To celebrate the re-release of the classic silent movie Battleship Potemkin, I look at a cinephile’s five essential silent movies. Without the luxury of dialogue, the development of character relationships within silent films had to be made known through muted or exaggerated gesture, unconventional camera work, or intertitles, which allowed for a film experience vastly different to that which we are used to today. Technical challenges involved in synchronising images to sound meant that ‘talkies’ only came about in the late 1920’s, nevertheless silent films continued to be made up until the point where synchronising sound and image became economically viable, and the cultural norm. So without further ado here is the lowdown on five of the best silent movies ever made.
- Nosferatu – F. W. Murnau – 1922
Perhaps the most iconic of all silent films, Nosferatu is one of the few which has managed to acquire a strong cult following. Based unofficially on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu is the one film which perhaps encapsulates the dark, brooding and often gothic tone of the German expressionists best. Murnau’s exploitation of shadow and the stark haunting contrast it grants the film make it downright creepy. Couple this with the disjointed and uncanny movement of Max Schrek as the vampire Count Orlock, and you have a masterpiece of horror.
- Metropolis – Fritz Lang – 1927
Metropolis has often been hailed as the first real sci-fi movie. Telling the tale of the young and naive Freder and his struggle against a classist society. Metropolis features robots, magic, mad scientists, and a visually stunning backdrop to boot. Lang’s ambitious use of special effects and grand set-pieces placed him, on a technical level, light years ahead of other film-makers, as he sought to make his sprawling art-deco/futurist vision of dystopia a reality. Featuring over 300 extras and clocking a total length of 153 minutes, this is a veritable classic of science fiction.
- La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc – Carl Theodor Dreyer – 1928
Few performances have elicited such startling reactions as Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s, in this hauntingly human re-telling of the trial of Joan of Arc. Falconetti’s is widely regarded as being among the finest performances in cinema history, and being part of the movie proved such an intense experience that she never acted again. The horrific image of her delicate pained face, marbled with tears, is one which is hard to shake off. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the first movies, along with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, to have used dutch angles extensively for emotional and aesthetic effect, making it a psychologically dense and uneasy watch.
- Un Chien Andalou – Salvador Dalí & Luis Buñuel – 1929
It may only be sixteen minutes long, but Dalí and Buñuel’s collaboration piece Un Chien Andalou would become one of the most influential pieces of avant-garde cinema. Using dream logic in the vein of Freudian free association, the piece presents a series of tenuously linked images, in a disjointed and fragmented narrative. The piece has become renowned for its visionary images which range from the gruesome (the famous shot of the eyeball being sliced), to the sacreligious (Pierre Batcheff cycling down the street in nun’s clothing).
- Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin – 1936
It would be a crime to compile a list of silent films and not include Charlie Chaplin, the grandfather of the form. Modern Times, directed and acted by the man himself, is a wry and biting commentary on Western capitalism in the context of the Great Depression. Chaplin plays his iconic Little Tramp character, who, employed on an assembly line, faces a mental breakdown after being unable to continue with his job. What follows is a dark slapstick portrayal of one human being caught up in the grinding gears of capitalism and left out at the bottom of the system.