From 'Nosferatu' to 'Metropolis': A Beginner's Guide to the Silent Era (2022)

For the majority of modern-day moviegoers, the silent era is not a period that holds much interest, and while this is a sad truth, it’s not one that is particularly surprising. Even though the image of Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp in The Gold Rush, or a rocket hitting the moon in Georges Méliès's seminal A Trip to the Moon are some of the most famous in cinema, they are also images that are over a century old. These days it can feel like the world of silent cinema to meant to be less enjoyed and more admired, a major steppingstone in the development of cinema that now only holds interest to film historians and theorists.

But the silent era deserves better. It’s a format that demonstrates cinema at its most cinematic, where visual storytelling trumped all and directors exhibited some of the most inventive filmmaking ever caught by a camera. The belief that these films are too primitive for modern audiences is tragic, a misconception built from stereotypes and a lack of understanding of the medium. No doubt there is a barrier to entry, but those willing to go beyond their usual comfort zones will find a slew of cinematic masterpieces that can still hold their own against anything Hollywood produces today, and the following are seven such examples.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

From 'Nosferatu' to 'Metropolis': A Beginner's Guide to the Silent Era (1)

Georges Méliès's science-fiction short is one of the most important films ever made. The plot, loosely based on Jules Verne’s classic adventure novels, concerns a group of astronauts who travel to the moon, only to make a quick escape after encountering its insectoid inhabitants. Despite running for little over twelve minutes, its emphasis on storytelling when most films were little more than single-shot experiments that lasted barely a minute guaranteed it would be an immediate hit with audiences.

Besides its aforementioned running time, A Trip to the Moon also boasted a great many other revolutions, most notably its complex visual effects. All of them use rather crude technique by modern standards, but they also lay the groundwork for the entire century's worth of special effects that followed. The stylized presentation and stationary camerawork can make A Trip to the Moon feel more akin to theatre than film, but its legacy is undeniable. Its an aesthetic that ensures it is still an entertaining piece of science fiction after all these years, and it is debatably the first film in the modern sense of the word.

Intolerance (1916)

From 'Nosferatu' to 'Metropolis': A Beginner's Guide to the Silent Era (2)
(Video) A Beginner's Guide to Silent Cinema

This 1916 epic boasts some of the most impressive filmmaking of its era. Directed by the influential but controversial director D. W. Griffith, Intolerance tells not one but four storylines across its colossal runtime: the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, the Crucifixion of Jesus in AD 27, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, and a melodrama about a reformed criminal in 1914. The theme of intolerance connects all the storylines, illustrating just how little has changed despite covering approximately 2,500 years. The image of a mother (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle serves as a recurring image throughout the film, serving as a moment of respite between the storylines.

Unsurprisingly, Intolerance is a staggering film to watch. The lavish production values and the cast of thousands showcase a level of filmmaking that remains impressive to this today, with the iconic image of Belshazzar’s feast during the Babylonian section exemplifying this perfectly. But Intolerance can be appreciated for more than just its scope, with its quartet of storylines still managing to captivate over a hundred years on. Its release coincided with cinema breaking away from its theatrical origins in favor of naturalistic performances and elegant camerawork, with films becoming a more fully-realized medium in the process. Intolerance is one of the greatest examples of this. Its length may deter some people, but for everyone else it makes for an unforgettable experience.

Nosferatu (1922)

The image of Count Orlok (Max Schreck) ascending a staircase to feast on the blood of the unfortunate Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder), his shadow silhouetted against the concrete wall, is one of the most iconic in all of horror. It’s a shot that defines F. W. Murnau’s expressionist classic, a film that chills its viewers with a subtle but eerier atmosphere that continues to torment long after the credits have rolled. An unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film largely adheres to the novel’s plot, but with just enough changes to give it its own unique flavor.

(Video) Think Silent Films Are Boring? Watch Them Like This.

What sets Nosferatu apart from future vampire films comes from how elegantly it is constructed. It’s a prime example why simplicity is far from a dirty word, and the efficiency with which Murnau tells his story is something all filmmakers should admire. Count Orlok has none of the charm or seductive qualities that other renditions of Dracula have. Instead he’s a far more stripped-down character, existing solely to quench his never-ending thirst for blood until someone puts him out of his misery. Nosferatu knows exactly what it is, and its supporting cast of cliché characters form the perfect structure with which to tell the definitive vampire story. It’s a simple story well told, and its terrific use of lighting to create some of the most haunting shots in cinema exemplifies why Murnau is one of silent cinemas greatest directors.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

From 'Nosferatu' to 'Metropolis': A Beginner's Guide to the Silent Era (4)

No article about the silent era is complete without mention of one of its greatest comedians, the always delightful Buster Keaton. His trademark slapstick comedy would see him performing death-defying stunts that would make Tom Cruise wince, and when combined with his eternal deadpan expression, he had all the makings of the greatest physical performer of his time, and nowhere is that more evident that this 1924 classic. Sherlock Jr. sees Keaton in the role of a movie projectionist who is wrongly accused of theft while trying to win the affection of the woman he loves. Heartbroken, he retreats into the fantastical world of film where he imagines himself as the detective Sherlock Jr., enacting revenge upon those who have wronged him.

Continuing with a philosophy that our previous film exhibited, Sherlock Jr.’s greatest strength is its efficiency. This is a film where not a second is wasted, with Keaton trimming this story down to an immaculate 45-minute runtime. Every scene has the best gag yet, every frame is either paying off the previous joke or setting up the next, and with special effects that still look impressive there are plenty of moments where you’ll be left baffled how they pulled all this off. At the center of everything is Keaton himself, whose stone-headed commitment to dangerous stunts ensures there’s never a dull moment.

The Gold Rush (1925)

From 'Nosferatu' to 'Metropolis': A Beginner's Guide to the Silent Era (5)
(Video) TCM Comments on As the Earth Turns (1938) and Metropolis (1927)

In the 1920s two actors were competing for the crown of slapstick humour, the aforementioned Buster Keaton and the man whose name has become synonymous with the silent era, the great Charlie Chaplin. His Tramp persona is one of cinemas defining images, and he remains one of the most celebrated minds in the industry. While it's hard to pick just one of his many classics for this guide, his 1925 masterwork The Gold Rush is an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with his work. Set during the Klondike Gold Rush in the latter half of the 19th century, the film follows The Tramp as he attempts to locate an enormous gold deposit hidden somewhere in the Alaskan mountains before the evil Jim McKay (Mack Swain) beats him to it, while still finding time to win the heart of Georgia (Georgia Hale), a dance hall girl from a local town.

Even though The Gold Rush takes place in one the most inhospitable locations on the planet, with large chunks of the story inspired by real-life tragedies that had occurred during this period, the film never forgets its comedic roots. It’s an ethos that defines much of Chaplin’s work, with the moments of levity appearing all the more hilarious when juxtaposed against such a miserable backdrop. The sequence where Chaplin performs a song and dance routine with a pair of bread rolls is one of the greatest in his career, rivalled only by the film’s ending which sees The Tramp and Georgia reuniting after a year apart. Chaplin was famously reticent about shifting to sound films, but for good reason. He knew the strength of his Tramp persona lay in him being an entirely visual creation whose exaggerated movements said more than words ever could, and watching him try to escape a cabin that is gradually tipping over a cliff’s edge during the film’s overdone but comical climax is the perfect showcase why.

Metropolis (1927)

From 'Nosferatu' to 'Metropolis': A Beginner's Guide to the Silent Era (6)

Fritz Lang’s futuristic masterpiece Metropolis received a largely negative response when it first opening, but is now rightfully considered one of the crowning achievements in the science-fiction genre. The plot, a Romeo and Juliet-esc love story about two people on the opposite ends of society being kept apart by the powers that be, largely takes second place to the dystopian vision of the future that Lang has created, but the film’s technical achievements are more than capable of making up for any shortcomings.

(Video) History of Silent Film Serials

Simply put, Metropolis is a stunning film to watch. Inspired by the first time Lang saw the skyline of New York City, the Art Deco informed architecture that populates the titular city ensures there is a haunting beauty to every shot, with gothic skyscrapers towering over the underground-dwelling workers like tyrants reigning over their inferior subjects. These monolith structures form the perfect contrast to the city’s shadowy depths where the workers reside, cursed to toil away at the behest of wealthy industrialists. It’s a theme that resonates across the years, and any criticism about its simplicity is silenced by the sheer anger Lang displays as he laments the state of both the fictional and real world. The Maschinenmensch, the gynoid whose iconic deathly gaze has become the defining image of the film, remains one of the greatest fictional robots in cinema, and serves as the crucial final piece to this nightmarish classic.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

From 'Nosferatu' to 'Metropolis': A Beginner's Guide to the Silent Era (7)

The final entry in this guide sees the return of F. W. Murnau with a far different entry than his previous appearance. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans chronicles the affair between the well-meaning but easily deceived Man (George O'Brien) and the nefarious Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). The Woman convinces the Man to kill his wife (Janet Gaynor), and while he almost follows through with this, he backs down at the last second. The Wife is unsurprisingly terrified and flees to the nearby city. The Man follows in a desperate attempt to win her back, and after a heartfelt reconciliation, the two embark on a series of romantic escapades across the city.

Despite what first appearances may lead you to believe, Sunrise is simply the greatest celebration of romance ever committed to celluloid, an unashamed love letter to all things corny that even the most die-hard opponents of the genre will find hard to resist. The bulk of the movie is essentially plotless, with our central characters drifting from one whimsical adventure to the next as they bask in the glow of their rediscovered love. Murnau’s directing, which favors long tracking shots and minimal use of title cards, emphasizes the strengths of the silent medium. This is a romance conveyed through body language and meaningful glances, where the deepest emotions a person can feel are presented through clever lighting that mirrors the thoughts of our protagonists (see how the ominous lighting of the early scenes gradually gives way to a much brighter look as the story progresses). It’s a stark reminder that silent films are not just a relic of the past, but a reminder of what cinema can and should be. Sunrise is a contender for the format's crowning achievement, and the perfect film to conclude this guide with.

FAQs

What is silent era of cinema? ›

The art of motion pictures grew into full maturity in the "silent era" (1894 in film – 1929 in film). The height of the silent era (from the early 1910s in film to the late 1920s) was a particularly fruitful period, full of artistic innovation.

What is the quietest movie ever? ›

RankTitleYear
1.The General1926
2.Metropolis1927
3.Sunrise1927
4.City Lights1931
78 more rows

Who is the most famous silent film maker? ›

Charlie Chaplin

In any case, his real talent was coaxing performances out of his co-stars. While many of his comedy contemporaries made “The Girl” or “The Kid” a blank slate to splash gags on, Chaplin at his best made his co-stars the emotional center of his films.

What is meant by silent film? ›

a movie without any sound. Compare. talkie old-fashioned.

What caused the end of the silent film era? ›

After further fine-tuning and some light bulb adjustments, the era of silent films was about to come to an end due to successful sound synchronization. Theatrical orchestras and scripted music had become such a cultural norm in film that synced sound didn't become widely accepted until a few years after.

Why are silent films important? ›

Silent films have always had a huge impact on cinema. The themes and stories portrayed in some of the best silent films have influenced filmmakers for decades to come. Even without any special effects or CGI, silent films have always been memorable.

What movie has no talking in it? ›

17 PM. “A Quiet Place” didn't need any dialogue to become a breakout hit at the box office. John Krasinski's near-silent horror film opened to $50 million and is destined to gross over $100 million by the end of its run. Fortunately, it's not the only modern film to take an artistic risk and go the silent route.

What Disney movie has no dialogue? ›

3 Fantasia (1940) Considered a landmark release in cinematic history, Fantasia is still unparalleled in its execution for being a film without dialogue and yet a feast for the ears.

Why are silent movies fast? ›

Silent films were mostly shot on hand-cranked cameras, which meant they were intended to run at variable speeds through the cinema projector, rather than today's standard 24 frames per second. Run a silent movie at the modern speed and more often than not it will look ridiculous – jerky and comically fast.

Who was the biggest star of the silent era? ›

03Charlie Chaplin is the most famous silent film star of all time, spanning a career of more than 75 years until his death in 1977.

How long did the silent era last? ›

This led to the silent movie era which ranged from 1894 to 1929. During this time period, a number of moving pictures were created and shown in theaters on big screens.

What is silent acting called? ›

Silent acting is known as "Mime". It is a form of acting in which no speech or sound is used but the message is conveyed through gesture and body movement.

When did the silent movie era end? ›

The switchover from silent to sound in the American film industry, which began in late 1927, was primarily complete by 1929 (though even in that year silent pictures continued to be produced, though at a heavily reduced rate).

How many silent films are lost? ›

Seventy-five percent of all silent films made at the end of the 19th Century and in the first three decades of the 20th, are considered lost, according to a 2013 study by U.S. Library of Congress. Some of these vanished artifacts have taunted film historians for decades.

Are there any silent film stars alive? ›

The last surviving film star of the silent era, Diana Serra Cary, has died aged 101 according to the Niles Film Museum. Known by her stage name Baby Peggy, Cary starred in over 100 short films and was one of the highest paid Hollywood stars of the 1920s, earning upwards of $1.5 million a year.

Which movie symbolically marks the end of the silent era and the debut of talkies? ›

The Jazz Singer, American musical film, released in 1927, that was the first feature-length movie with synchronized dialogue. It marked the ascendancy of “talkies” and the end of the silent-film era.

What can we learn from silent films? ›

Silent films were responsible for the birth of continuity editing which is essential to storytelling and narrative economy. It evolves a set of principles such as the use of ellipsis, the use of diegetic or extradiegetic sound, flashback, match on action, 30-degree rule, 180-degree rule and so forth.

How did silent films impact society? ›

Silent movies provided cheap entertainment that overcame the language barrier for the millions of immigrants coming to America in the early 20th century. The Silent Film era was characterized by significant power struggles, as individuals and corporations fought to capitalize on the burgeoning industry..

Why do people watch silent movies? ›

My reasons for liking silent films have to do with obscurity, rooting for the underdog and the fact that a good silent movie is an entirely unique experience. Because we as viewers are required to supply so much of our imagination, a good silent movie will root itself in our brains far deeper than a sound film.

What is silent era of Indian cinema? ›

The Silent Era - 1900-1930

The early three decades were considered as social protests in the history of Indian cinema as only three big banners namely, Kohinoor films, Prabhat Talkies, Bombay Talkies and New Theatres to name a few ventured into making silent films based on Indian mythology and social issues.

Why is modern times a silent film? ›

Chaplin chose not to make a sound picture due to his fear of the modern age, and of ruining the Tramp's universal appeal by giving him a voice. Reluctant as he was, the entire film was a way for Chaplin to dip his toes into the world of sound and push his limits as an artist.

What year did silent movies end? ›

The switchover from silent to sound in the American film industry, which began in late 1927, was primarily complete by 1929 (though even in that year silent pictures continued to be produced, though at a heavily reduced rate).

What is silent acting called? ›

Silent acting is known as "Mime". It is a form of acting in which no speech or sound is used but the message is conveyed through gesture and body movement.

What are the dialogue images in silent films called? ›

In this era intertitles were mostly called "subtitles" and often had Art Deco motifs. They were a mainstay of silent films once the films became of sufficient length and detail to necessitate dialogue or narration to make sense of the enacted or documented events.

Why do silent movies move so fast? ›

Silent films were mostly shot on hand-cranked cameras, which meant they were intended to run at variable speeds through the cinema projector, rather than today's standard 24 frames per second. Run a silent movie at the modern speed and more often than not it will look ridiculous – jerky and comically fast.

What is the first silent movie in India? ›

In 1913 he released India's first silent film, Raja Harishchandra, a work based on Hindu mythology. The film, scripted, produced, directed, and distributed by Phalke, was a huge success and an important milestone in Indian cinematic history.

What message does Modern Times convey? ›

Chaplin's Modern Times criticizes the growing industrial and mechanical nature of society through hyperbolic actions by the main character and varying reactions thereafter.

What is the message of the movie Modern Times? ›

“Modern Times” is perhaps more meaningful now than at any time since its first release. The twentieth- century theme of the film, farsighted for its time—the struggle to eschew alienation and preserve humanity in a modern, mechanized world—profoundly reflects issues confronting the twenty-first century.

What is the theme of Modern Times? ›

Often described as a satire of the machine age, Modern Times has in fact a broader theme: the dehumanizing effects of many aspects of modernity, including industrialization, bureaucracy, urbanization, and law enforcement.

How many silent films are lost? ›

Seventy-five percent of all silent films made at the end of the 19th Century and in the first three decades of the 20th, are considered lost, according to a 2013 study by U.S. Library of Congress. Some of these vanished artifacts have taunted film historians for decades.

How long did the silent era last? ›

This led to the silent movie era which ranged from 1894 to 1929. During this time period, a number of moving pictures were created and shown in theaters on big screens.

Do people still make silent films? ›

A new study commissioned by the Library of Congress confirms that only 25% of the films produced by major American studios in the silent era still exist, and only 11% of them in their original 35 mm format.

What are the 3 elements of mime? ›

Mime is a form of silent art that involves acting or communicating using only movements, gestures, and facial expressions.

How can I be silent in acting? ›

Silent Storytelling: The Art of the Mime - YouTube

Who was the first silent film star? ›

Fifty-three years passed before actor and film-history buff Roddy McDowall sprang for a headstone that marked the departed's singular place in cinematic history: “The First Movie Star.” Her name was Florence Lawrence.

Videos

1. Silent Films are Like Hard Liquor: A Guide to Silent Movies
(Eyebrow Cinema)
2. Movie review of the 1922 German silent horror film Nosferatu
(Cory Granath)
3. Celluloid Ghosts: Top Ten Lost Films
(Dark Corners Reviews)
4. TCM Comments on Metropolis (1927)
(24fpsfan)
5. Nitrate Fires & Movie Vaults: Films LOST and FOUND
(Analog Resurgence)
6. TCM Comments on Metropolis (1927)
(24fpsfan)

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