Forgive me for going all out on this one, but I should be studying English grammar, which means that I am spending most of my time on the internet today.
Early film - the cinema of attractions: 1895 - 1907 or so. Films dominated by their frontality, their orientation towards the camera, their singular temporality. In this period the first narrative films also turn up, but only after this period would narrative film dominate the landscape.
- Annabelle Serpentine Dance
- The Sprinkler Sprinkled
- Childish Quarrel
- The Ghost Train
- A Trip to the Moon
- The Gay Shoe Clerk
- The Great Train Robbery
- The Life of an American Fireman
- Dream of a Rarebit Fiend
- The Impossible Convicts
These are all interesting and fun short films from the early early days of cinema. They are worth checking out if you want an understanding of the evolution of the cinematic medium.
My favourite silent films and other silent films that need to be seen by anyone interested in film as a whole:
1. Metropolis by Fritz Lang – I don’t know how many dicks he sucked at UFA to get all the funding he needed for this, but I can safely say that Metropolis is one of the greatest technical achievements in all of cinema, period. The scope of this film seems almost impossible to comprehend. How is it possible that Lang achieved so much greatness in one single silent film? As demonstrated in Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang had an eye for social commentary in his films unrivaled at the time. And Metropolis is the film that captures most perfectly his vision on the perils of modernity.
2. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc by C.T. Dreyer – what Jake said.
3. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler by Fritz Lang – I used to not think that highly of this film, but after a rewatch I realized the true genius of Fritz Lang here. He uses this almost mythical figure of Dr. Mabuse as an excuse to point out all that was wrong with Germany at the time of its making and how easily all this could be used and abused by one man with high ambitions and a taste for the illegal and immoral. It’s also a masterpiece of technical filmmaking, including exterior night shoots, high speed chases, epic storytelling and spectacular art design.
4. The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjostrom – Why is it that the Scandinavians are so good at making films? Here is a brilliant, innovative film about a man who encounters death and is asked to atone for his sins by visiting the places and people he caused harm to. The narrative structure of this film is pretty mindboggling for its time, and when watched with a good musical score, The Phantom Carriage assumes such grand proportions of emotion, pathos and disgust at one man’s injustice.
5. Arsenal by Alexander Dovzhenko – Dovzhenko’s second film in the Ukraine trilogy. Arsenal is a brilliant film that tells of the struggles of the soldier in times of war, and of the great void that he leaves behind at home. Every close-up is precious and every long shot is beautiful. Watch this film, it’s as simple as that.
6. Sunrise – A Song of Two Humans by F.W. Murnau – This beautiful film by Murnau is the result of an unprecedented amount of artistic freedom granted to him by William Fox. Murnau could now let go of all restraints and set out to create a masterpiece. And he succeeded. Sunrise boasts some incredible visual spectacle in the parts that take place in the city, but under this visual grandeur lies some serious evil and sin, which will burst through the film’s narrative and take over entirely as the film nears its end. One of the most urgent must see movies in all of cinema.
7. 3 Bad Men by John Ford – John Ford, the greatest director who ever lived, made a wonderful silent film about three supposedly bad guys who then turn out to be awesome dudes as they take care of a lonely child in this early western. Ford knows how to speak of the human heart and how to make some real visual poetry along with some great, memorable dialogue. An artist, true as they come.
8. City Girl by F.W. Murnau – Sunrise in reverse though less popular for some reason. Both are absolutely amazing films, though, so don’t think you’ve seen enough Murnau after Sunrise and Nosferatu. City Girl is a film about the fragile beauty of rural life. It is a Days of Heaven avant-la-lettre and one of the simpler, yet prettier films in Murnau’s spectacular oeuvre.
9. Earth by Alexander Dovzhenko – This final installment in Dovzhenko’s trilogy on the Ukraine has one of the most mesmerizing opening sequences in all of film. An old man dies peacefully on his own land, surrounded by his family and the fruits of the earth. Then, the farm people have to defend their land against the evil bastards who want to take it from them! If you want to know how you can make a tractor run on urine, you must watch this film.
10. The Last Laugh by F.W. Murnau – Here’s a film like The Phantom Carriage that elevates a simple tragic event to proportions that are almost unbearable. The film is notable for its lack of intertitles. Murnau did not like intertitles very much and with this film he tried to see how far he could go in building up a strong narrative without any intertitles to help the audience along. Many of the films “experiments” on a visual level had some serious influence on the development of cinema. It is also credited as the first film to use a mobile camera. This is not true of course, but the camera movements everyone mentions are striking and much better, cleaner than in films prior to this one.
11. Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein – Communist propaganda was never so exciting! Seriously, Eisenstein manages to build up tension so high with this film that you almost assume it’s not going to pay off in the end. But it does! It so does! This is another one of those classic silent films that is worth all the praise it gets because it’s so awesome.
12. A Girl in Every Port by Howard Hawks – Male comraderie is one of Howard Hawks’s prime interest when it comes to his movies. Most of his films tend to be about a small group of men. Morally decent men who are particularly good at something and this “being good” is constantly on the main characters’ minds. A Girl in Every Port tells a story of two sailors who become good friends and both have a particular talent for starting and finishing a bar brawl. When reduced to the plot, the love story is central to the film, but I don’t think anyone who sees this film cares about that at all. Some real man-on-man love is what this film is about.
13. H2O by Ralph Steiner + Rain by Joris Ivens – I lump these two films together because in my opinion they attempt the same thing: they both want to draw the viewer’s attention to rhythmic patterns created in watery surfaces by wind, current or rainfall. Both are wonderful little film poems, ultimately soothing and are in my view the finest films in that specific form: a montage of similar imagery designed to make the viewer appreciate the same thing as the filmmaker. The beauty inherent to water.
14. The Hands of Orlac by Robert Wiene – Caligari and Nosferatu get all the credit, but in my opinion this is the greatest of the German (silent) horror films. The horror is both internal and external in relation to the main character, and the spaces in which the action (or inaction) take place are as eerie as you can get.
15. The General by Buster Keaton – what Jake said
16. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene – Here is a film that is both a work of true genius and a cop-out. It is labeled as one of the greatest German expressionist works, and even though this label is problematic (does it really do justice to the ideas put forth in this film?), the overpowering visuals are really what Caligari is all about, no matter what the narrative context is.
17. Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau – So Murnau made a film out of the Dracula story and it’s very very good.
18. Michael by C.T. Dreyer – If you’re into Dreyer at all, you just have to watch this movie. It’s not his best, but you can already notice what this guy was interested in and how he would construct his later films. What’s also interesting about Michael is how he framed his shots here. There are many shots taken from across the room, through a doorway, creating a frame within the frame and enhancing the pictorial aspects of this film.
19. Sherlock Jr. by Buster Keaton – Buster Keaton is definitely one of cinema’s great visionaries. This film illustrates his comedic genius, his love for the film as a technical medium and also his understanding of how film can tap into one’s dreams. A real instance of thinking outside the box, this film paved the way for the magical movies that deal with movies.
20. In Youth Beside the Lonely Sea – A short little art film from unknown creators, this one displays the same themes that would later dominate much of F.W. Murnau’s and Terrence Malick’s work. A harmonious love for nature and the pastoral beauties of the earth, which is later lost by too much contact with modern human presence.
21. The Kid by Charlie Chaplin – An entirely charming film by one of silent cinema’s leading figures: Charlie Chaplin. You may laugh, you may cry or you may be bored. I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is that this film really performed some kind of magic on me. Loved it.
22. Ménilmontant by Dimitri Kirsanoff – what Jake said
23. Zvenigora by Alexander Dovzhenko – As far as I’m concerned, here is where the tradition of soviet poetic filmmaking starts. The film is filmed with iconic imagery, has a strong spiritual dimension and speaks of the glory of the earth. It is not an easy film to understand (in my experience), but when viewed as part of the trilogy on the Ukraine, it starts to make sense. Zvenigora is a wonderful film for many reasons, but most of the wonders Dovzhenko had to offer would be contained in his other two silent masterpieces.
24. Blackmail by Alfred Hitchcock – Hitchcock was asked to make a film about blackmail. And that he did. This film has been most widely seen as a sound film, and this is also the reason that the film is so popular, being Hitch’s first sound film. But it was also released as a silent film. This is the version I saw and it stands as a testament to the man’s genius that he could make exactly the same film interesting both with and without sound, bearing in mind that Blackmail does not have the visual flair of his ‘40s and ‘40s works. A story is told by the camera, and the camera alone. Great stuff.
25. The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith - It is very hard to place this film. Is it horrifyingly inaccurate? Yes. Should one care about this? Perhaps, but I don’t. This is the very first silent film I saw where I had a deep respect for what the early filmmakers were doing. They managed to tell a grand and epic tale with many subplots and parallel montages and what not. And they did it all visually. This film is an early example of the possibilities of film as a narrative medium. It is not the best, but it is really impressive
26. Tabu – A Story of the South Seas by F.W. Murnau – Murnau’s final film started out as a collaboration between wunderkind FW Murnau and ethnographic filmmaker Robert Flaherty. The incompatibility of these two filmmakers obviously resulted in Flaherty leaving the production, but he did not leave without his own mark on the film. The film does feel like an even more dramatised version of a Flaherty documentary. But because of the themes in the film and the technical mastery of how it was made, it is a Murnau film more than anything. Like City Girl had its “remake” in Days of Heaven, much of Tabu echoes in The Thin Red Line.
27. The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger – As far as I know this is the first animated feature, and it uses silhouettes and coloured backgrounds to tell its story. The story of the film is familiar to all, I assume. A film every animation buff should see.
28. Four Sons by John Ford – This beautiful wartime melodrama by Ford predates many films to come about how war wrecks family life. It is not Ford’s greatest movie, not at all. Even so, it tells a nice story and emphasises the importance of family, especially in times of war.
29. Tokyo March by Kenji Mizoguchi – This Mizoguchi short is nothing spectacular, really, but it’s the only silent Mizoguchi film I’ve encountered on the internet and I enjoyed watching it. It’s a short film, under half an hour, but in it Mizoguchi explores the plight of a woman who becomes a geisha against her wishes and an ensuing forbidden love. Films about prostitution and problematic love storieswould pretty much dominate the Gooch’s entire career so it’s interesting to see that already in the early days he was working on this stuff.
30. The Iron Horse by John Ford – Maybe I’m exaggerating a little with all the Ford films… I can’t help it but I think John Ford is one of the greatest poets of cinema. The Iron Horse may be slightly less poetic than his other works, as this feels more like a document of a grand American achievement: the building of the transcontinental railroad tracks. It is worth watching if you’re into westerns, because this is a very important one. It is not, however, a must see.