its title would suggest, finds the greatest reward of collectivization in its potential to unite people not with the state, but with nature. Kino’s version is projected at 24 frames/second instead of the customary 16 for silent films, reducing the running time by a third and making a more driven, even suspenseful film than the lilting, pastoral imagery clearly should be, but no matter how you see it, “Earth” is a masterpiece.
Happiness (Aleksandr Medvedkin, 1935)
Cinephiles who have not encountered “Happiness” may nevertheless be familiar with it and its maker, Aleksandr Medvedkin, through Chris Marker’s essential biography/essay film “The Last Bolshevik,” which finds in the slapstick comedy a sharp contrast to the usual Soviet film of the era. “Happiness” is a piece of propaganda, following its protagonist (named “Loser”) on his quest toward enlightened collectivization, and its satire targets not the state but its obstacles, such as the clergy and the ignorance of peasants. The latter marks where a backdoor critique comes in, finding in Loser such a hapless moron that one is left to conclude that the intellectual foundation of the USSR will crumble for relying on such fools to act out its agenda.
“Happiness” may ultimately reinforce the idea that the kolhoz will lead to the title’s emotional state, but when a magistrate prevents Loser’s suicide by asking, “If the peasants start killing themselves, where will we get crops,” Medvedkin unknowingly looks ahead but a few years to the massive death toll that will result from these policies and their ruthless enforcement.