The tl;dr version of the silent film era.
Maybe you’ve never seen a silent film. Or maybe you’ve seen a few, but would like to explore further. You don’t want to dedicate hundreds of hours to the subject — you just want to feel like you kind of want to get a feel for what the deal was. Well, I’ve got just the thing for you: a 30-hour silent film study plan highlighting the wide range of content created in that prolific film era, dabbling in everything from documentaries to science fiction to animation.
Some notes about defining the “silent” film “era”: while innovators came up with various experimental ways of synchronizing sound and image dating back to the dawn of cinema, the first feature-length “talking” picture is generally considered 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Though it did vary some between countries, the takeover of sound was, on the whole, both quick and brutal, as many great stars suddenly became yesterday’s news while more verbally adept newcomers shot up through the ranks to take their places. This article gives the silent era a three-year grace period, placing the cutoff at 1930. Admittedly, there are some brilliant silent films that were made later, but if they missed the cutoff, I disqualified them for inclusion in this piece (unfortunately, Yasujirō Ozu really didn’t come into his own as a filmmaker until the 1930s…). Also, I limited myself to one film per director.
With that said, let’s get started.
The OGs (Pre-1910)
For a decent, free online overview of the origins of film, check out Tim Dirks’ filmsite. Here’s the even shorter version: In the late 19th century, Edison Manufacturing Company employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson developed the Kinetograph, the first motion picture camera prototype, producing his first test film in either 1889 or 1890. In 1891, he started developing an early motion picture projector known as the Kinetoscope.
But wait, you might be thinking, weren’t there those French dudes? And the answer is yes, that’s up next because in February 1895 the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere patented the Cinematographe, which ended up truly kicking off the filmmaking industry because it was a lightweight all-in-one camera/projector that was way easier to use. So, in sum: they weren’t first, but they arrived with much more style.
Considering the moving picture camera was a brand-new invention, it is important to remember that many of the early makers of film would not identify themselves as filmmakers, but as people of a wide variety of professions and interests who decided to dabble in this newfangled gizmo. That said, even going back to these early days, people like to separate filmmakers into two schools — those with a realistic bent (which ultimately becomes linked to those with predominantly political intentions), with the Lumières heralded as the forefathers, and those with a magical/creative bent, stemming from Georges Méliès. It’s a vast, vast oversimplification, but it is can be a useful framework sometimes. The basic outline of narrative film as we know really started taking shape in the 1910s — before that, it was an experimental (and pretty wacky) world, as can be seen in the examples below.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat)
a.k.a. that one featured in Hugo
Dir. Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1 min., 1896
The Cabbage Fairy (La Fée aux Choux)
a.k.a. the debut of the first film storyteller
Dir. Alice Guy-Blaché, 1 min., 1896
What made Alice Guy-Blaché noteworthy among the earliest filmmakers, as can be seen in her debut “The Cabbage Fairy,” was that she was really the first to see film as, above all, a storytelling medium, and to really focus on the narrative potential that would define the medium’s future. (To read more about Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber (see below), and other female filmmakers of the silent era, check out my FSR article on the subject.)
A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune)
a.k.a. that other one featured in Hugo
Dir. Georges Méliès, 13 min., 1902
The Big Swallow
a.k.a. the first extreme close-up
Dir. James Williamson, 1 min., 1901
This three-shot trick film of an irritated camera subject swallowing the camera whole is significant in that it is one of the first films to really exploit and explore the way in which the viewer identifies with the camera.
The Great Train Robbery
a.k.a. the one where the guy shoots a gun at your face
Dir. Edwin S. Porter, 12 min., 1903
In this hugely popular proto-Western, a group of bandits stop and rob a train, are pursued by a posse, which ends in a shoot-out. The bandits are outnumbered and lose. The stolen loot is then recovered. Ironically, the shot for which the film is far and away the most famous — the medium close-up of the bandit chief pointing and shooting his gun directly at the camera (and therefore, the audience) — was actually something of a promotional gimmick. It didn’t fit into the film’s continuity in any particular place, theater managers could actually choose whether to tack the scene onto the film’s beginning as a prologue or end as an epilogue.
The Birth of a Nation
a.k.a. the Hollywood-defining KKK promo
Dir. D. W. Griffith, 193 min., 1915
If you’re looking for someone to wax poetic about Griffith, you’ve come to the wrong place. Don’t worry, if you pick up like 90% of introductory film history textbooks, you’ll find the effusive content you are looking for. However, I am of the opinion that if David Wark Griffith had, for example, died of a fever in childhood, both the filmmaking industry and Hollywood would have still grown and developed just fine, and along more or less the same timeline. That is not to say that his films, which also include the likes of Way Down East and Intolerance, were not highly influential (they were, and still are), just to say the claims that Griffith invented the close-up, the tracking shot, “restrained acting”, and even film editing are totally untrue. The reason many people still believe he did? Griffith himself literally took out an ad in the December 3, 1913 issue of the New York Dramatic Mirror making these claims, because apparently, that’s the kind of person that he was.
A warning: bring up Griffith in cinematic circles at your own peril. To this day, it is still incredibly easy to find diehard Griffith fanboys and apologists. Note that when you bring up Griffith to these individuals you have made a fatal error, and will not be allowed to talk about anything else until you agree that yes, Griffith was the biggest deal ever, no takebacks. I am only slightly exaggerating. I briefly dated one such person, and the Griffith factor may or may not have been one of the reasons why it was brief. But I digress.
Considering the unfortunate and irreversible status that The Birth of a Nation has in film history — and just plain history, considering it helped spark the rise of the “second era” of the Klu Klux Klan — it is an important film to watch, if only to understand the various messages and hideous stereotypes it portrays about African-Americans, and in order to be able to better see the increasingly subtle but consistent ways they have echoed in our popular culture ever since. It might be tempting to just try to forget about it and pretend like it didn’t happen. But it was the first American film to be screened in the White House, and that will never not be true. It’s, in a number of regards, a horrendously ugly film with an ugly history, but it’s our history, and it’s important to know it. That said, it’s worth mentioning that even upon release it was already highly controversial, especially in the Northern states, with screenings often sparking violent protests (it was actually banned in the state of Ohio).
a.k.a. silent Tarkovsky
Dir. Alexander Dovzhenko, 76 min., 1930
Dovzhenko’s philosophical meditation on collectivization and the soul of Ukraine (and, perhaps, the world) is often listed among the best films ever made. Telling the story of a rural community which receives its first tractor, it’s perhaps best described as visual poetry. In pacing and style, it can very much be seen as a precursor to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. There is something decidedly languid about it. And lulling. (I’m going to be honest here and admit that I totally dozed off when my professor screened this one in class.)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc)
a.k.a. the one with all the close-ups (and no make-up)
Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 82 min., 1928
Dreyer once wrote, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside and turning into poetry.” And that’s basically The Passion of Joan of Arc. Note that the intertitle dialogue in the film is taken directly from Joan of Arc’s trial transcripts — the biggest artistic license taken is that multiple days are condensed into one for the sake of time and pacing.
The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin)
a.k.a. the one where the baby carriage falls down the stairs
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 70 min., 1925
From the earliest days of cinema, the motivations of various filmmakers have varied considerably. Eisenstein, who was not just one of the era’s greatest filmmakers, but greatest theorists — you’d be hard-pressed to find a film student who hasn’t read one of his Film Form essays. Eisenstein was very much a political filmmaker, and this dramatization of the 1905 mutiny and the aftermath is easily his most effective film. In the words of Bryony Dixon in the BFI Screen Guide 100 Silent Films, Potemkin is “arguably the most celebrated silent film of all.”
When you watch the Odessa steps sequence you will experience déjà vu regardless of whether or not you have seen the film before because it has been referenced and replicated in at least a dozen other films by this point, from The Untouchables to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
a.k.a. the exact opposite of the It you’re thinking of
Dir. Clarence Badger, 1927, 72 min.
If you want to examine the Zeitgeist of Roaring Twenties USA in serious book form, read The Great Gatsby. If you want to do the same but in a lighthearted film, watch It. This silent rom-com about a plucky shopgirl — Clara Bow, in her star-making performance — with a crush on her very rich and handsome employer could hardly be more emblematic of the decade if it tried. It was a huge commercial success, and Bow skyrocketed to becoming the biggest movie star of the 1920s — she was the It girl. The It girl. (Yes, that’s where the term comes from.)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
a.k.a. the pretty one
Dir. F. W. Murnau, 94 min., 1927
“Arguably, the finest film of the silent era, but quite certainly, the most beautiful pictorially,” according to William K. Everson in American Silent Film. The plot is incredibly simple — married country farmer is seduced by a city vamp into agreeing to murder his wife (virtuous, angelic, mother of his child), things snowball from there — but the visuals are sumptuously rich. Murnau was one of the greats of the silent era, and his untimely car accident death means we tragically never got to see him transition into the sound era. Of all the dramatic directors of the silent era, Murnau is hands down my favorite. While I chose Sunrise because it Is his most iconic, his earlier German works are similarly outstanding, from Faust to the legendary Nosferatu to The Last Laugh, a feature-length work which famously features no intertitles — a feat possible because Murnau’s uncanny ability to visualize his character’s emotional states and inner conflicts is unparalleled.
Sir Arne’s Treasure (Her Arnes pengar)
a.k.a. everything was beautiful and everything hurt
Dir. Mauritz Stiller, 1919, 106 min.
Three desperate mercenaries rob and kill a nobleman and his family, leaving daughter Elsalill the lone survivor. Fast forward, and Elsalill and one of the mercenaries end up falling in love without realizing their pre-existing connection. The truth, of course, comes to light, and angst ensues. It’s beautiful, it’s tragic, and it’s a reminder that in terms of artistry, Scandinavian cinema was a force to be reckoned with in the 1910s.
Action/Adventure, Science Fiction, and Fantasy
a.k.a. the one with the robot lady
Dir. Fritz Lang, 148 min., 1927
Featuring thousands of extras, 310 shooting days (and 60 shooting nights), and featuring visual effects and cinematic techniques that are still intriguing and impressive to the modern viewer, Metropolis is epic in every sense of the word. It’s got everything. Action. Romance. Robots. Social commentary. Mad scientists. Is it heavy-handed at times? Absolutely, the ending especially — Thea von Harbou, the screenwriter and Lang’s wife, definitely loved her truisms. That said, the scope of its influence, particularly in the realm of science fiction, is remarkable.
Horror and Suspense
a.k.a that one time a woman was the “highest salaried” film director in Hollywood
Dir. Lois Weber (and Phillips Smalley), 10 min., 1913
In the early 1910s, Weber was one of the biggest working directors in the U.S. Known for the heavy-handed “social issue” messaging in her films, Weber and her work were important in helping cinema establish itself as a respectable, mainstream form of entertainment. For a modern viewer, various implications of her “moral” statements are decidedly problematic, but she really knew how to use the camera and the particular qualities of the cinematic form to elicit a desired emotional response in an audience.
Phillips Smalley in parentheses because even back in the day there was kind of a question mark regarding how much he actually contributed to his wife’s filmmaking process, but he’s generally listed as a co-director, so there he is. In parentheses.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
a.k.a. the Hitchcock one
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 91 min., 1927
A landlady suspects her new lodger is a serial killer. The same Hitchcock you know and love, only silent.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari)
a.k.a. the granddaddy of all twist endings
Dir. Robert Wiene, 72 min., 1920
Dr. Caligari displays the German Expressionist aesthetic in its best light. As the film was made just as foreign film industries eased their restrictions on importing German films following World War I, it is considered the explosive starting point in the wonderfully creative, innovative, and politically potent period of Weimar cinema that ended (depending on who you ask) with one of Fritz Lang’s great masterworks, either Metropolis (1929) or M (1931) (and the rise of Hitler).
Like many early films, it feels decidedly theatrical in certain ways — pretty much exclusively medium-long shots of stationary sets — but that doesn’t stop it from being a great film. The looming forms and odd angles of the heavily stylized sets and their painted-on shadows dovetail beautifully with the themes of the narrative — madness, consciousness, the nature of reality. So no, while it may not be the most innovative in terms of cinematography, it’s an exemplary study in atmosphere, and its influence in terms of narrative structure — elusive prologue, rather straightforward narrative, eleventh-hour plot twist — can hardly be overstated within the suspense genre.
The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen)
a.k.a. A Christmas’s Carol’s darker and edgier cousin
Dir. Victor Sjöstrom, 93 min., 1921
A favorite of Ingmar Bergman’s, who purportedly watched it every year, Phantom Carriage tells the story of David, a drunkard who neglects his sickly wife, Anna, and their children. In a drunken brawl, David is hit in the head and dies just before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. After being picked up by Death’s carriage, he reflects over his sins and the people he is leaving behind. The use of superimposition, especially to create the illusion of ghostly apparitions, was hardly a novel development, but the execution of this technique throughout The Phantom Carriage is second to none.
Witchcraft Through the Ages (Häxan)
a.k.a. high octane nightmare fuel that is also funny
Part docudrama of the history of witchcraft, part social commentary, this indefinable film laces incredibly disturbing imagery with pitch black humor. You will have nightmares and also laugh. The director plays the devil. No one who saw this film when it was first released knew what the hell to do with it—the review in Variety called it “wonderful” and “absolutely unfit for public exhibition” in the same sentence.
The Gold Rush
a.k.a. the comedy inspired by cannibalism
Dir. Charlie Chaplin, 96 min., 1925
Chaplin claimed that The Gold Rush is the film he would most like to be remembered for, so we’re going to honor his wishes. And it’s not exactly hard to do, because it’s one of his greatest works. The Tramp goes prospecting during the Klondike Gold Rush, and there are, as one would expect, disasters at every turn. Chaplin also took inspiration from the story of the infamous Donner party—a group of pioneers who resorted to eating shoe leather and, in some cases, cannibalism, to survive after being snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. The film’s hunger and food-related humor is of particular note, and includes such iconic gags as Chaplin’s chowing down on shoelaces like spaghetti, the Tramp’s hungry roommate imagining him as a chicken in a hunger-induced hallucination, and the famous and wonderfully GIF-able “Bread Dance.”
The Oyster Princess
a.k.a. the one with the “Lubitsch touch”
Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 60 min., 1919
Most everybody agrees that Ernst Lubitsch was something special. His films quite often didn’t display the most groundbreaking ideas — his second American film, The Marriage Circle, has for example been called a “facsimile” of Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris — but all of his films have that delightful “Lubitsch touch.” Most people agree that it’s there, but no one seems to be able to define it in any more satisfactory terms. But take a look at this wacky rom-com and judge it for yourself.
a.k.a. meta back before everyone was doing it
Dir. Buster Keaton, 49 min., 1924
How could you not pick The General?! At least one person is shouting at this screen right now. While The General is good, I personally think Sherlock, Jr. is not just better, but way more interesting and innovative. While Keaton has been quoted saying The General is the film he was most proud of, Sherlock, Jr. took Keaton twice as long as his typical films due to the incredibly intricate and complicated nature of the the stunts and technical tricks involved. It’s the sort of film that still feels like a technical marvel to a modern viewer accustomed to the latest in CGI, and that’s pretty incredible.
a.k.a. that one where the guy dangles from a clock
Dir. Harold Lloyd, 70 min., 1923
Department store clerk who organizes a publicity stunt involving someone climbing up the outside of a tall building ends up having to make the climb himself. Though Lloyd has not stuck around in public memory the way of Chaplin or Keaton, Safety Last! is an excellent introduction to one of the silent era’s most under-appreciated comedic geniuses.
The Birth of a Flower
a.k.a. the original plant time-lapse film
F. Percy Smith, 8 min., 1910
Time-lapse photography of plant life growing is a pretty well-established technique at this point — a staple of nature documentaries and hardly unknown in fictional film either (see: Days of Heaven) — and this is where it started.
Nanook of the North
a.k.a. the Doc-father
Dir. Robert J. Flaherty, 79 min., 1922
One of the first feature-length documentaries, modern viewers will likely cringe at several highly staged scenes and Flaherty’s obvious love of the “noble savage” trope. But as much as Flaherty might have been taking his own agenda and pre-conceived notions with him to the Canadian Arctic, but he also brought a camera, and the fact of the matter is that the footage he captured is pretty much all the videographic record of Inuit life and culture from that time that we have.
Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom)
a.k.a. the city symphony
Dir. Dziga Vertov, 68 min., 1929
Documenting a day in the life of a city, Man with a Movie Camera has no intertitles, no overarching narrative, and no professional actors. This experimental documentary—one of the most lauded entries in the “city symphony” genre—explores everywhere from a hospital to busy street corners, subverting expectations and traditional narrative structures at every turn. The incredibly innovative and playful editing is the real star of the show.
Gertie the Dinosaur
a.k.a. Jurassic Park meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Dir. Winsor McCay, 13 min., 1914
This innovative mix of live action and animation is also the first dinosaur film. It was the first animation to use key framing.
The Cameraman’s Revenge
a.k.a. the one with the bugs
Dir. Ladislas Starewicz, 13 mins., 1912
Questions still remain regarding the exact method by which Starewicz manipulated and posed the dead bugs he used in his stop-motion “flea circus” films (ironically, no fleas), but the end result is undeniable: eerie, intriguing, and oddly charming. This cynical tale of an unhappy beetle marriage is genuinely one of my favorite things in the world. With intertitles like “Mr. Beetle should have guessed that the aggressive grasshopper was a movie cameraman” and “His business always took him to the ‘Gay Dragonfly’ nightclub. The dancer there understood him,” this thirteen-minute dose of pure cinematic weirdness never fails to crack me up.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed)
Dir. Lotte Reiniger, 65 min., 1926
Though Walt Disney was already making movies by this time, the first feature-length animated film was not a Disney production (though it is hard to argue that following the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves he came to dominate the animated world).
That title technically doesn’t go to Reiniger’s film either — currently, the oldest animated feature film is believed to be The Apostle (El Apóstol) by pioneering Argentinian animator and cartoonist Quirino Cristiani, but unfortunately, that film has been lost.
What Prince Achmed can claim, therefore, is being the oldest known surviving feature-length animation. Adapted from a tale from One Thousand and One Nights — nearly all of Reiniger’s films are adapted from folk or fairy tales, the film features gorgeously detailed black silhouettes against solid-color backdrops. Pulling from the ancient art of shadow puppetry (Reiniger loved Chinese silhouette puppetry from childhood) and the technical processes of stop-motion, Reiniger’s distinctive silhouette-style animation can be seen in all of her films — totaling over 40 titles, including both shorts and feature-length.
An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien andalou)
a.k.a. SURREALISTS R US (feat. that one eye-slicing scene)
Dir. Luis Buñuel, 1928, 16 min.
A fever dream brought to you by the dynamic duo of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Trying to summarize this one would be like trying to catch a bird with a fishing rod, so I’m not even going to go there. You’ve seen a Dali painting, right? (If not, you’re on the internet, the search bar is right up there. Go ahead, I’ll wait here.) …Yeah. So, like that, but live action, and a movie.