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  Quiet Please! - Top 10 Silent Movies

TOP 10 LIST: Quiet Please! - Top 10 Silent Movies by Richard Bowden

Choosing ten best films from the period 1898 – 1930 is a difficult, almost impossible, task for two reasons: firstly much of the cinema from this time is very hard to see (a large proportion is lost). Secondly, silent film reached such a wide level of artistry, in so many genres before the arrival of sound that no small selection can do justice to the range of achievement in so many countries. The choice that follows is more of a run through of landmarks, important to the development of cinema, than personal favourites (though several are in there!)...
Battleship Potemkin (1925) director: Sergei Eisenstein
Eisenstein's most famous masterpiece, vastly influential and inspiring to a generation of filmmakers. The Russian depicted a revolution, but with revolutionary zeal of his own and in a different arena, developing the use montage into a flexible, intellectual tool. This is angry cinema, an agitprop tool with which to justify the mighty events of 1905 and 1917 – for this reason it was banned in Britain for several years, although of course its influence was being felt and studied before that. The famous Odessa Steps sequence still stands up today as a breathtaking exercise in pure cinema, a startling achievment when one considers the primitive equipment involved. Compared to the more ambitious work like October (1927) which followed, Battleship Potemkin is taut, urgent and structured like a dream, a rare vehicle in which politics, drama, theory and, genius sit comfortably together. Eisenstein gradually fell out of favour with the culturally conservative Soviet hierarchy after they viewed his formal experiments with increasing suspicion, and his great career ended in frustration.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) director: D.W. Griffith
Controversial, innovative, historical, epic: it is difficult to underestimate the impact made by this, the cornerstone of modern cinema. Multi-reeled productions had been attempted before, in Italy, but Griffith brought art to the movie making process in the face of a timid home industry, inventing much of the screen language we take for granted as he went along. This account of the civil war and its aftermath on the besieged south was very much a personal project and one in which, like Triumph of the Will years later, repellent politics is hedged by an artistic achievement which is overwhelming. The racism still arouses debate today, but the technical and imaginative reach of this landmark remains unsurpassed. Several major talents in embryo, such as Von Stroheim, served a creative apprenticeship in Griffith's groundbreaking productions. The budget for this and in particular for his next masterpiece Intolerance pushed all previous records, ultimately mortgaging Griffith's production company, precipitating a gradual career decline thereafter.
Pandora's Box (1929) director: Georg W. Pabst
It's hard to separate this from another Pabst's film Diary of a Lost Girl (also 1929) both of which are built around the cool, sensual beauty of Louise Brooks. Pandora's Box is an adaption of Franz Wedekind's scandalous play Lulu. Brooks, (previously an unknown bit part player, her potential neglected by American producers), was brought to Germany by Pabst and quickly established a screen presence that still smoulders down the years. It is unlikely in any event that the sexuality Brooks brought to the role of the temptress Lulu would have been permitted or contemplated on the American screen. In Germany restrictions were fewer and the result was two works that, in their depiction of seduction, allure and temptation, seem astonishingly modern today. After her amazing double for Pabst, Brooks made a couple more films, then slipped slowly into obscurity before writing her intelligent memoirs after her rediscovery by cineastes in the 1970s. Pabst made many distinguished films, but never otherwise reached the heights that he achieved with the co-operation with Brooks.
Metropolis (1927) director: Fritz Lang
Lang's grandiose vision of the future utilised an army of extras, was years in the planning and set the standard for speculative cinema to this day. After 75 years, many of its images are as familiar as the stills from yesterday's blockbuster: the tiers of worker-slaves, Maria the robot, the futuristic city skyscape, and so on. Lang's autocratic marshalling of men and sets, his treatment of actresses, consistently made him unpopular through his career but his single minded ruthlessness paid dividends. The director built his initial reputation with such monolithic productions, often featuring super criminals (Dr Mabuse) and science fiction elements (Frau im Mond, 1929). Allied to an acute sensitivity to editing, mise-en-scene and an awareness of the ruthless nature of fate, the effect can be overwhelming. After escaping the Nazis, Lang started a second, smaller-scale career in America, creating an equally illustrious reputation in film noir.
The General (1927) directors: Buster Keaton with Clyde Bruckman
Picking just one masterpiece from Keaton's oeuvre is difficult but, as a complete achievement, The General has always been a favourite with fans and critics alike. The Great Stoneface's triumph over man, war and steam engine creates a comedy epic that triumphantly stands the test of time. Keaton had used a train as a prop before (in Our Hospitality, 1923) but in this film it becomes almost a character in itself, another example of Keaton's characteristic struggle against equipment and environment. The abstract nature of much of his cinema, the working out and staging of gags with ironic detachment, marks him out as a modernist, assuring his reputation ever since his critical rehabilitation in the 1960s.
Greed (1925) director: Erich Von Stroheim
Famously cut down by a philistine studio to a heavily truncated version, Stroheim's film was the culmination of a career in which he combined a fanatical attention to detail with a modern interest in psychology and sexual morals. Difficult to work with because of his perfectionism and profligacy, several of his productions (Queen Kelly, 1922; Foolish Wives, 1925; etc) were re-edited or aborted by nervous and impatient producers. Greed is the culmination of his attempts to bring something like a novelistic intensity and pathological realism to the screen. Even in the severely shortened version, this film is full of unforgettable moments, and ends with memorable scenes in extremis shot on location in Death Valley.
Napoleon (1927) director: Abel Gance
Gance's extraordinary epic was restored by Gill and Brownlow a few years back and, in its full glory, proved a revelatory experience. He was another of the silent screen’s grandiose perfectionists, this film years ahead of its time in ambition and technique, employing multiple camera set ups, split screen, widescreen and special effects. So much so in fact, that it makes up less of statement about Bonaparte's tumultuous career than of the potentialities of cinema itself. Gance's output was uneven, and occasionally he overreached himself, but this highpoint creates an indelible impression.
City Lights (1931) director: Charles Chaplin
Easy Street and The Immigrant are probably Chaplin's greatest early shorts. Out of the features, The Goldrush (1925) might have the better slapstick, and Modern Times (1936) a more contemporary feel, but the present film contains a unique combination of bittersweet humour and pathos unique to the director, which is still effective today. The tale of the blind girl and the beggar comes straight out of a Victorian sensibility (a trait he shares with Griffith), though the subtle, moving treatment is all Chaplin. In comparison with Keaton, Chaplin's reputation has suffered somewhat in recent years, and some of the more extravagant praise may have died away. He still remains a giant of the silent silver screen, most of his films inviting repeat viewing.
Sunrise (1927) director: Frederic Murnau
One might just as easily choose Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) or Faust (1926) as an example of this great director's craft. With Sunrise he brought his attention to bear on ordinary people and, in his last film before an early death in a motor car accident, created one of the greatest American films, one of the highpoints of late-silent studio technique. No one who has seen the trolley ride sequence or the creation of ‘anytown’ is likely to forget the impact of Murnau's modern fable. The master of lyricism and the liberated camera, Murnau was one of the great artists of Weimer cinema, and his relocation to America promised much.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) director: Robert Weine
Once seen, never forgotten: ..Caligari is immediately distinguished by the startlingly expressionistic sets, and a bizarre but characteristic for the time plot, framed within a lunatic asylum. (This device was suggested by Fritz Lang, who was originally slated to direct.) A lurid tale of somnambulism, fairgrounds and murder, Caligari confirmed the golden age of early German cinema, while reflecting the unease, violence and incipient madness laying below the surface of the short-lived Weimer Republic. The great Conrad Veidt plays the sleep walking killer, while the nightmarish paranoia at the heart of the scenario has been traced by some critics such as Lotte Eisner back to the heart of the German psyche, presaging the rise of Hitler. The echoes of this film and the stylistic influence of the German industry at the this time were still being felt in 1950s Hollywood, during the great Noir cycle which followed.

previously published online at VideoVista #30 - September 2001

DOWSE Guide to the Movies is compiled by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press
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