The Artist’s recent wins at the Academy Awards has shown that perhaps less is, in fact, more. It’s shown that sometimes the power of the image alone is enough to transport the audience. Cinema-goers nowadays are lucky to have sound capabilities, because this just wasn’t possible at the dawn of cinema and, for thirty years or so, basically every film was silent. The films presented below are the ten best from that era.
10. Habeas Corpus
Laurel and Hardy made some fantastic films but this ghoulish tale of grave robbing and prison escape has some genuinely hilarious moments in it. The inventive special effects (their prison escape, Oliver Hardy’s throbbing toe) make this film one of their absolute best.
9. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The film that taught Tim Burton everything he knows pioneered the use of visual trickery and in-camera optical illusions to create the psychedelic horror story of the tribulations of an insane asylum. It also basically invented the concept of the twist ending.
A moving story of two people trying to make it in a twisted and cynical world, Sunrise was honoured at the very first Academy Awards with the award for Unique and Artistic Production. Directed by FW Murnau, the film is synonymous with high-art at a time when most films were melodramatic and boring.
7. Battleship Potemkin
These two words loom large of the cinematic landscape and, as such, this is probably the first silent film that most film students see. Its incredible use of choreographed crowd scenes and magnificent scale meant that it worked incredibly well as a propoganda film and, for connoisseurs of the ‘soviet style’, is basically porn. A work of magnificence, also notable for a single image – that of a screaming woman with smashed glasses – that served as the catalyst for the work of the painter Francis Bacon.
6. A Story of Floating Weeds
Even in this early film, Yasujiro Ozu’s languid and serene style of story telling was in full effect. The richness of the black and white only adds to the beautiful images on show in this incredible tale of humans, together.
Anticipating the sci-fi revolution and the dystopian landscapes that would dominate cinema fifty years hence, Metropolis aspires to show the viewer a world gone bad. A technological nightmare whose scale is impossible to comprehend, and another masterpiece from Murnau.
4. The Kid
The polar opposite of Metropolis, The Kid is a giant warm heart of a movie that will make your eyes weep black and white tears. Anyone yet to experience this film is missing on a key life experience, and anyone who fails to be moved by it possesses a heart of pure carbon.
The first actually scary horror film, its masterful use of shadow and its genuinely horrifying take on the altogether more sedate Dracula means that Nosferatu actually supersedes its originator and becomes the better movie.
2. Man With A Movie Camera
It is because of this film that we have modern cinema – it showed the audience the power of editing and how transfixed one can be by seemingly unrelated images, hewn together by skilful editing. Editing, editing, editing. And a camera on the front of a train. Fantastic.
1. A Trip to the Moon
The film in which the moon gets a rocket in his eye. Everybody knows the image, and the concept is so simple that is can be understood universally. George Melies was a master film-maker, making leaps and bounds in a medium that was not yet fully understood, let alone conquered. The sheer scale of what he attempted with such little resources and know-how is testament to his incredible abilities.