Like The Artist? Check Out These 7 Great Classic Silent Films
The quietly building popularity of Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is good cause for becoming immersed in the great films from the silent era — marathon style, for the brave among us. Silent films are more accessible than ever thanks to the Internet and the fact that some are now in the public domain, but home video remains a better viewing experience for many of them.
The stark beauty of Metropolis’ sets and scenes of epic destruction during both Battleship Potemkin and The General are best seen on a TV screen, barring their availability in a theater with live music, which larger cities like Los Angeles offer from time to time. (WME is toying with the idea of bringing The Artist to New York, Paris, London and other venues with live performances of Ludovic Bource’s score, Billboard has reported.) Then again, it’s awfully convenient to hop on YouTube and go from film to film; Netflix Watch Instantly and Amazon Instant Video have some titles worth checking out, too. Whatever the format, this tested multi-genre silent movie marathon would be a good starting place for anyone wanting to poke around the silent archives.
Billed as a “symphony of horror,” F.W. Murnau’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula benefits from such silent era hallmarks as vignetting and high-contrast shadows. The German Expressionist film, released in 1922, failed to get the rights to Stoker’s novel, thus Count Dracula becomes Count Orlok, and the word “vampire” is replaced with “nosferatu,” purportedly a Romanian word for the bloodsuckers. The movie follows Thomas Hutter as he travels from fictional Wisborg, Germany, to Transylvania to meet Orlok, who intends to buy property near Thomas’ home. After a murderous run through Transylvania and while hiding among coffins aboard a boat bound for Wisborg, Orlok targets Thomas’ wife, but is in for a surprise. The Eastern European locations, as well as simple makeup effects like gnarled fingers and caterpillar eyebrows, lend creepiness to the horror film, which can merely hint at evil and make your blood run cold.
It’s impossible to watch German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic tale of oppression today without seeing shades of the Occupy movement. Strife, betrayal and rage bubble beneath the surface of this gorgeously made sci-fi film. Known mainly for its expertly crafted (and very expensive) art deco sets, the film follows Freder — the son of industrialist Joh Fredersen, the founder of Metropolis — into the world of the city’s second-class workers. Freder’s curiosity leads him to Maria, who rallies the workers and tells them that a mediator will eventually come forward to forge an understanding between them and the upper class. Things get complicated when a mad scientist/inventor, Rotwang, is urged to release a robot he’s been building to stir more discontent among the workers, giving it the visage of Maria, who has the laborers’ trust. The story is a bit muddled in early home video releases, but the most recent restored version, incorporating huge sections of lost film that was found in 2008 in Argentina, was released on DVD and Blu-ray a year ago. An HD version on YouTube is crystal clear compared to earlier releases.
The 1936 film Modern Times more directly addresses the economic struggles of the working class. Charlie Chaplin’s Depression Era comedy was a comment on industrialization, and the indelible image of his Little Tramp persona as a cog in an enormous machine makes the desperation and indignity palpable. Chaplin begins the film suffering through an assembly line job, driven to the point of insanity. He’s sent to recuperate at a hospital but later finds jail preferable to unemployment. After he takes up with a gamine determined to have a home of her own, he ends up employed as a singing waiter, and the gags fly. The triumphant final scene is reminiscent of The Artist as it shows a man who masks his dejection and does what it takes to survive in a changed world.
Un Chien Andalou
Although they departed the Earth many decades before the four-letter warning emerged, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí would be proud to see their short film stamped NSFW. The nonlinear short film covers much surreal ground, including murder, nightmarish insects, the inexplicable morphing of objects into other objects, sexual battery and, of course, its famous stomach-churning eyeball torture. The film’s shocking opening scene, in which a man slices a woman’s eye open while a thin cloud passes in front of a full moon in echo, has popped up in pop culture from the likes of the Pixies and The Simpsons. (A calf’s eye was substituted for the human one for the shoot, but it’s a pretty convincing stand-in.) Once past that — if you’re watching on YouTube, it’s at 1:05 — the film is fairly easy to digest, if not understand. But that was by design. Dalí and Buñuel set out to make a film that was open to interpretation, and had said that nothing in it was symbolic or meaningful. Oh, artists.
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