Where to start with Silent Movies

It’s easy to skip silent movies as you cycle through your Netflix queue. With all the ragtime blaring and violins squealing, there’s a severe gap separating the viewer of today from the films of the past. It’s no one’s fault really, but by ignoring early cinema, most of today’s contrarian viewers miss out on the non-computer-generated-glory they pine for. If matter and mass are your bag, here are some filmmakers from the silent era that will hold your attention:

Charlie Chaplin

Best known for his penniless tramp character, Chaplin is probably the most famous actor/director of the era. His ability to master the frame, both as an actor and director, made his control over a scene so impressive, turning standing on a street corner into Cirque Du Soleil before every teenage delinquent in a leather jacket made standing on a street corner and Cirque Du Soleil cool. His understanding of time and movement is unparalleled. Whether he’s ogling a nude mannequin while ignorant of an open sewer several inches away or pulling one of the great child performances out of his Kid co-star, he knows how to communicate with his audience better than anyone.

His first feature, The Kid, introduces several key notions that would follow The Tramp through his long run atop the Hollywood hills. But more than anything, it showed how movie comedy could turn a simple interaction into a hilarious ballet (at least, one much funnier than that Nutcracker). Chaplin found humor in everything and could bleed it dry without losing any of the yucks.

Check out Chaplin’s look at the relationship of an orphan boy and a lovable bum in The Kid:

Or Modern Times (just one example of Chaplin’s amazing, though underappreciatedability to name the hell out of a movie)

Buster Keaton

It’s impossible to talk about Chaplin without mentioning Buster Keaton, just like how you can’t mention Johnny Depp without mentioning Benny & Joon, a movie you can’t mention without mentioning Buster Keaton. It’s all cyclical. Anyway, like Chaplin, Buster Keaton was a master of physical comedy, able to exert enormous amounts of hilarious information without moving his lips – or any other facial muscles for that matter. His stoic, deadpan style would be imitated by comedians and ventriloquists for generations to come, but he was also one of the early masters to understand cinema was the sum of its parts, thinking carefully about how editing would and could affect his story and performance. A scene from Sherlock Jr. shows how stepping into the world of a movie can turn the land of dreams into a waking nightmare:

But Keaton’s defining work came when he decided to prove his worth to the beautiful Annabelle by building the world’s greatest locomotive in The General. This is Keaton’s most expertly staged movie and one that remains really, really funny. 

F.W. Murnau

Murnau is probably best known for his adaptation of DraculaNosferatu, one of the most iconic and influential films of the silent era. Also, they made an Are You Afraid of the Dark about it. But when he wasn’t turning Dracula into a haunting symbol of European Semitic fear, he was directing some of the most profound and entertaining movies of the 1920s. But what will probably hook you into watching his 1926 epic, an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, is this image:

Jannings in Faust

or this image:

Faust fog

or, most likely, this image:

The story of a man who sells his soul to the devil for a shot at greatness, Faust is filled with some of the most striking images ever committed to celluloid, a real treat for eyes dried from years of watching cartoon robots arguing over Shia LaBeouf. And, hey, unlike that movie, you can watch it here:

F.W. Murnau followed his bleak portrayal of man’s temptations with another look at man’s temptations. 1927’s Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans tells of, as the IMDB so eloquently puts it, “a married farmer falling under the spell of a slatternly woman from the city, who tries to convince him to drown his wife.” Now if that doesn’t make you want to watch this movie, I don’t know what will! Sunrise also created many of the cinematic storytelling techniques that we so happily take for granted today, like,  tracking shots and  matte shots, which we now know of as “green screen.” Fun fact: Sunrise was also the first movie to win a Best Picture Academy Award, making this movie as good if not better than Crash.

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