Classic Cult: Silent

With The Artist already receiving huge critical acclaim despite the awards season having only just begun, it seems appropriate to look back at some of the most influential silent films that have recently received a surge of interest.

The early shorts that emerged during cinemas infancy are extraordinarily insightful, and, despite technical limitations, illustrate incredible ingenuity and artistic skill. Georges Méliès’ La Voyage dans la Lune which features the iconic image of a spaceship landing in the eye of the moon, was recently alluded to in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and remains a must see for anyone with an interest in cinematic history. Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou is another short that has received cult status. Presenting a series of tenuous scenes that attempt to depict dream logic in narrative flow, its haunting representation of a woman’s eye being sliced in half has become famous.

Horror was a popular genre during the silent era and was dominated by German expressionist directors. Films such as F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, which remains a chilling cult classic, while Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is stunning with its elaborate sets and dreamlike sequences. It has also been cited as the first film to introduce the ‘twist ending’.

Silent comedy is best known through the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. While The General is often cited as Keaton’s best film, it is exceeded by Sherlock Jr. in terms of impressive special effects and unconventionally humorous situations. Chaplin, known predominately for his endearing character ‘The Tramp’, created heart-rending comedy that is perhaps best realised in his film City Lights.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the first true science-fiction masterpiece in film. Its exploration of the social crisis between workers and owners, through a dystopic vision that mirrors the capitalism of Marx and Engels, is both powerful and unforgettable. The precursor to all modern sci-fi, it returned to the public eye in 1984, when Giorgio Moroder released a restored version featuring a soundtrack from artists including Freddie Mercury, Jon Anderson and Adam Ant.

The best love story of the silent era has to be Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. A poignant depiction of a married couple that looks at the fragile nature of human relationships, it offers a bit of everything, making it an outstanding piece of cinema.

Perhaps one of the most enduring scenes in silent film can be found in the dramatisation of the mutiny that took place on board the Russian battleship Potemkin in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The massacre of civilians on the Odessa steps is as iconic as it is horrendous and is paid homage to in many modern classics.

However, the finest silent film of all time has to be Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. A depiction of the trial, imprisonment, torture and execution of Joan of Arc, its extreme close-ups featuring actors without make-up and incredible performance from Renée Jeanne Falconetti make it one of the most harrowing films of all time.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Jan 24th 2012.

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One Response to Classic Cult: Silent

  1. Pingback: Close to the edge | About Sound and Vision

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