Wonders Beyond Sound: Favorite Silent Films

Part of Silent Film Week on Fandor, a weeklong spotlight on silent cinema in conjunction with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 14-17, 2011.

Double Your Pleasure: Maya Deren x2 in "Meshes of the Afternoon"

All too often, silent films get dismissed as an archaic format that doesn’t tap into the full audiovisual resources of cinema. But as I compiled the following list of my very favorite silent films, I was struck by one telling statistic: eight of the twelve films listed were produced after Al Jolson’s “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in The Jazz Singer ushered in the age of talkies in 1927. Which goes to show that silent cinema is less an artistic limitation than an artistic choice, and one that opens the audience to wonders that the realm of talking pictures can’t achieve.  These films also attest to a paradox unique to silent cinema: that through purely visual means, they can achieve a level of abstract beauty akin to great music. And while the following lists exhausts a fair amount of words to attest to the greatness of these films, ultimately their wordless images speak for themselves. See for yourself.

* Note: two of the films listed, Rose Hobart and Meshes of the Afternoon, were released with a specific music soundtrack, but I will count them as “non-talkie” silent films, in the same spirit as silent era movies that were released with a written musical score to accompany the screening (such as Metropolis and Sunrise, two other films on this list).


12. Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)

With their unprecedented innovations in film narrative and editing, D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein gave modern movies their skeleton. But it was Fritz Lang who used that storytelling infrastructure to construct some of the most elaborate stories of the silent era: Spiders, Der Nibelungen, and of course Metropolis, the father of all sci-fi epics. A stunning example of film-as-social architecture, Lang maps out a towering futurist dystopia of vertical class struggle that feels prescient. Too bad his resolution of the film’s thematic conflicts of class struggle are inane, if not proto-fascist, but it may be another legacy it’s left to all the Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters assembled in its long, persistent wake. But, James Cameron notwithstanding, the last 20 minutes amount to the greatest sustained action climax ever filmed.


11. Menilmontant (1926, Dimitri Kirsanoff)

A 30-minute blast of pure cinema, Kirsanoff reels a Murnau-esque melodrama about two country women seduced by the same Parisian lecher. Menilmontant compiles all the major aesthetic movements of 1920s cinema and synthesizes them into a deliriously compact experience: limpid French impressionist camerawork clashes with jarring Soviet edits; fresh documentary-style shots of Paris life link arms with long takes of Chaplinesque caricatures. Looking at this, you’d think the French New Wave started in 1926.

Love and Duty Ruan Lingyu

10. Love and Duty (1931, Bu Wangcang)

When thinking of the all-time silent screen goddess, instantly there appear visions of Greta Garbo, Lilian Gish and Louise Brooks. But for me, Ruan Lingyu outshines all of them, and Love and Duty is most powerful testament to an electrifying persona that has never been equaled. Still rare (its sole surviving print was discovered in Uruguay of all places), the film features Ruan in three roles: a lovestruck ingenue, her later incarnation as a hapless single mother, and finally the mother’s daughter (a spitting image of her mom, naturally), forming a self-contained melodramatic circle of life which Ruan turns with an inspired fever.  It’s the the ultimate fantasy gig of any Oscar-coveting actress; there are virtuoso, show-offy moments to be sure, like when mother Ruan watches daughter Ruan make her big stage debut with a stunning array of shot-reverse-shots, or the two of them talk together on screen thanks to some split-screen compositing. But the effect is less an actress’ indulging in onanism than in an unbridled celebration of all the hopes and defeats laden in a woman’s life. At times Ruan threatens to burst from the screen like a vision of Boddhisattva, flowing with feelings too intensely felt to survive in this world (Ruan killed herself four years later at the age of 25).

9. Rose Hobart (1936, Joseph Cornell)

When seminal assemblage artist Joseph Cornell unveiled his first film at a New York City gallery, Salvador Dali knocked over the projector midway through and accused Cornell of stealing from his subconscious. What Cornell undoubtedly did “steal” was footage from a forgotten Hollywood film East of Borneo starring Rose Hobart, with whom Cornell was smitten. Cornell trimmed the film down to only the shots of Hobart and slowed them down to a somnambulant stupor evoking a sultry tropical malaise. Cornell wields a magical pickaxe, striking through a forgettable B-pic to tap the vein of everything that’s cool and mysterious about the movies. It’s arguably the first fan movie mash-up (aka “supercut”), made 70 years before all its descendants popped up on YouTube, and still more poetic than just about any of them.

8. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren)

As delirious and lucid as a dream, Maya Deren’s debut  is unlike anything that came before it, yet it moves with the force and inevitability of an ancient ritual. Deren sees herself repeatedly entering her Hollywood house, with keys, knives and flowers hovering in the symbolic mix, perpetually slipping from her grasp. Aided with a discombobulating array of tracking and insert shots, the first queen of filmmaking submerges us in an experience one can best describe as “voyeuristic subconscious.”


7. Limite (1931, Mário Peixoto)

Brazil’s greatest film existed for decades as apocrypha, its only surviving print sequestered during a 20-plus-year restoration process interrupted by confiscation by a military dictatorship. The only film made by novelist Mário Peixoto feels like a summation of 1920s silent avant garde techniques that Peixoto absorbed during his sojourn in Europe, but it launches into new dimensions that carry the viewer aloft on the feverish velocity of its inspiration. Limite practically exhausts the lexicon of silent cinematography with every shot conceivable from the era, arranging them in a cascading visual pattern of sharp angles, deceptively vast vistas and sumptuous close-ups of worldly surfaces. There aren’t many films that savor its shots as much as this one, taking in each one long enough that even mundane images (train engines, spools of thread, telephone poles, a woman’s silk stockinged calves) ooze with sinister energies. It’s a world turned upside down: a woman set atop an endless hilltop view of the Brazillian shoreline swoons, the camera spinning wildly in vertiginous ecstasy; a roomful of cinemagoers laughing at a Charlie Chaplin movie achieves a nightmarish lunacy. Each shot hangs in the air before evaporating into the next; the ghostly traces of each image build a sinuous path resisting the limits of worldly logic with the assured intuition of a dream.

What are your favorite silent films? Let us know in the comments.

Kevin B. Lee is the Editor of Keyframe at Fandor. His email is kevin *at* fandor *dot* com.

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