Best Classic Silent Films – the power of visuals.
written by Souranath Banerjee.
In the midst of the endless dialogues, song sequences and background music we shouldn’t forget that Cinema is primarily a visual medium of story telling.
As Alfred Hitchcock once pointed out:
‘If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.’
Alfonso Cuarón in an interview for his film Gravity did mention:
‘I think much of mainstream cinema are films that you can watch with your eyes closed. You enter the cinema, buy your popcorn, sit down, close your eyes, start eating your popcorn the movie begins and the movie ends you didn’t miss one thing because they told you everything. As opposed to you experiencing the film and seeing visual information.’
But believe it or not, in the earlier days of Cinema the directors had no choice but to tell their stories visually (sound wasn’t available due to some unavoidable technological deficiencies).
And yet, what marvelous films they made; the content and the visuals were so empowering that dialogues seemed redundant and pointless.
Well, here is a list of some of the best classic silent films ever made in the history of Cinema.
1. Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)
FIlm trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzNL5JRTI6I
Obviously D.W. Griffith is more famous for his film The Birth of a Nation but this particular film is probably his best work.
A blend of four stories, set in four different historical eras – French, Babylonian, Judean and Modern; tied together thematically by the subject of “intolerance”.
At the time, it was the most expensive film but unfortunately not a commercial success.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921).
2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAtpxqajFak
Directed by Robert Wiene, probably the first ever horror film (made before “horror” was a designated genre).
The sets were made out of paper and the shadows were painted on the walls – German expressionism at it’s best.
If you don’t know the meaning of the word ‘somnambulist’ and if you are a fan of serial killer mysteries – this is a must watch for you.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: Crime and Punishment (1923) and The Hands of Orlac (1924).
3. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kS5kzTbNKjs
Voted as the 11th greatest film of all time in 2012 Sight & Sound critic’s poll.
The sailors revolt against injustice which leads to a brutal police massacre (the famous Odessa steps sequence).
The genius of Russian director Sergei M. Eisenstein is best showcased in this particular film – a true masterpiece.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: Strike (1925), October (Ten Days that Shook the World) (1928) and Old and New (1929).
4. The Big Parade (1925)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_-BvxzdOr4
The highest grossing silent film of all time, it made $22 million during its worldwide release!
The first ever ‘war film’ of such epic scale, King Vidor directed this unique film portraying the horrors of war and the effect it caused on young soldiers.
And then there was the love story between an American soldier and a French girl – a perfect blend of war, romance and a bit of comedy too.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: Wild Oranges (1924), Show People (1928) and The Crowd (1928).
5. The General (1926)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99TdN8W6EAA
More of an action film with good doses of Buster Keaton’s straight faced comedy.
A man almost single-handedly spoils a train-highjack plan and saves his girlfriend too!
Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, the film is a fast paced powerhouse of entertainment, physical comedy at it’s best.
Other notable silent films made by the Buster Keaton: Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925) and Go West (1925).
6. Metropolis (1927)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSExdX0tds4
The film takes place in 2026 – the first ever SIFi movie and an inspiration to all the futuristic films yet to be made.
Most expensive film of the time, Fritz Lang took a year and a half to shoot and due to it’s commercial failure the production house UFA (Universum Film) went bankrupt.
A cinematic brilliance, the best of German expressionism.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924), Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) and Spies (1928).
7. Sunrise (1927)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTID4ZVy6OE
‘Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans’ is voted as the 5th greatest film of all time in 2012 Sight & Sound critic’s poll.
An unique love story and a perfect cinematic experience – often regarded as the best silent film ever.
Directed by the famous German director F.W. Murnau the film is indeed the most emotional and captivating films i have ever seen.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926).
8. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQj_3AY-E1g
Voted as the 9th greatest film of all time in 2012 Sight & Sound critic’s poll.
This film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer is a bible for portraying emotions and expressions with Close-Up shots.
Maria Falconetti, her performance as Joan od Arc is considered by many critics as the single greatest performance ever put on film.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: Leaves Out of the Book of Satan (1920), Master of the House (1925) and Vampyr (1932).
9. The Wind (1928)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8Un8SBnjY4
A young girl comes to stay with her cousin in the west but the weather and the people were too rough for her to handle.
Directed by Victor Sjöström and superb performance by Lillian Gish, this one is undoubtedly the best silent western film ever.
The high-velocity wind was created by the propellers of eight aircraft stationed on location at Mojave Desert (where the film was shot).
Other notable silent films made by the same director: The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), The Phantom Carriage (1921) and He Who Gets Slapped (1924).
10. City Lights (1931)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_W1tOngo-w
A tramp who falls in love with a blind flower-girl – The ultimate Romantic Comedy ever.
Favorite film of Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, and even Charles Chaplin himself considered this film to be his best.
It was a silent film made during the sound era and still was a huge success.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1926) and Modern Times (1936).
and (The ‘+1′ film is not necessarily the best but certainly the most innovative one. A must watch).
+1. Nanook of the North (1922)
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iN1qwowbXR4
Voted as the 7th greatest documentary of all time in 2014 Sight & Sound critic’s poll.
Probably the first proper documentary shot, director Robert J. Flaherty followed Nanook and his family in the freezing Arctics for a year to achieve this feat.
A silent documentary made with great aesthetics and intimacy – an inspiration to all the travel/cultural documentaries made till date.
Other notable silent films made by the same director: Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948).
And now a few other legendary silent films that are definitely worth mentioning:
Director Louis Bunuel‘s surrealistic short film Un Chien Andalou (1929), Edward Sedgwick‘s epic comedy The Cameraman (1928), Henry King‘s revenge saga Tol’able David (1921), Clarence Brown‘s film about love and friendship Flesh and the Devil (1926), Georg Wilhelm Pabst‘s take on lust and erotism Pandora’s Box (1929) and a perfect love triangle Wings (1927) directed by William A. Wellman.