Since The Artist, a mostly silent import from France, is the frontrunner to take home the Best Picture Oscar later this weekend (as well as possibly Best Director and Actor), I thought it would be a particularly good time to put forth a list of some of the best and brightest of the silent era of cinema. It is a sad fact but many, if not most of the moviegoers today have never even seen a silent film, so I would like to point out some of the better ones, hoping that perhaps this may inspire the current generation of film lovers to take that first step toward an appreciation of a very interesting and very experimentally daring period in film history.
Before I get started though, I would like to toss out a few titles that ended up not making the list, but films that are still quite worthy of praise and recognition. These films are, in no particular order: Birth of a Nation (Griffith); Greed (von Stroheim); The Kid (Chaplin); The Unknown (Browning); Nosferatu (Murnau); Intolerance (Griffith); Les Vampires (Feuillade); The Iron Horse (Ford); Show People (Vidor); Underworld (von Sternberg); Variety (Dupont); Seventh Heaven (Borzage); The Man Who Laughs (Leni); The Marriage Circle (Lubitsch); Modern Times (Chaplin); Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone); Earth (Dovzhenko); The Mark of Zorro (Niblo); The Crowd (Vidor); Flesh and the Devil (Brown); The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh); Napoleon (Gance); Pandora’s Box (Pabst); Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein); The Big Parade (Vidor); Safety Last (Newmeyer/Taylor); Nanook of the North (Flaherty).
And now, without further ado, I give you my choices for the ten best silent films.
Special Mentions: A Trip to the Moon / The Great Train Robbery
Two of the most influential motion pictures ever made, and they are just fourteen and twelve minutes respectively. Georges Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon is considered the granddaddy of science fiction and helped shape the adventure films of the 1920′s – several of which are on the upcoming list proper. It was also the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar nominated 3D spectacle of cinematic love, Hugo. As for the 1903 Edwin S. Porter classic, The Great Train Robbery, it is considered the first western as well as the first truly narrative film produced in America. The image above is the final shot of the film and legend has it that many audiences fled in terror thinking they would get shot. This too influenced the aforementioned Scorsese as he would have Joe Pesci pull the same act at the end of Goodfellas.
Back in the silent era, after the US, Germany and Italy, Sweden had the largest output of films, and this haunting supernatural film from master director Victor Sjöström is the best of an already full slate of world class cinema. Telling the story of a man who has laughed at death and paid the price, Sjöström’s harrowing film is a horror classic recently rediscovered with a restored print making the rounds last year.
At the onset of Hitler’s Germany, Fritz Lang would be one of the many European directors to make their way to Hollywood, but years before that the great director would create a work of anti-fascist bravura. Taking place in a dystopian future society, Metropolis is an audacious creature of cinematic bravado that even today is as powerful and as bold as it ever was.
Directed by Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer, this French language film is one of about two dozen or so renditions of the life of France’s most famous martyr, and with its brazen close-ups and demented angles, and with the hauntingly strange beauty of Maria Falconetti’s face as the doomed former maid, it is the most dangerously bedeviling of them all.
While much of Weimar era German cinema was busy making expressionistic masterpieces, Arnold Fanck, with the help of G.W. Pabst, was quietly creating a series of beautifully photographed mountain climbing films, culminating in this, the greatest of them all. Referenced several times in Tarantino’s WWII masterpiece Inglourious Basterds, this gorgeous film would also star Leni Riefenstahl, the woman who would become the most infamous director in film history – but that is a story for another day.
The first of two F.W. Murnau films to make the list, this tale of a hotel doorman who loses his job, and therefore, in his mind, his prestige and dignity, and stumbles into a downward spiral, is a remarkable feat of filmmaking. As Murnau’s camera spins and weaves and follows its protagonist around with voyeuristic glee, and once and a while even doing the seemingly impossible, and giant Emil Jannings creates the most brutish yet most sympathetic character, the viewer cannot fail to become mesmerized by the images.
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