The Shortlist: 10 Silent films you have to see (that nobody will tell you to)

This week sees the re-release of the classic Charlie Chaplin feature City Lights (1931), one of my favourite romantic comedies. If you haven’t already seen it now is your chance – it’s a classic and, along with Modern Times (1936), Chaplin’s best film. But there are still so many silent films – and not just comedies – which go unsung. Everyone’s heard of Griffith and Keaton, but there are still so many who go unappreciated, who delivered groundbreaking work between 1888 – 1940 (roughly) – even big names like Murnau and Hitchcock, who appear at the top of this list with films you might not have seen. Hopefully this Shortlist (another really fun one to write) will shed some light on a time of cinema many people dare not to venture into, but would be richly rewarded by if they did. These are in no particular order as to preference – they’re all so good that picking from a hat is the only reasonable way to choose. No’s 1 and 2, however, have secured those positions for being almost completely and shamefully forgotten…

10. TABU: A Story Of The South Seas (F.W. Murnau, 1931)

A troubled production has probably stopped Murnau’s final film (he died in an automobile accident a week before its release) from becoming as acclaimed as it should be – originally planned as a documentary feature with Robert Flaherty, the stock market crash forced production company Colorart to withdraw a major chunk of backing money. This meant that Murnau had to self finance, shoot in black and white, hire a new cinematographer (Floyd Crosby, who won an Oscar for his work) and re-write the story into a tale of forbidden romance against the polar environments of tribal tradition and Western manipulation, set on the island of Tahiti. The film looks absolutely stunning and the colour texturing – especially in the evening shots, with fire illuminating oil-black oceans and tired sands – proving to be better than any colour, which would have likely painted the island as a heavenly paradise (Murnau names it as one, but ironically). It’s not his best work, but the use of Expressionist shadow in an environment such as this proves to be quite fascinating and the narrative is at least engaging. It is a classical Hollywood tale of doomed romance, but given a twist by Murnau’s dark sensibilities and understanding of mise-en-scène. Even Murnau devotees have forgotten about this one but it deserves more recognition than it is currently allocated.

9. Champagne (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928)

Another result of troubled production, Hitchcock has spoke dismissively of this film in his interviews with Truffaut saying that it had “no story to tell.” He was forced to improvise after the originally darker story – a drama of Paris-set prostitution – was turned down by the studio, who wanted him to focus more on the humour in his pictures. And so you have it, one of the great masters only straight-up comedies, which is also a tenderly drawn romance. Most people would rightly recommend you The Lodger (1927) from Hitchcock’s silent period – but we’re not here for the conventional choice. Champagne is highly flawed, lacking any suspense whatsoever, and struggles to sustain itself on such flimsy material. Even Hitchcock’s worst directed films are more tightly composed than this – but none have as much heart. Betty Balfour (a huge star of the 1920s) brings subtle shades to her role, and the relationship she has with Jean Bradin in the film is believable – affectionately drawn, fraught with conflict but also truly passionate. This is what keeps the film moving, as well as some genuinely funny visual gags which are often more subtly conceived within the frame than boisterously performed as set-pieces, which is perhaps why this film is overlooked. There’s also some hugely inventive camerawork – such as a shot from inside a champagne glass and a freeze frame which pulls out to reveal itself as a photo. Not perfect, but worth a watch.

8. Aelita: Queen Of Mars (Yakov Protazanov, 1924)

Made three years before the German Expressionist Metropolis (1927), this Soviet sci-fi has become something of a cult sensation over the past couple of years – still widely neglected in critical circles, a remastered version was recently screened at the Warwick Arts Centre and a new DVD/Blu Ray edition should (hopefully) be along soon. Of course, like most films from the period (notably Eisenstein’s Stachka, 1925) it’s a propaganda piece, with a comparison being drawn between early 1920’s Russia and the capitalistic portrayal of Mars – which obviously stands in for the films other setting, Moscow. One of the first sci-fi films was the astonishing A Trip To The Moon (1902), which revolutionized the genre and the cinematic medium. Aelita isn’t quite that good but it does show some progress, notably in the scope of the picture and the way that set design and special in-camera effects had developed over the past two decades. It was a huge hit at home in the Soviet Union and no doubt influenced later works such as Ikarie XB 1 (1963) and Solyaris (1972), which are classics of the genre. Some may be disappointed by how little obvious sci-fi there is in the film (it’s mostly concerned with human drama) but it’s still a spectacle and a much, much underrated film whose following deserves to get bigger and bigger.

7. Zemlya (Earth) (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930)

Although it’s essentially part of a Soviet propaganda campaign designed to coax private farmers into merging their land and cattle into state controlled farms, Zemlya (also known by its English title Earth) is still a beautiful film. The opening titles to this film read: ‘the plot held little interest for Dovzhenko, a very individual, non-conformist filmmaker. Instead he followed the dream-logic of passions and emotion, skipping impressionistically over events and characters to focus on the generalized, eternal experiences of nature and living things: love, family ties, birth, death, new birth, planting and harvest, rejoicing in the fruits of one’s toil.’ Although he is a contemporary of Russian Film Schoolers Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dovzhenko is actually a far more literal filmmaker – less interested in the intellectual properties of cinema and more concerned by emotional narrative. This is obvious from watching Zemlya, a poetic film which is about the roots of things – whether it be family or fruit. A key scene is the opening one, where the camera calmly observes an old man eating a fresh apple before declaring “Well goodbye, I’m dyin’.” He has passed on into the soil, where he once made his living and where he shall be remembered. There are stunning shots in the film of fields and clouds and ploughing, and the farming sequences are actually shot with an extraordinarily kinetic pace; painterly in their composition but montage-like in their editing; they are genuinely exciting set-pieces. The film can be a little heavy handed in its message, but it’s still brilliant portrayal of life, love, nature and nurture.

6. The Open Road (Claude Friese-Greene, 1926-1926)

One of the first documentaries ever made, and one of the best early colour features in British cinema, The Open Road sees London-born filmmaker Friese-Greene taking a motor journey (road trip seems a little too frat-boy for this gorgeous film) between Land’s End and John O’Groats, observing the people, their culture and their way of life. The BFI remastered the film a few years ago so Greene’s pioneering colour process (Binocolour) looks better than ever and actually gives the film a great painterly quality. It looks almost pastel-shaded, like the hyper-real version of what England was like post-WWI, when the country needed optimism and its much coveted stiff upper lip. The film is anything but depressing, however – in fact it’s a hugely uplifting snapshot of life on the way to recovery; a life of love, ambition and various hobbies. And it’s because we’re in the age of documentary before there was the ability – or even the knowledge to – manipulate, and add sound or editing that would force the viewer to question the authenticity of the piece (last year was notable for this stylistic wave) that it works so well. It’s simply one man enjoying the view, and recording it so that future generations can too. So that we can look into the past and have a record of British history – which is a topic that fascinates me and is close to my heart. That’s why The Open Road is special – it’s the only film of its time from this period, yet it seems all but forgotten…

5. Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915)

It’s probably the best silent film ever made, with only Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) giving it any trouble for my money. Many will quote Fantômas (1913) as the superior Feuillade serial but this one is weirder, more exciting and better paced – which is important for a movie which, in total, runs for over six hours. It’s probably best watched in two hour segments, although the really brilliant thing about Les Vampires is that you don’t need to – the plot is so interesting and the mystery so unique that you’re just gripped by it from the first minute to the last. This is even more impressive considering that we’re in pre Der Letzte Mann (1924) territory, which means there is no camera movement and all of the shots are static tableaux. There’s not an awful lot of editing either, if I remember rightly, and in a world where films are so flimsy and lightweight that they need ten times the cuts in this movie to tell a story in two hours, the detail with which the plot is crafted and the time frame in which it is allowed to casually unfold seems even more important. This is good, old fashioned storytelling – being a serial you have to have a couple of revelations or action beats in each episode, so the pace is absolutely terrific and there’s just enough variety to ensure you don’t just want to see the next one, but you have to. Great set/costume design too.

4. The Bat (Roland West, 1926)

If that image looks familiar, it’s because you’re aware of Batman – maybe you’ve read one of the hundreds of comics or watched a movie. Either way, it’d be hard to find somebody who hasn’t heard of Bob Kane’s iconic character (created 1939), whether it be in the form of his graphic novel origins or subsequent movie adaptations – currently in the hands of Christopher Nolan. But hardly anyone knows about the characters creative origin – well, you can look to Sherlock Holmes, Judex and The Shadow, but also this outstanding 1926 horror based on the Broadway play by Mary Roberts Rinehard and Avery Hopwood, the former of which was often referred to as “the American Agatha Christie.” If that’s the case then this is like Christie’s take on Nosferatu, and told with suitably German Expressionist shadows… indeed, it has some of the best lighting of the silent period. Dark, foreboding halls and corridors, panels of light illuminating monsters (the makeup work is also terrifying), gunshot smoke descending down staircases – the design is impeccable, and this underrated mystery has some of the best atmosphere of any film of the silent era. Its spine chilling aesthetic is complemented by a high-strung score and some theatrical performances, all building to what I consider a forgotten masterpiece. And you have to respect it for helping give us one of the great superheroes of all time.

3. I Was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

My second favourite Japanese film after The Burmese Harp (1956), this silent masterpiece is also the finest work of legendary director Ozu, who later remade this tale as the disappointing Good Morning (1959). His latter day dramas influenced Italian Neorealism – shot at floor level in observational static shots, his stories told of family, honour and generational passage. These are also the key themes of this early comedy however, which has an exuberant tone and fluid, fast moving camerawork to suit the slapstick-style antics clearly influenced by Keaton. The difference between this and Keaton’s films is an acknowledgement of the audience – Ozu doesn’t do it, in turn placing emphasis on social status and moral issues. Beautifully shot by Hideo Shigehara, this is possibly the best film ever made about childhood, and certainly the only once which captures the bliss of youth, and profoundly juxtaposes it with the realities of adulthood. Because that’s the thing – life as a kid isn’t reality, it’s playtime confined to your own little world. In some very funny scenes Ozu captures that world, but when it comes crashing down and the two young protagonists learn of their fathers dishonour and lack of self-respect, the emotional impact is devastating. Heartfelt and humorous, this is essential cinema.

2. Consul Dorgen’s Business (Poslovi konzula Dorgena) (Octavijan Miletić, 1933)

An incredibly rare film that doesn’t even have an IMDB listing, this powerful short from Croatian master Miletić is most commonly referred to online by the title in its home land, which is why I include it here. Although Fritz Lang’s M (1931) came two years before, that’s a much more grounded character drama, and as such this could be fairly labelled as the first psycho thriller. It feels very much like a Lovecraft story as it tells the tale of a manipulative consul who can hypnotize with his eyes and is forcing young girls to kill themselves – fulfilling his perverse needs without actually spilling any blood or leaving any fingerprints. The actor who plays the consul is fantastic, capturing the essence of a repressed murderer in a steely and confined body to chilling effect. There’s some awful exposition and slightly unnecessary melodrama but there are some really creepy scenes too – perfectly complemented by Michel Korb’s score, newly commissioned in 2009. It has stirring violins and sharp orchestral jabs that create an effective atmosphere for the classic hero – well built, square jawed and floppy haired – to solve the mystery. There are some great little scenes and an exciting final set-piece, which feels just like the end of a short story, and although it’s not perfect this little thriller is probably the silent film I revisit most often. It’s scary, exciting, brilliantly shot and edited – and it reminds me of one of my favourite authors.

1. Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1928)

Ménilmontant is free of rigid form and convention in the way I thought only a poem could truly be. No poem needs to make direct sense or explicitly tell of people and the events in their lives. A poem is expression through language and can turn words into art, provoking new meanings from words we already associate with meaning. It would be criminal to undermine just how cinematic Ménilmontant is, so in the kindest of ways I refer to it as a poem. It’s jagged and disjointed but also transcendental and nightmarish. Kirsanoff – a pioneer who influenced many after him – invites us into this world by using montage, fades, superposition, hand-held camerawork and jump cuts, and they combine to astonishingly surreal effect – both disorienting and captivating the viewer at once. I previously referred to the film as nightmarish, but in fact another great summation would be to say the film takes the form of a dream. When you wake up from a dream you very rarely remember all of it, but that doesn’t matter – the pieces form a whole, and you don’t need access to that whole to subconsciously create a narrative. Filling in the blanks can be just as interesting and that’s what Ménilmontant asks you to do – although you’ll come away with plenty of frustrations and questions. That frustration will lead to highly rewarding re-watches, however, and it matters little if those questions are answered. The point is that you were made to ask yourself; confronted by a boldly distinctive work of art that will be interpreted differently by every viewer. David Lynch, eat your heart out…

One Response

  1. Johnny DuBiel
    21 May, 2012