Michel Hazanavicius's 'The Artist' beautifully evokes the joyful era of early movies -- but there are many other silent classics worth revisiting
These days, silent movies are generally considered the preserve of arthouse cinemas and film historians. Even the best of them are rarely shown on television, and entire generations have grown up in ignorance of the silent age.
You'd have thought a modern director looking to make a mainstream film without dialogue would want to have his head examined, but against the odds that's just what French director Michel Hazanavicius has achieved.
His film, The Artist, which opened here yesterday, is a joyful celebration of classic silent cinema.
It's filmed in black and white, is almost completely dialogue-free and has earned rave reviews in America. More impressively, it's performed quite respectably so far at the box office, and is a surprisingly entertaining and amusing mainstream movie.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a dashing and rather conceited 1920s movie idol who seems to be modelled on Douglas Fairbanks. He has starred in an endless string of formulaic action films, but when talking pictures arrive in 1929 he fails to see the writing on the wall.
French beauty Berenice Bejo co-stars as a young chorus girl who'll become George's guardian angel, and The Artist is full of knowing nods to the conventions of silent film. There's the obligatory doomed love story, a comical policeman, Chaplinesque pratfalls, a terrifying climactic emergency and a little dog that saves the day.
But Hazanavicius is not mocking these silent staples, he's paying a loving tribute to them. As a child he was brought to the historic Max Linder cinema in Paris to watch screenings of the silent greats, and in The Artist he proves that 80 years after the arrival of sound it's still possible to entertain a modern cinema audience without words.
He might even maintain that there's something special and intimately involving about the silent film experience.
Critics have long argued that cinema lost its spark after the arrival of sound and struggled to recapture the visual inventiveness of early film.
A number of silent classics are still considered among the best films ever made. This selection of the best of them will rarely be seen on TV but are almost all available on DVD, and are worth investigating. As, by the way, is The Artist.
Birth of a Nation (1915)
To a modern audience, DW Griffith's soaring historical drama is, to put it mildly, problematic. For a start it presents the Ku Klux Klan as a force for good, and black men (played by gurning white actors) are depicted as slow-witted idiots obsessed with attacking white women.
In fact large elements of Birth of a Nation's plot are culturally and intellectually obnoxious, but good cinema is good cinema, and at times the visual sweep of Griffith's three-hour-long film is breathtaking.
The American Civil War battle scenes are particularly impressive, especially when you remember that it was all done with real men and real explosions. It tells a hell of a story, too, and Griffith later regretted the film's overt racism.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
Weimar Germany became a powerhouse of world cinema during the 1920s, and this seminal film from Robert Wiene has influenced everyone from Tim Burton to Jean Cocteau and is also credited with inventing the horror genre.
A dreamlike story with abstract canvas backdrops and deliberately stylised acting, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari stars Werner Krauss as a carnival performer who seems to be connected to a series of murders in a remote mountain village.
A narrator called Francis (Frederich Feher) becomes determined to unmask the evildoings of Caligari and his sleepwalking sidekick Cesare (Conrad Veidt), but in Robert Wiene's mesmerising masterpiece nothing is quite as it seems.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
In one sense Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film is shameless propaganda: based on a famous naval mutiny in the port of Odessa in 1905, Battleship Potemkin was an unremittingly biased tribute to the birth of Russian communism. But it was also a groundbreaking motion picture that hugely influenced the way action sequences are shot and edited.
During the Russo-Japanese War, a group of sailors on board the naval battleship Potemkin stage an uprising after being served meat crawling with maggots.
The death of their leader, Vakulinchuk, sparks riots in Odessa, which are brutally crushed by Tsarist troops. Eisenstein filmed the massacre scenes as emotionally as possible, and everyone remembers the moment when a pram bounces down the Odessa Staircase.
The General (1926)
Orson Welles famously called it "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made", and he might just be right. These days Buster Keaton is mainly considered a silent-era clown, but, like Chaplin, he was also a brilliant and innovative filmmaker, and, though it was a flop at the time, The General is now considered his best film.
In it he played a southern train engineer called Johnny who becomes an inadvertent hero when his train and his girlfriend are stolen by Union agents during the Civil War and he bravely gives chase. Full of hilarious and touching moments, Keaton's brilliantly shot and edited film culminates in a spectacular bridge collapse that involved 500 hardy extras.
Fritz Lang's dystopian classic has been restored a number of times, most recently in 2008 after a missing reel was discovered in the archives of an Argentinian film museum, and a subsequent cinema release showed how fresh and innovative it still looks. Metropolis is probably the most expensive silent film ever made, costing around $15m when adjusted for inflation, and Lang certainly conceived it on a grand scale.
It was filmed at a time when extremists on the Left and Right were battling for control of Weimar Germany, and Lang's story attacks the evils of both capitalism and totalitarianism. Set in a futuristic city controlled by a dictatorial inventor, Metropolis boasted breathtaking special effects and backdrops, and a memorably performance from Brigitte Helm.
Intended as the first of six films exploring the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte, Abel Gance's historical epic had a troubled opening. After being screened sporadically across Europe, it was bought out by MGM who drastically cut it and released it in America just as talkies were beginning to appear. It bombed and was all but forgotten until a film historian called Kevin Brownlow lovingly restored it to its full, 330-minute glory.
The film covers Napoleon's childhood and early military career and concludes at the height of his glorious invasion of Italy in 1797. Albert Dieudonne plays Bonaparte, and his haunting gaze speaks volumes. The film also includes incredible battle sequences.
The Crowd (1928)
During the silent era it wasn't just Berlin and Paris that produced arty films -- every now and then Hollywood did it, too. Director King Vidor was heavily influenced by German expressionist directors like FW Murnau, and conceived The Crowd as an implicit criticism of modern urban living. He concentrated on honing the film's bleak visual appeal, and avoided casting big stars in order to give his story more authenticity.
An ambitious New York office worker meets and marries the girl of his dreams and plots a bright future for them, but fate and an uncaring city intervene. The film's most spectacular sequences highlighted the loneliness of the individual lost in an indifferent crowd. MGM's boss Louis B Mayer hated the film and demanded changes, but Vidor stuck to his guns.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
When The Passion of Joan of Arc was first released, Maria Falconetti's performance was described as perhaps the most intense and emotional ever committed to film. It came at a cost: during filming, director Carl Theodor Dreyer pushed his actors to the point of collapse, and made Falconetti kneel for long periods on stone while wiping all nuance from her face until he caught the perfect expression of silent suffering.
Whatever he did it worked, and his account of the trial and execution of Joan is a truly compelling piece of cinema. For years it was believed lost after a fire destroyed the master negative, but, in 1981, a virtually complete copy was discovered in a janitor's closet at an Oslo mental hospital.
Pandora's Box (1929)
Of all the silent stars, Louise Brooks is the most startlingly sensual, and modern, and she eats up the screen in this dark drama from Austrian director Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Lulu is the wantonly sexualised mistress of a respectable newspaper publisher called Schon. When he tells her he's engaged to someone else, she seduces him into marrying her instead, but disaster strikes on their wedding night and Lulu ends up a widow suspected of murder.
She escapes her trial and turns up on the streets of London, where she has the great misfortune to run into Jack the Ripper. Papst's sweeping melodrama is full of unforgettable images, and Brooks is stunning as the doomed Lulu. Sadly, her career did not survive the transition to sound.
City Lights (1931)
As his filmmaking style developed beyond the purely slapstick, Charlie Chaplin became most adept at blending humour and pathos, and he does so most effectively in this moving and beautiful film.
Chaplin stars as a tramp who falls in love with a blind girl who sells flowers on the harsh streets of a big city. When she gets the impression that he's a wealthy man, he does not correct her, and sets out to find a real millionaire that might be able to pay for a sight-restoring operation.
For his trouble, the tramp ends up in jail, but the girl does recover her sight and in the film's memorably touching climax, she recognises something about the homeless man hovering uncertainly outside her flower shop, and realises he's her saviour.