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Laurence Station's Best Films of the Silent Era

Top 10:

1. Napoléon (Abel Gance, France, 1927)
History is full-blooded and alive in Gance’s Napoléon. The camera is rarely static, the passions of the key players are immediate and committed, and the boldness of the climactic, tri-screen rallying of the troops is thrillingly innovative. Following Napoléon from childhood through the French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror to his triumphant march into Italy, Gance manages to create a historical film that is epic in scope yet personal in nature. It's a shame the director never had the opportunity to document the rest of the French leader's remarkable, era-defining life.
 
2. Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1927)
Technically peerless, Murnau’s darkly romantic fable about appreciating what you’ve got only after it’s gone (or, in this case, moments before you destroy it) is taut with dialectical tension. This is most obviously evidenced by the dark-clad, vampish city woman battling for the heart and soul of a sunshine-bright, golden-haired sweetheart's husband, a simple man torn between postcard-placid rusticity and bustling urban ardor. Though the conflicting elements balance a tad too precisely, it’s important to remember that Muranu had little use for naturalistic storytelling, instead utilizing the medium to give visual expression to his characters' innermost torments and desires. Boiled down to the most primal level, Sunrise is about love triumphing over lust, yet thankfully manages to avoid turning sappy in the process.
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920)
Whether one wants to read deeper meaning into Caligari's examination of delusional madness as a comment on the corruption of the Weimar Republic or its use of a murderous sleepwalker as an eerily prescient symbol of the complicit endorsement of the German people to the madness of the Third Reich, the film remains a landmark artistic achievement. From horror films of the 1930s and the film noir of the '40s to the bizarre fever dreams of David Lynch and artificially warped landscapes decorating Tim Burton’s cinematic worlds, Caligari’s influence is undeniable and enduring.
 
4. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, France, 1928)
Renée Falconetti gives one of the most heart-wrenching, committed performances in film history as the doomed Saint Joan. Dreyer has less interest in entertaining his audience than he does in creating an excruciatingly powerful viewing experience. This is not an easy film to watch (true of the bulk of Dreyer’s work), but it does manage to impart a sense of time, place and injustice that is mesmerizing to behold.
5. The General (Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, USA, 1927)
Moves with a snap and wit that is relentlessly entertaining. Keaton’s resilient Confederate train engineer Johnnie Gray doggedly pursues his Yankee-hijacked engine and the girl he loves, combining a perfect blend of suspense and slapstick (the cannon sequence being an ideal example) that imbues The General with uncommon gravity. Keaton’s most elaborate work is also one of the very finest films of the era.
 
6. The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1925)
Chaplin finds yet another interesting environment for his well-traveled Little Tramp to inhabit in The Gold Rush. The frigid Yukon provides a series of brilliant set pieces, from a starving prospector’s delusional image of Chaplin as a chicken to an adventurously staged last-minute exit from a cabin sliding off the edge of a cliff. The romance angle isn’t as up to snuff as it is in other Chaplin features, primarily because the maiden of interest here has rougher edges than the endearing beauties that usually fall for the Little Tramp’s comedic charms.
7. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927)
Metropolis is bursting with ideas, symbols, and outrageous pulp conventions. There’s the doppelganger Madonna-whore angle, the lurking Thin Man character, a mad scientist, unruly masses, imperiled children, and even a “witch” burning. And then there are the gargantuan sets -- all geometrically clean and shot through with expressionistic flourishes, from the belly-of-the-skyscraping-towers of the rich and powerful to the human clockwork mechanisms relentlessly cranking below. Lang and his wife, Thea Von Harbou, broke the creative
(and financial) bank on Metropolis. It’s overpowering, overwrought, and still one of the most flat-out entertaining landmark motion pictures ever made.
 
8. Pandora's Box (G.W. Pabst, Germany, 1929)
Louise Brooks is a victim of her own smoldering sensuality in this jet-black examination of decadence and possession. That Brooks’ Lulu is a good-time girl doesn’t exempt her from accepting responsibility for the passions she stirs in others. And when a down-on-her-luck young woman provokes interest from the likes of Jack the Ripper, the end result is guaranteed to be most unpleasant. Pabst deserves credit for taking a sexually intoxicating cautionary tale and refusing to water it down -- though censors at the time would do just that. Regardless, the subtly intense performances shine through and, even though it takes a while to get going, Pandora's Box remains an essential and compelling piece of cinema.
9. Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, USA, 1924)
Taking escapist cinematic whimsy to its illogically logical conclusion, Keaton astrally projects his dream self from the camera booth directly into a film being screened. It’s justifiably one of the most influential and imaginatively staged sequences of the great artist’s career. What are movies, after all, if not vicarious windows into worlds most patrons can only dream about inhabiting?
 
10. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925)
True to the communist regime that bankrolled it, Battleship Potemkin forsakes main characters for united mass actions. The astonishingly edited Odessa Steps montage sequence lasts less than five minutes but feels like an eternity for the defenseless victims. As Soviet propaganda, Potemkin is hardly subtle -- a hammer blow to capitalist and royalist oppressors everywhere. As a piece of progressive cinematic technique, and champion of nothing-wasted narrative pacing, it remains an unqualified triumph.
 
Notable near misses (Alphabetically Listed):
 
  • Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Alberto Cavalcanti, Walter Ruttmann, Germany, 1927) Poignant for capturing Berlin at a time when Germany was just starting to recover from the Great War (and draconian postwar penalties) and the Nazi party had yet to seize control of the country. The rhythms, energy and mechanized nature of life are articulated via inventive editing techniques, though, at times, montage shots such as bustling crowds followed by herded cattle is a bit over the top. Nonetheless, Berlin is a vital document of a day in the life of a modern metropolis.
  • The Big Parade (King Vidor, USA, 1925) Despite being imitated to the point of dreaded cliché in the years since its initial screening, Big Parade still holds up due to its brilliant contrast between eager, clueless American doughboys awaiting battle and the absolute carnage that follows. King Vidor successfully articulates the senseless barbarity of war and manages to impart a happy ending that doesn’t come across as hokey and overly sentimental. The crippled hero, played by John Gilbert, and his French ladylove, charming Renée Adorée, definitely earn their closing embrace.
  • The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, USA, 1915) The masterfully edited climax wallows in cheap, exorbitantly polarizing melodrama, glorifying Klansmen and demonizing freed slaves in the turbulent Reconstruction-era South. But the Civil War battle sequences and the eerily verisimilar assassination of Lincoln powerfully resonate. For all the film's landmark technical achievements, Griffith’s great triumph is taking dusty history and making it breathe, vibrant and impassioned, crafting an image of a nation wrestling with itself and forging a new identity from a fiery cauldron of vindictive intolerance and wounded pride.
  • The Crowd (King Vidor, USA, 1928) Successfully captures the minor-key rhythms of married life and doesn’t fall into cheap melodrama when horrible events occur (like the death of a child). One of Vidor’s most delicately sketched, beautifully staged works, The Crowd reveals how even the most ambitious man can become just another faceless player in the competitive world of the Big City.
  • Faust (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1926) The exaggeratedly expressive camerawork and overwrought performances serve to underscore rather than undermine Murnau’s striking examination of temptation, destructive desire and the terrible price mortals pay for unearned glories. Emil Jannings’ Mephisto is deliciously deceitful, and the climactic stake-burning sequence apocalyptically terrifying.
  • Greed (Erich Von Stroheim, USA, 1924) Even in its truncated/butchered two-and-a-quarter-hour version, Greed is still an intense viewing experience. Von Stroheim’s assertive melding of realistic and symbolic imagery, coupled with absorbing deep-focus camerawork, ground the world of a man-child and his once sweet, later miserly wife in a moralistic hell that can be excruciating (yet oddly exhilarating) to endure. It’s a good thing the mercurial director didn’t tackle the six remaining sins -- not that Hollywood had any intention of letting him do so after he turned in an original ten-hour master print, never seen by the viewing public.
  • Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, USA, 1916) Perhaps the ultimate example of cinematic reach exceeding logistically attainable grasp, Intolerance remains one of the most stunningly ambitious films ever made. Griffith’s technique of crosscutting between four tales throughout the ages is more innovative than effective (the venerable Passion sequence gets a particularly short shrift) and the melodrama, especially in the modern tale, is wildly over the top. Nonetheless, Intolerance is a hugely important epic, pushing the boundaries of the form and emphatically proving that there was no such thing as “too big” when it came to a Hollywood production.
  • The Kid (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1921) Chaplin’s touching tale of the Little Tramp and an orphaned boy (Jackie Coogan, in a remarkable performance) is a bravura example of sentimentalism handled just right. Setting the principal action in slums modeled on the type the London-born Chaplin grew up in, The Kid manages a series of clever set pieces while never losing hold of its larger narrative thread.
  • Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man) [The Last Laugh] (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1924) The absurd, tacked-on happy ending comes across as a parody of artificial plot turns rather than a total concession by Murnau to studio demands. Regardless, Emil Jannings is in top form as a doorman demoted to bathroom attendant, his degradation magnified by the derisive reaction his lowering of job status provokes from the gossipy neighbors in his tenement. The inventively fluid camerawork and bizarrely subjective viewpoint only add to the film’s unsettlingly powerful impact.
  • The Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1929) Director Vertov, editor Elizaveta Svilova and cameraman Mikhail Kaufman attempt "pure cinema" with this examination of a day in the life of machines and workers in various cities throughout the Soviet Union. But it’s the impossibility of trying to capture life in a natural state with a camera, primarily due to self-consciously aware participants, subjective camera angles and intentionally associative montage editing, that becomes the true message. We see what the filmmakers allow us to see (which sort of flies in the face of the whole collectivist ideal). Fortunately, Vertov and his collaborators have assembled and cross-layered some amazing visuals, thus ensuring the film’s lasting importance.
  • The Navigator (Donald Crisp, USA, 1924) Keaton stages some wonderful sight gags on a crewless, drifting ocean liner carrying a clueless young couple who learn, through sheer necessity, to fend for themselves. The pratfall timing is exquisite, and there’s a genuine sense of peril when the ship draws the attention of cannibals on a nearby island.
  • Oktyabr (October) (Grigory Alexandrov, Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1927) The rapid-fire editing techniques are more intellectually stimulating than pulse-quickening. But that was Eisenstein’s intention in staging a grand reenactment of the 10-year anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik uprising that toppled the provisional Russian government. Too detached to have any appreciable emotional impact, October nonetheless is a technical marvel. You don’t have to buy into the propaganda to admire the cinematic virtuosity.
  • Seven Chances (Buster Keaton, USA, 1925) Contrived but brilliantly executed story of a man (Keaton) who will inherit millions of dollars if he can marry before the clock strikes 7:00. The women as a swarm of locusts chasing Keaton through city streets and down a hill during an avalanche are truly inspired. Pure adrenalized Keaton in top form.
  • The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1927) Lubitsch’s masterful sense of storytelling and visual symmetry shine throughout this endearing tale of a young prince who yearns to enjoy life but is bound by the rigid constraints befitting his title. Ramon Novarro brings the right amount of naiveté and melancholy to the role of the prince, and Norma Shearer believably convinces us that it’s love at first sight upon meeting the royal heir. The ending doesn’t cop out, revealing how duty to country supersedes personal wishes, no matter how passionate or true.
  • The Wind (Victor Sjöström, USA, 1928) Wind and desire, madness and a murder are inextricably bound in this powerful examination of primal urges and the terrible force of nature unleashed. Lillian Gish delivers one of her strongest performances as a woman ill-equipped to deal with the harsh climate and sexual demands thrust upon her. Even with the tacked-on happy ending, The Wind remains one of the edgier films to come out of the big studio system during the era.
  • Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, USA, 1927) Melding a European art house aesthetic with gritty American realism, Underworld is the great gangster film of the silent era. The editing and camerawork are top notch, as is Von Sternberg's effective use of the close-up to convey the emotional turmoil of his characters. From Scarface to GoodFellas, Underworld’s influence on the urban crime drama cannot be overstated. It's a truly landmark and powerfully engaging film.
 
How Could You Have Overlooked...
 
Works by Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, et al. And don’t forget Edwin S. Porter’s landmark narrative breakthrough from 1903, The Great Train Robbery, or the work of onetime Edison employee and lead Kinetoscope designer William K.L. Dickson. Obviously, Edison, the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès and a host of others making films in and around the birth of cinema are hugely important; these individuals and their companies laid the groundwork for the modern form. The above list is primarily concerned with feature-length films, however. And it’s near impossible and unfair to compare or contrast the technical innovation and artistry of, say, Murnau’s Sunrise with Edison’s 1896, too brief The Kiss (taken from a scene in the play The Widow Jones). Films made at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th exist in an entirely different stratum than the works cited here. Obviously they're no less vital -- just distinctly different.
 
Outstanding Actors:
Buster Keaton - Key films: The Boat (1921), Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)   Lillian Gish - Key films: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Broken Blossoms (1919), Orphans of the Storm (1922), The Wind (1928)
 
Outstanding Directors:
 
D.W. Griffith - Key films: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Orphans of the Storm (1922), The White Rose (1923)   F.W. Murnau - Key films: Nosferatu, The Vampire (1922), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man) (1924), Faust (1926), Sunrise (1927)

Much thanks to Filmsite.org for having scans of many of these posters online: http://www.filmsite.org/posters.html

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