The latest entry in our Home theatre series goes back to the earliest years of cinema, when technology hadn’t yet been developed to allow for images to be played with dialogue and background sound. Silent cinema lasted from the late 1800s until the 1920s. The foundation of basic filmmaking practices was laid during this period: the deployment of the close-up for impact, the use of trick effects to enhance the feeling of magic and wonderment, the braiding together of cinematography, editing and production design to create meaning.
What is the intertitle between scenes to explain events in a silent film but the earliest avatar of the voiceover?
Countless silent films made around the world have been lost. In India, an estimated 1,300 movies were made in the first three decades of the last century, but only 29 prints have been salvaged, including a few by pioneering director Dhundiraj Govind Phalke.
Since silents are out of copyright, archivists and fans of this unique narrative style have freely shared them on YouTube. Here is a selection, by no means exhaustive, of 11 titles that continue to beguile.
DG Phalke’s 1919 film stars his delightful seven-year-old daughter, Mandakini Phalke. She plays the god Krishna as a child, whose daily antics include stealing butter and leading a pack of boys into general mischief. In the most spectacular sequence, Krishna defeats the underwater serpent king Kaliya by stamping her little feet on his multiple heads. “With its characteristic blending of the real and the imaginary and the use of Western film techniques with a distinct Indian ethos, Kaliya Mardan is the first definitive masterpiece of Indian cinema,” Suresh Chabria wrote in Light of Asia Indian Cinema 1912-1934 (Niyogy Books, 2013).
If some of the gags in Buster Keaton’s silent shorts and features look familiar, it is because they have been mimicked and memorialised by filmmakers around the world for decades. Keaton wrote his material, performed it, and polished it to perfection through his direction. There are imaginative sight gags and brilliantly timed stunts, but also fluid filmmaking that elevates his comedies into minor works of art. The General, co-directed with Clyde Bruckman, is named after a steam train that Keaton’s conductor uses to prevent a Civil-War era skirmish. The stunts are jaw-dropping and the humour side-splitting as Keaton throws body and soul into his performance.
Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin? It’s like asking us to choose between our children. Chaplin’s short films and features spawned a mini-industry of imitators. His Tramp creation delighted wherever he went, whether under the Big Top (The Circus) or the unfeeling factory (Modern Times). In City Lights, The Tramp befriends an alcoholic businessman and falls in love with a blind flower seller. The combination of humour and romance doesn’t need words to be communicated.
The Italian classic L’Inferno (1919), directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe De Liguoro, was aimed at guiding Christian believers towards the righteous path, but it is also a very effective early horror film. L’Inferno is based on Inferno, from Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Divine Comedy. The nine circles of Hell that are toured by Dante and Virgil are depicted through suitably grisly visual effects. Pick your favourite: gluttons condemned to eternal rain, heretics tortured by perpetual fire, the Devil snacking on humans, and a man carrying his own severed, still-talking head.
The Thief of Baghdad
Was the word swashbuckler invented for Douglas Fairbanks? Even if it wasn’t, he certainly owned it. The Thief of Baghdad (1924) is an Arabian Nights fantasy featuring the supple-limbed and balletic Fairbanks as a small-timer who passes himself off a prince to win over the kingdom’s princess. An evil Mongol king tries his best, but Fairbanks is always a few pirouettes ahead. The trick effects might seem quaint now – they include a magic rope, a flying carpet, monsters in caves, and a Hindu goddess with gems for eyes – but the imagination behind them is never in doubt.
The Water Magician
Silent movies weren’t entirely without sound, of course. An orchestra often accompanied screenings in theatres. In Japan, narrators known as benshi read out the intertitles and acted out all the parts.
The scratchy YouTube print of Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Water Magician, co-directed with Takauki Seiryo, doesn’t allow for a full appreciation of the merits of this melodrama about a popular stage performer who sacrifices herself for her lover. The smooth camera movements are nearly lost in the graininess, and the close-ups of its striking heroine, Takako Irie, are leached of some of their lustre. The saving grace: a lively audio track featuring acclaimed benshi artist Sawato Midori. She performs all the female and male parts, and her voice variations make the 1933 classic come alive.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
In his short life – he died in 1931 in a car accident at the age of 42 – German director FW Murnau directed 21 features, including Nosferatu (based on the Dracula myth), The Last Laugh and Tabu. What might Murnau have achieved with the advent of sound? Already, he had begun moving away from the use of intertitles, preferring to let the visuals do the talking.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), made after Murnau moved to Hollywood, is as spare with its text as it is lush in romance and feeling. The film features unnamed characters, known simply as The Man, The Wife and the Woman from the City. The Man is having an affair with The Woman From the City, who encourages him to kill The Wife. He sets out to stage a boating accident, but has a change of heart. Instead, the married couple rekindle their love through a day out in the city, getting their photograph taken and frolicking at a nightclub. Nothing is said and everything is communicated through the dexterous interplay of performance, camerawork and staging.
Before he came to be known as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock honed his craft through silent films. He made nine of them before turning to sound with Blackmail in 1929. The Ring is from 1927, and is a visually inventive portrayal of a love triangle between two boxers and the woman they love. Many of Hitchcock’s classic touches are already present – the evocation of dread, the dramatic close-ups, the fiendishly clever camera compositions and editing tricks. The title refers to the boxing ring, an ornament worn by the heroine, as well the burden placed by marriage and the expectation of fidelity.
Man with a Movie Camera
“This film is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events without the help of intertitles, without the help of a story, without the help of theatre,” declares Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov in the opening titles. What we get in Man With a Movie Camera (1929) is a dazzling documentary about the life in the average Russian city, which is buzzing with weddings, births, funerals and people hard at work. No movement is too unimportant to find a place in Vertoz’s dense montage – a woman putting on her bra, a sweeper cleaning the streets, a homeless man waking up in the morning sun. There are eyes everywhere – ordinary Russians looking into the camera, mannequins gazing at the world zipping by, and the all-seeing and omnipresent Vertov. The energy is especially welcome at a time when most of the world has been forced into slumber by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Danish director Carl Dreyer’s masterpiece from 1928 is based on the trial of Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century warrior who was burnt at the stake at the age of 19. A rallying figure on the battlefield who was inspired by visions of Christian saints, Joan was condemned as a heretic by French clergymen loyal to the English nobility. Dreyer’s film, starring Renee Jeanne Falconetti, depicts Joan’s suffering through some of the most stunning and effective close-ups in the history of the movies. This prisoner of conscience, who suffers deeply for her beliefs and yet remains steadfast, speaks for dissidents, rebels and followers of unfashionable doctrines the world over.
Dr Mabuse the Gambler
There’s never a better time to watch all 270 minutes of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922). Mabuse is an arch-villain who has his paws on every racket in town. His preferred tool of control: hypnosis. The film is mesmerising too, especially when the law finally catches up with Mabuse. Lang followed up the film with two sound productions, The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960).