Wings might have been the only silent film to win Best Picture at the Oscars until The Artist won in 2012, but it is not the only silent film that is worthy of your attention. Far from it. In a lot of ways, Film was better before the days of voiced dialogue, in my opinion, and watching them now is a rich and rewarding time. The lack of sound means that your brain can fill in what is being said, allowing the actors to really emote. Silent film is all about the emotion carried across just as much as the story. The plots themselves, while often simple, are elegantly told due to the imagery on display. In a lot of ways, silent films are staged more like plays than what is normally seen in movies, as movies had yet to come into their own as a medium. Not to mention that back in the day, before content regulations came into being, filmmakers were more daring about what they could show. Full-frontal nudity and gore are more common in silent film than one might think. There is so much more to these types of movies than men with Snidely Whiplash moustaches tying screaming women to railroad tracks.
As such, if you want to truly experience a unique time in film history, then it is better to jump into the strange and interesting world of silent films sooner rather than later. However, it is completely understandable why people find this a bit daunting. Unless a person is well-versed in the time period that the film was made in, it’s unlikely that they’ll know any of the actors or actresses (especially if it’s a foreign movie). There’s also the fact that due to the political views of the times in which silent films were made, the messages and ideas portrayed in these films may sometimes be either outdated or downright offensive to some viewers. Just as an example, while there’s no arguing or denying The Birth of a Nation’s massive influence on filmmaking, its frankly racist depiction of blacks and its lionizing of the Klu Klux Klan is difficult to stomach. So needless to say, finding a silent film palatable to a modern viewer can be a trial. With all that in mind, here are seven recommendations to get you started. Please note that this is not a “best of” list and that I haven’t seen every movie ever made, so please keep that in mind if you don’t see your favorite here if you’re already into silent films.
1. Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925)
This film was remade in 1959. The 1959 version, at the time of this writing, has not been topped in its number of Oscar wins. It won 11, a feat matched only by two other films: Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While that is all very well, for my money, this 1925 version is better. The production value is of a much higher quality, and unlike the 1959 version, you don’t have to set aside an entire afternoon to watch it. It goes through the entire story in a fraction of the time that the 1959 version takes, making its pacing much faster. The story follows the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and his encounters with Jesus Christ as he tries to avenge himself on his former friend, the Roman Messala. It can be a bit difficult to find, but Turner Classic Movies occasionally shows it. If you’re able to snag a copy, you will enjoy it.
2. Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror (1922)
This movie is, to me, THE definitive vampire movie. Nothing has come close to its sheer terror and its shadowy atmosphere. This German silent film is essentially the Dracula story we all know and love, but with a few changes because the production studio could not get the rights the classic Bram Stoker novel. For instance, the character of Count Dracula was changed to Count Orlock. This did not stop Bram Stoker’s widow from suing the studio, however. Mrs. Stoker won her lawsuit, and all copies of Nosferatu were burned by court order. Miraculously though, one copy of the film survived in a vault in Brazil. It is because of this copy that we have the film now. Like a real vampire, it rose from the grave and to this day, Nosferatu continues to sink its teeth into the living, terrifying generation after generation. While it is silent, do not let that scare you off. It is only an hour and a half long, so it flies by. Go and watch it, if only to see why Spongebob Squarepants made a joke about it.
3. Die Nibelungen (1924)
This is one of three Fritz Lang movies on this list. Metropolis is often cited as one of the first science fiction films of all time, but Lang also was a pioneer in the fantasy genre with this two-part adaptation of the German epic poem, Nibelungenlied. That’s right, this is not one movie, but two. The first part, Siegfried, chronicles the rise and fall of the noble hero Siegfriend. The second part, Kriemhild’s Revenge, shows how treachery can lead to the collapse of kingdoms. It’s a tragic tale, brimming with the classic German Impressionist aesthetic that many have come to know and love. There are many great scenes such as a fight with a dragon and huge battles of opposing armies. It’s all great stuff, and laid the groundwork for other great fantasy works to come, such as Jason and the Argonauts and especially The Lord of the Rings. The Die Nibelungen duology greatly impressed Adolf Hitler, who when he came to power, wanted Lang to work on propaganda films despite being half-Jewish. Lang thankfully fled the country and worked in America until his death. Watched back-to-back, Die Nibelungen takes five hours to watch, so my suggestion would be to split it up between two nights. You can get both films for a cheap price, so be sure to see what is perhaps the best work Lang ever did outside of Metropolis.
4. Metropolis (1927)
Speaking of Metropolis, no silent film recommendation list would be complete without this timeless 1920s masterwork. This film, which almost bankrupt the studio that made it, was a commercial flop at release. Because of its failure at the box office, no complete version of Metropolis exists that we know of today. But over the years, we have gathered enough material to be able to create a close approximation. Metropolis was technologically advanced for its time, creating a lot of special effects that would become commonplace later in the film industry. What’s even more impressive is that a lot of these effects still hold up, even now. This film has much to say about modern society and how class distinctions must be overcome with compassion rather than revolution. As resonant now as it was back then, this one gets a high recommendation from me. Also, it was one of the inspirations for the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. What more could you want?
5. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928
This French film is about abject human suffering, and proof that you can show it without resorting to torture porn. The Passion of Joan of Arc was one of the first films to truly perfect the technique of the closeup. Director Carl Theodore Dreyer uses it to full effect to show the pain in Joan’s eyes as she is convicted of a crime that she did not commit. It is an amazing film made even better by Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, a soundtrack made for this film and included in the release by Criterion. Give it a watch and see what I mean.
6. The General (1926
A fascinating study in how some art is not appreciated in its time, Buster Keaton’s The General did not turn a profit and was considered mediocre at the time of its release. Nowadays, it’s considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. Inspired by the Great Locomotive Chase, a real event that occurred during the American Civil War, The General is as much a deranged comedy as an action story. Keep an eye out for a real-life train wreck shot for the climax of the film. It doesn’t get more classic than this comedy.
7. Anything by Charlie Chaplin.
Everyone knows who Charlie Chaplin is. If they don’t, they probably at least recognize his character, The Tramp. The silent comedies that Charlie Chaplin created are full of physical comedy, but also a sweetness and a delicacy that speaks of the humanity of Chaplin himself. It is hard recommending someone’s entire filmography, as some of the director’s works are naturally going to be better than others. But while this is true enough of Chaplin, they’re all worth a watch. I would personally recommend starting with Modern Times. Though not a silent movie in its entirety, it is a pretty good summation of Chaplin’s comedic style. If you watch one, you’ll want to watch them all.
All images courtesy of Internet Movie Database.