"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 10, 2013

The Twenty Best Silent Films from Europe and the U.S. (Movie Reviews)

After a desultory experience with silent film via the silly slapstick fragments on TV when I was a kid, it took decades before I felt any inclination to watch silent films again. Thanks to my interest in the great Japanese director Ozu I started watching his silents (he made them until deep in the 1930s), and thanks to Ozu's silents films I fell in love with this form of movie making. The best silent film for me is still Ozu's I was born, but.... Ozu made other beautiful silent films as well, and so did other Japanese directors as Naruse, Shimizu and Gosho, to name a few.

Inspired by these Japanese films, a few years ago I also started watching European and American silent films and I made several interesting discoveries. My favorite films are not always the ones that traditionally make it to the top of lists, and vice versa - after all, this is a personal selection and as stated, my childhood experience gave me a healthy dislike of most forms of slapstick - although I love real comedy. Another thing I want to demonstrate is that German (9 films on my list) and French films (6 films on my list) from this period were artistically superior to most movies made in Hollywood (4 films on my list), which - despite (or perhaps because of) its far greater resources - had already started churning out its characteristic brainless blockbusters.

Here is my list of the 20 best silent films from Europe and the U.S. (in chronological order):
  1. Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari ("The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari"; 1919) by Robert Wiene (Germany). The first film in the German expressionist style, a style which originated in painting and theater set design and gave birth to a new style of cinema, which cast its lengthy shadows all the way into the film noir of 1940s America. Typical are the angular sets (jagged edges, misshapen windows, diagonal staircases), the stylized performances (especially by Werner Kraus and Konrad Veidt as the sideshow operator Caligari and his somnambulist) and the exaggerated use of light and shade. This creates a sense of disorientation which fits the themes of the film: terror and mental instability. In the wake of the disaster of WWI, the film was also meant as an attack on authority (notice the ludicrously high stools on which the municipal officials sit) and although this was turned on its head by the conservative studio by inserting a framing device, the subversive message is still recognizable. A complex and disturbing film, and a psychological fantasy containing unbelievable horror. Link to Internet Archive.
  2. Die Puppe ("The Doll"; 1919) by Ernst Lubitsch (Germany). Probably the best film the maestro of Trouble in Paradise fame made in his German period, full of fairy-tale like unreality, which has been emphasized for further effect. Uses cardboard sets like Caligari, only here they are bright and colorful. A delightful and even kinky burlesque, with Lubitsch's famous light, witty, and graceful touch. The frothy story is about a young prince who wants to avoid marriage and therefore to satisfy his environment decides to marry a life-like, mechanical doll (somewhat like a blow-up sex doll avant-la-date)  - but of course, the doll is more "real" than he thinks... There are also some funny story boards, as when the prince leaves with his "doll" for the wedding night and his uncle asks if he knows what to do. "Of course, I have the manual," is the answer.
  3. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens ("Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror"; 1922) by F.W. Murnau (Germany). The one and only original vampire film, loosely based on Bram Stoker's Dracula that works in a subtle, subliminal way on the mind of the viewer. The film demonstrates the inability of human beings to reconcile civilized behavior with unconscious, bestial desires. The helpless, ineffective protagonist, real estate agent Henri Hutter, is symbolic for the helplessness of ordinary Germans after the failure of the terrible war from 1914-18. In a Freudian sense, Hutter and the vampire, Count Orlok, are complimentary beings. Both Hutter and his fiancee, Ellen, crave for the strong Orlok who seems to promise fulfillment to the weak, albeit of an evil kind, a desire that is all the more perverse because of Orlok's exaggerated hideousness (admirably played by Max Schreck). He is tall and meager, his long hands end in terrible claws, his ears are distended from his head. That "bestial desire" would get full play when the Nazis came to power and the "weak" would get more than they ever dreamed of. The film was made on location in various German Baltic towns. My favorite shot is the one of a long line of people who, during an epidemic, walk through the streets of the old town carrying all of them coffins on their shoulders. Link to Internet Archive.
  4. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler ("Dr Mabuse, the Gambler"; 1922) by Fritz Lang (Germany). An exciting thriller, one of the best ever made - with a nightly car chase and climactic shoot-out - , but also an incisive social commentary. Although harking back to Fantomas by Feuillade, with its set up of a fight against a master criminal, the figure of Dr. Mabuse is much more dangerous: he can control people's minds by hypnosis and is the embodiment of the Nietzschean Superman. In a way, he is the proto-Hitler. He is also able to change his identity like a snake shedding its skin. In that sense, the title "Der Spieler" is ambiguous: it points at the gambling which plays an important role in the first part of the film, but it also means "actor" or "puppeteer" hinting at the disguises and mind control of Dr Mabuse. Lang shows a country on the edge of chaos and self-destruction, with the weak authorities as powerless, making the slide into Fascism seem almost inevitable, a realistically brilliant portrayal of its time. The lead performance by Rudolf Klein-Rogge is very memorable. Link to Internet Archive (only part 1 of the film).
  5. Two short films by Germaine Dulac (La Souriante Madame Beudet / The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) & La Coquille et le Clergyman / The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) (France). Germaine Dulac was a well-known feminist, but these two movies are not at all preachy. The Smiling Madame Beudet is about the boredom of a marriage where the partners have nothing in common: the husband is a domineering, loud figure, the wife quiet - she prefers to read - and silently suffering when her husband makes one of his endless silly jokes. A fixed joke he performs everyday is pretending to shoot himself with a pistol in his desk that contains no bullets. At a certain moment, the wife secretly puts in a bullet, but then the husband points the gun at her - as a joke! The Seashell and the Clergyman is a surrealistic fantasy not unlike Un Chien Andalou by Bunuel, only less shocking - Dulac is more lyrical. The film is about the sexual fantasies of a priest (the "seashell" is an obvious symbol that recurs throughout the film), who lusts after the wife of a military officer - or something like that. Forget about plot, just ride along with the delicious images! Famous is the dictum of one censor, who forbade the film because he didn't understand the meaning, and films of which the meaning is obscure of course are intrinsically subversive! Link to Internet Archive (Madame Beudet only).
  6. Flesh and the Devil (1927) by Clarence Brown and with John Gilbert & Greta Garbo (U.S.). Leo and Ulrich are life long friends. Then Leo falls in love with the beautiful Felicitas and kills her husband in a duel. Sent in exile by the military authorities, he entrusts Felicitas to his friend Ulrich - who then marries her! When Leo comes back from Africa, Ulrich has some explaining to do... but the friendship between the two men will prove stronger than "mere" love for a woman... A very strange film, with Greta Garbo at her most sexy in her widow's veil. See my more detailed post about this film.
  7. Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang (Germany). Iconic, astonishing SF film by the great German director. Metropolis is a Utopian world where people lead a life of carefree leisure. But is appears this wealthy society is supported by an "underclass," living in an underground world, who keep the machinery working that makes Utopia possible. When Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the Master of Metropolis (Alfred Abel) discovers this, and on top of that, falls in love with a beautiful but rebellious woman from the underworld, Maria (Brigitte Helm), drama kicks in. Maria wants to join the head (upper world of leisure) to the hands (the underworld of workers) via the mediation of "the heart." To derail the rebellion, the Master has a mad scientist build a robot looking exactly like Maria, which then entices (by a lascivious dance) the workers to a riot that will destroy them. Lavish production, visually exhilarating and even hallucinatory, the largest budget film of the 1920s in Germany that almost wrecked the Ufa studios. Not only a powerful allegory of totalitarianism, but also of wealth inequality in general, a worthy predecessor of films like Alphaville and Blade Runner (while the mad scientist was mirrored in Bride of Frankenstein). Link to Internet Archive (but try to watch the 2010 restored version - Metropolis was heavily mutilated after its release).
  8. Sunrise (1927) by F.W. Murnau (U.S.). A poetic and symbolic drama. A married farmer is mesmerized by the allures of a dark haired city woman. Things have gotten so far that he seeks a way to get rid of his wife. He takes her over the lake to the city, pretending to make a trip with her, but in reality planning to drown her, However, he hasn't got the nerve for such a cruel act and they both end up spending an unscheduled but marvelous day in town, something which brings them closer to each other. On the way back over the lake, the farmer has lost all thought of killing his wife, but then a sudden storm upsets his boat... and yes, there is still a happy ending. It is a journey from corruption to redemption, a process that leads to true love. The beginning and end of the film are full of dramatic intensity; in contrast, the long middle section about the capers in the city is often outright farce - such as the chase of an errant pig. Production standards are extremely high, the camera work is fabulous. Murnau made this film in Hollywood, but it is a far cry from the sodden tearjerkers the studios would churn out by the truckload. It is, as the subtitle says, "a song of humanity," full of expression, a feast both for the heart and the intellect. Link to Internet Archive.
  9. It (1927) by Clarence G. Badger and with Clara Bow (U.S.). One of the funniest silent films ever made, in which Clara Bow demonstrates clearly that she has got "IT." She plays a shop girl who catches the millionaire owner of the emporium in her nets, but there are some hindrances on the way to the wedding boat... Clara Bow is sparkling and energetic - she became America's first sex symbol until the advent of the talky forced her to retire. See my more detailed post about this film.
  10. Underworld (1927) by Josef von Sternberg (U.S.). Film that became for decades the template of urban gangster films, an "experiment in violence and montage" as the director called it himself. Delivers the goods in broad, archetypal scenes, from an abortive prison break via hearse to an attempted rape in a confetti-strewn ballroom bacchanal. Over-sized, larger than life gangster boss Bull Weed (George Bancroft) saves a drunken ex-lawyer from the gutter and employs him as his adviser (under the nickname of "Rolls Royce," played by Clive Brook), with the all-American boast: "Nobody helps me - I help them!" But most of the time the lawyer has to take care of the Bull's plumage-swathed, flapper girlfriend (aptly named "Feathers McCoy", alluringly played by Evelyn Brent) and things go wrong when the boss starts suspecting they have an affair together. His only weak spot will be his undoing. A Pre-Code film with deliciously salacious come-ons and visual entendres, and exquisitely well photographed. Two other excellent Von Sternberg silents are the war drama The Last Command and the melodramatic The Docks of New York, but I prefer the "gangster chic" of Underworld. Criterion edition.
  11. The Lodger, a Story of the London Fog (1927) by Alfred Hitchcock (U.K.). The best early Hitchcock, made after a sojourn in Germany where the crime master had imbued Expressionism. A serial killer of the Jack the Ripper type is on the loose in London, murdering blond women. A landlady with a blond daughter (who is seeing one of the policemen on the case) suspects her mysterious new lodger may be the murderous madman but even in this early Hitchcock there are several twists and turns. The director has strewn many red herrings along the path of the film and diverts us with tense sequences that suddenly deflate. An excellent character piece, but above all, Hitchcock aptly demonstrates how when nerves are on edge, "gut feelings" usually get it wrong, leading to suspicion of every somewhat odd individual with "queer" habits. Exceptional good atmosphere, and brilliant visual touches, with a fast tempo. The lead role was played by British star actor Ivor Novello. Link to Internet Archive.
  12. La passion de Jeanne d'Arc ("The Passion of Joan of Arc," 1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer and with Maria Falconetti (France). An impressive account of Joan of Arc's trial and subsequent execution. The judges and wardens with their grotesque faces are all hypocrites, but Joan manages to hold on to her dignity and humility. She has a most beautiful, beatific countenance. Maria Falconetti gives a breathtaking performance in what is the best film of the great Danish director Carl Dreyser. See my more detailed post about this film. Link to Internet Archive. Criterion edition.
  13. Abwege ("The Devious Path," also called "Crisis"; 1928) by Georg Wilhelm Pabst (Germany).  One of the most erotic silent films ever made, a provocative study of the sexual frustration of an upper-class woman. Neglected by her workaholic husband Thomas, who is a respected lawyer, Irene Beck (Brigitte Helm) plans to run away with her secret admirer, the artist Walter Frank. When Thomas thwarts this scheme, Irene falls in with a fast crowd of debauched Berlin nightclub denizens (the "devious path" of the title). Influenced by drugs and drink, she toys with the affections of a young boxer. Irene is on the fast road to divorce, but that isn't the solution either, for she basically loves her husband and only wants him to pay more attention to her, also physically. Expertly filmed almost without text boards, everything is expressed by gestures and framing. The film uses a voyeuristic style of camera work which was new at the time, and which expertly manages to bring out the contrast between the inner world with thoughts of lust and the outer world where social conventions rule. Helm's character is visibly tortured by a strong but suppressed sexual urge, she literally twists and turns like a wound-up spring throughout the film, but also creates a credible and realistic psychological portrait. The long nightclub scene is a great set-piece, take for example the comedy around the erotic impact of a backless dress. Why is this great film almost unknown? Isn't this much better than the childish stuff that in the same period dribbled out of Hollywood? (One reason is a practical one: one reel was lost for a long time, the film has only recently been restored).
  14. L’Argent ("Money," 1928) by Marcel L’Herbier (France). Ambitious, big budget film about money, "the dung on which life thrives," and its power to corrupt and morally destruct people. Story updated from a 1891 novel by Emile Zola, almost prophetically, considering the stock crash of the year after the film was made, 1929. Two bankers are slugging it out for control. the sinister Gunderman and the sensual, obese Saccard (the central character, admirably played by Pierre Alcover). Saccard is temporarily down and uses a young woman (Line, played by Mary Glory) ambitious for money to convince her famous pilot husband (Henry Victor) to work for the unscrupulous financier in a stock fraud scheme. As a publicity stunt he has to fly over the Atlantic to French Guyana and "discover" new oil wells. Saccard is romantically interested in the pilot's wife, which prompts his former lover, the aristocratic femme fatale Baroness Sandorf (Brigitte Helm) to join forces with Gunderman to bring him down. Great mass scenes filmed with thousands of extras on location in the Paris Stock Exchange. Opulent Art Deco sets and inventive use of a mobile camera make this riveting film into a great visual spectacle. Its message, unfortunately, in the aftermath of 2008 is still current...
  15. Un chapeau de paille d’Italie ("An Italian Strawhat"; 1928) by René Clair (France).  Comedy film based on a 19th c. play by Eugène Labiche, a satire on bourgeois attitudes. When a man is on his way to his wedding, riding through the park, his horse happens to pick up a straw hat and take a bite out of it. The hat belongs to a married lady who at that very moment lies in the bushes and in the arms of someone not her husband, a military officer, who now follows the bridegroom in order to demand a new hat, as the lady can not return home to her lawful husband without one. So while guests arrive and wedding proceedings are under way, the bridegroom has to run nervously around trying to buy exactly the same straw hat, as the irate martial man threatens to wreck his new apartment. But when he finally manages to find the elusive hat, things become even more complicated... A satire of the bourgeois (or general human) obsession with surface decorum, while below that surface anything goes. A comic masterpiece.
  16. La petite marchande d'allumettes ("The Little Match Girl"; 1928) by Jean Renoir (France). Short film based on the well-known Hans-Christian Andersen tale, but also owing a debt to Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker. The match seller is played by Catherine Hessling, who started her career as a model of the famous Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, and then became the wife of the son Jean – after which she played in several of his films during the 1920s, most notably Nana. With her heavy lipstick she has something vulgar of the Nana-type even in her present role, which leads to an interesting contrast, for she is obviously not the child from Andersen's story. The film has been expertly made, not only in the long dream sequence with its array of special effects such as double exposure and rear projection, but also in various small touches, as when Karen has dropped her matchboxes due to an attack with snowballs, and the police man who arrives at the scene looks right through her and instead addresses an upper class shop owner. The poor do not exist. In the dream sequence she flies through the sky on horseback with a young officer, chased by a black figure representing death, who snatches her away and brings her to a lonely grave; the cross on the grave then turns into a blossoming tree, and finally the falling petals change into the snowflakes slowly descending on her lifeless body... Link to Internet Archive.
  17. Die Büchse der Pandora ("Pandora's Box"; 1929) by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and with Louise Brooks (Germany). The film that brought cult status to the American actress Louise Brooks in the role of the brash showgirl Lulu (based on two plays by Austrian author Frank Wedekind), a playful young woman whose carefree eroticism works as a powerful magnet on all men who meet her. But she is not innocent for she knows her power and uses it consciously. Never has the face of evil looked so beautiful as in Brooks with her famous razor-sharp bobbed hairstyle and anthracite eyes. Pabst shows us a society nosediving into a carnal abyss - Lulu's sexual vivacity creates mayhem among males wherever she goes, and also among women in a for 1929 daring Lesbian subtext. But all who come too close to her are destroyed, until she herself meets her Thanatos in the shape of a meekly smiling Jack the Ripper at the end of the last reel. One of the best scenes is the seduction of a newspaper magnate who used to be her lover but tries to shed her for a high-society fiancee - she tricks him into an embrace under the eyes of the fiancee, looking over his shoulder, and I have never seen a face where the word "gloating" was more apt. The second half of the film, after she has inadvertently killed her husband and flies for justice, is darker, but Brooks is perhaps at her most beautiful wearing a dark veil in the courtroom  Pabst also made the scarcely less racy Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) with Louise Brooks. Criterion release.
  18. Asphalt (1929) by Joe May (Germany). A delicious film about the subject of the "cop seduced by sexy crook" plot that became the template for many future noir films. The opening scenes highlighting the "asphalt city" are justly famous for their camera work. A strict Teutonic police officer (played by Metropolis star Gustav Frohlich) arrests a glamorous, jewel thieving flapper (Betty Amann), but ends up being twisted around her little finger. A highlight is the seduction scene in her apartment - she just jumps on him as if climbing a tree and locks him in her legs - her naked feet stroking his shiny police boots! This is pure lust versus the coolness of even a Lulu. A film that is highly entertaining and ends on a surprisingly moving note. It is the best work of the director, who, like most of his German colleagues appearing above, was later active in Hollywood - where their artistry was destroyed under the wheels of commerce.
  19. Movyy Vavilon ("The New Babylon"; 1929) by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg (Russia). Besides Germany, France and the U.S., the Soviet Union was the fourth country where important films were made in the 1920s. Unfortunately, these films are so ideologically inspired as to become veritable propaganda films, making them unwatchable for me (even Eisenstein's Potemkin). Somewhat of an exception is The New Babylon, although this film finds its subject in what is regarded as the first example of "proletarian class struggle," the Commune of Paris of 1871. A salesgirl, Louise, takes the side of the revolution, but her soldier-friend Jean is on the side of the oppressors who use the army to cruelly subdue the revolt. But above all, the films is a fun satire of the bourgeoisie, which is shown enjoying itself in hallucinatory orgies, as well as an ironic look at "class struggle." The caricatural faces in the film are great, they reminded me of Toulouse-Lautrec. The original film music was by Shostakovitch. The cutting by the two young directors is fast, fierce and rhythmical as in Eisenstein's films.
  20. Menschen am Sonntag ("People on Sunday"; 1930) by Curt and Robert Siodmak (Germany). A short romantic comedy on which also Billy Wilder cooperated as a writer. For modern viewers the main interest is in the extensive, on location natural shots of the city of Berlin and its inhabitants under the Weimar Republic (soon to be defunct) - the film is in fact a semi-documentary. It is remarkable how little these people seem to differ from us today, despite the 80 year gap. The five young actors were non-professionals. Wolfgang, a wine seller, has a date with Christl, an extra in films, planning to visit a popular lake near Berlin called Nikolassee. He has brought along a friend, Erwin, a taxi driver who lives together with Annie, a model, but their relation is not very good so Annie is staying at home. Christl also has brought a friend, Brigitte, a record seller. The film follows their day out with boating, swimming and petting - but sooner than expected, the nice day is over and they have to return to their daily drudgery. A small consolation is that there will be another Sunday in week's time... Link to Internet Archive. Criterion edition.

Bonus: Although I dislike the intrinsic mawkishness of Chaplin's tramp, I find the comedies of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd quite watchable, despite the inevitable slapstick. Keaton with his inexpressive, white face was the greater comedian, but Lloyd was an expert in daredevil acrobatic stunts, which he executed himself. Buster Keaton made several excellent comedies in the 1920s as Seven Chances, Sherlock Jr, The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., but despite the political incorrectness of its "cannibal" scenes, I keep returning to The Navigator (1924). It is perhaps because of the characters of Rollo and his prospective fiancee Betsy: two of the very idle rich with each two left hands, who when adrift on an empty passenger ship, gradually learn how to be more practical and normally human. I have written already about Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy (see my post), but another great film is Safety Last! (1923). Lloyd as usual plays the ordinary guy (although decked out with iconic horn-rimmed spectacles), who sets out to make his fortune in the big city, but ends up as a low paid clerk in a department store, something he conceals from his girlfriend. This leads to problems when she arrives on the scene... In order to earn a quick buck Harold is willing to do anything - and that is when we get the famous scene of him dangling from the clock on top of a skyscraper in down-town Los Angeles.
Note: Many of the films presented here are in the public domain and available on, for example, the Internet Archive. For more viewing pleasure, it is of course best to look for a restored and cleaned-up version on DVD, easy to find via Amazon.