Silent Cinema


Although American films enjoyed unchallenged success in the domestic market and dominated abroad, other nations made their mark by offering a distinctive alternative to classicism. Though quite different in their approaches to establishing unique forms of cinematic expression, Germany, France, and the USSR each forged national film movements during the 1920s, resulting in a body of idiosyncratic films that could lay claim to the status of art. These countries made conventional films in abundance even as they sustained more experimental works, but for the most part their legacy within the silent period can be traced to German Expressionism, French Impressionism, and Soviet montage, respectively.

Of the three countries, Germany's film industry was the most developed and the most prolific. In the 1920s it produced over two thousand feature films, and in 1923 German domination of its own market peaked for the decade, with domestic films accounting for 60 percent of the motion pictures screened in the country's cinemas. Although the nation's intelligentsia had resisted involvement with motion pictures until just prior to the war, the postwar sentiment within the country encouraged greater cross-fertilization among forms, and artists trained in Expressionism embraced film as a means to extend the visual experimentation of that art movement. The jagged shapes, crude lines, and forced perspective of Expressionist art was transposed onto the sets of the first German Expressionist film, Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , 1920). The Expressionist approach also extended to the makeup and performances of Caligari 's lead actors, reinforcing the film's sense of pronounced stylization. Few of the subsequent films linked to the movement replicated the application of an Expressionist visual logic to the mise-enscène to the degree achieved by Caligari ; nonetheless, those films classified as Expressionist arguably managed to adhere to the movement's general aim of rendering an internal state through external means, albeit in a modified fashion. This is the case even in Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens ( Nosferatu , F. W. Murnau,1922), which, unlike most Expressionist films, made extensive use of outdoor locations for its treatment of the vampire legend: rather than integrate Expressionist touches into a fabricated mise-en-scène , Murnau poses the actor playing Nosferatu in front of archways (creating visual echoes with the vampire's coffin) or uses shadows to further extend the already grotesque features of the character's body. Fritz Lang's films from this period, most spectacularly Metropolis (1927, and usually

Max Schreck as the vampire in F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), which combined location photography with an Expressionist design.
considered the movement's swan song), employ large-scale compositions which play up the geometricism evident in late period Expressionist art.

The distinctive look of German Expressionist productions, especially the care exercised in set design and lighting, were a direct outgrowth of Germany's updating of its studio facilities and refinement of its filming techniques, done with an eye to making its films desirable as exports. The approach achieved its goal, as many German productions, including historical epics (especially those directed by Ernst Lubitsch [1892–1947]) and the less grandiose kammerspiel ("intimate play") films, found receptive audiences abroad. However, Germany's film industry had been able to capitalize on a protected domestic market and a devalued currency to undersell its elaborate productions elsewhere; all this changed after 1924, with the stabilization of the mark and the lifting of quotas on foreign imports. American films poured into the country, overspending drove Ufa into debt, and personnel began to migrate to Hollywood, a trend initiated by Lubitsch's departure in 1923. Though the film industry recovered by the late twenties and experienced renewed aesthetic success with a realist strain of street films reflecting the influence of Neue Sachlichkeit (often translated as the New Objectivity), particularly in the works of G. W. Pabst (1885–1967), German filmmaking failed to duplicate the ambitions—and achievements—of the Expressionist period at the end of the 1920s.

The production situation in France differed radically from that in Germany. No centralized production facilities existed; filmmakers struggled to keep up with the technological innovations marking the films coming from the United States and Germany; the government failed to institute a system of quotas to protect domestic producers, opting for disabling taxes on movie tickets instead. In 1918 Pathé abandoned the vertically integrated structure that had propelled it to success before the war, opting out of production. The French filmmaking landscape was populated with numerous marginal independent companies, rendering it a particularly unstable environment; nonetheless, the artisanal approach to production invested the director with much more control than was possible in a system predicated on a detailed division of labor. If nothing else, the unpredictability of French film production offered possibilities for enterprising filmmakers to secure financing for projects of a less conventional nature. Many of the film makers associated with the Impressionist movement who emerged in post-war France divided their time between experimental works and more commercial projects. Those who remained separate from the industrial mainstream, such as Louis Delluc (1890–1924) and Dmitri Kirsanoff (1899–1957), found themselves making films with distinctly limited means. Despite the uncertainties of the production context, Impressionist filmmaking persisted for over ten years.

Unlike the Expressionists, the Impressionist filmmakers were not directly influenced by any single art movement. Instead, they were interested in exploring the potential of the cinematic medium, particularly its capacity for capturing the impressions that define the essence of the world. Appealing to notions of photogénie , which held that cinematic style could exercise a transformative effect on the everyday, Impressionist filmmakers employed superimpositions, masks, filters, distorting lenses, slow motion, varying shot scale, and mobile framing to render cinematically the spirit of what the camera recorded. More often than not, these techniques were designed to convey character subjectivity, emphasizing thought processes to a degree far in excess of what less digressive Hollywood narratives allowed. A moment in Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant (1926) is emblematic of the Impressionist approach: as a character sits reading, waiting for her sister to return, she loses consciousness and the screen goes blurry, giving way to a series of seemingly unrelated and superimposed images, many in close-up, including a woman's naked torso, a clock, cars on the street, and light pouring through a window. This collection of impressions may convey the sleeping woman's dream state or a more abstract synthesis of events real and imagined within the sisters' shared environment. Impressionist films traded on the ambiguity such imagistic passages could produce.

Sequences like this approximated the condition of cinéma pur that some French filmmakers championed, though other strains of French filmmaking, influenced by Dadaism ( Entr'acte , 1924), Cubism ( Ballet mécanique , 1924), and Surrealism ( Emak-Bakia , 1927), probably came closer, abandoning narrative altogether as they did. The heterogeneous nature of French filmmaking led to a proliferation of experimental modes, with Impressionism being only the most long-lasting. A desire to reduce film to its basic elements, giving priority to rhythm and lyricism, found its outlet in films that were purely abstract in nature, including works by one of France's most important female directors, Germaine Dulac (1882–1942) ( Thèmes et variations , 1928; and Arabesque , 1929). The lyrical qualities of cinéma pur also bled over into one of the more striking international developments of the late 1920s, the city symphony, examples of which emerged out of France ( Rien que les heures [ Nothing But Time ], 1926), Germany ( Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt [ Berlin: Symphony of a Great City ], 1927), the Netherlands ( Regen [ Rain ], 1929) and the USSR ( Chelovek s kino-apparatom [ The Man with a Movie Camera ], 1929).

The Man with a Movie Camera , directed by Dziga Vertov (1896–1954), was one of the most impressive achievements of the late silent era and one of the final examples of silent Soviet montage filmmaking, which had been initiated in earnest only five years earlier. The October Revolution of 1917 had necessitated a rebuilding of the Soviet film industry from the ground up, as many prerevolutionary filmmakers fled the country, taking their equipment and film stock with them. For the first few years production levels were low, and most of the films made were brief agitation-propaganda shorts. The Bolshevik government, realizing the potential of film to advance the prerogatives of the new regime, made efforts to aid in its revitalization, first by putting the Education Commisariat (or Narkompros) in charge of overseeing filmmaking in 1917, and then, two years later, by nationalizing the film industry. Also in 1919 Narkompros established a State Film School, where fledgling director Lev Kuleshov (1899–1970) began his studies of editing, which would prove instrumental to the development of montage filmmaking. The studies Kuleshov conducted reinforced the idea that a film's meaning lay in the combinations of shots rather than the individual shots themselves. Though outstripped in his theorizing of montage principles by later writers whose ideas were both more complex and more radical, including the directors Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), Kuleshov proved influential as both a filmmaker and a teacher; among his students was a key figure within the movement, Vsevolod Pudovkin, who incorporated montage into stirring narratives, making his films, such as Mat ( Mother , 1926), popular at home and abroad. Sustained feature production required more than inspired tutelage, however—an infusion of capital was necessary.

b. Joseph Francis Keaton Jr., Piqua, Kansas, 4 October 1895, d. 1 February 1966

One of the greatest of silent-era comedians, Buster Keaton fused the showmanship of his vaudeville training with an understanding of how to stage complicated gags uniquely able to exploit cinema's temporal and spatial parameters. In doing so he created film comedy that indulged a populist penchant for knockabout humor while also revealing a modernist sensibility attuned to reflexive jokes and an absurdist perspective. Part Keystone Kop, part surrealist manqué, Keaton and his image-based comedy did not weather the transition to sound, but his artistry won renewed recognition beginning in the 1950s, two decades after his career experienced a precipitous decline.

A performer from the age of three, Keaton moved into films by joining Fatty Arbuckle in the production of nearly twenty two-reelers in the late teens. In these early works Keaton established a way to translate vaudeville stagecraft into cinematic comedy and also forged a working relationship with the producer Joseph M. Schenck that would last through the 1920s. In 1920 Keaton embarked on a series of shorts over which he exercised creative control, resulting in a body of work defined by its physical virtuosity and sustained ingenuity. Two salient aspects of Keaton's comedy became enshrined in these films: the seemingly fruitless battles with massive objects, and the indomitable body of Buster. Diminutive yet muscular, Keaton might have been crushed by formidable forces; but despite constant buffeting he refused to relent. His resilience was signaled by the Great Stone Face, a visage that showed only glimmers of emotion, the slight range all the more effective for the subtle inflections it allowed.

From the disastrous house-in-a-box constructed in One Week (1920) to the legion of police officers pursuing Buster en masse in Cops (1922), Keaton's comedy derives from the protagonist's finding himself in predicaments that worsen in ever-multiplying ways. As the calamities proliferate, Keaton stages the consequences with a precision bordering on the geometric. Many of Keaton's most famous gags—such as when a collapsing house front fails to crush him because the open window frame provides the perfect space through which his body emerges unscathed—display a careful profilmic planning in the paradoxical service of proving the capriciousness of chance. As Keaton moved into feature-length filmmaking in the mid-1920s, the scale of the gags became even more impressive and the fatalistic implications more palpable. Buster's balletic grace, displayed in a variety of life-threatening situations, be it avoiding a multitude of rolling boulders, riding on the back of a driverless motorcycle, or caught in the midst of a cyclone, was magnified by the epic scale of the perils his body confronted. Human fragility and sheer endurance were conveyed within the context of the same gag.


One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), The Boat (1921), Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)


Blesh, Rudi. Keaton . New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Horton, Andrew, ed. Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Knopf, Robert. The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Krämer, Peter. "Derailing the Honeymoon Express: Comicality and Narrative Closure in Buster Keaton's The Blacksmith . " Velvet Light Trap 23 (1989): 101–116.

Charlie Keil

The Bolshevik government instituted the New Economic Policy in 1921, which integrated modified forms of capitalist endeavor into the communist system. Since 1917 the USSR had basically been cut off from other countries' products, but the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo opened up trade between Russia and Germany, and soon imports began to flow back into the Soviet Union. The government was able to take advantage of the revenue generated by these imports, especially once it set up an effective state-run enterprise, Sovkino, early in 1925, to control production and distribution. Slowly, state intervention paid off, and production levels climbed. Equally important, key films of the burgeoning Soviet montage movement, most notably Eisenstein's Bronenosets

Buster Keaton.

Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925) proved effective as exports, and Sovkino could begin to put money earned from the sales to other markets back into domestic production. By the late 1920s the USSR was producing as many features as France, and Soviet films outnumbered imports by two to one in the country's own theaters.

Although montage-based films constituted only a portion of the USSR's feature output in the period from 1924 to 1929, they tended to be among the more high-profile and influential of the films produced. Moreover, the formal complexity of the films was wedded to an overt ideological project: the transformation of the political consciousness of the Soviet populace. In this the montage films can be linked to Constructivism, a broader artistic movement that defined many aspects of Soviet post-revolutionary culture. A montage aesthetic pervaded much Constructivist art, most evident in mixed-media sculptural works and photo-collages. Montage involved the assemblage of heterogeneous elements or juxtaposition of fragments, the connection of which would produce a whole greater than the assorted parts. Accordingly, art was likened to a machine, whose constituent parts operated together in a dynamic fashion to create a propulsive force capable of productive change. Being a machine-based art form, cinema functioned as an obvious testing ground for Constructivist principles. Directors such as Eisenstein explored the various ways in which shot combinations could produce measurable effects on the spectator. Applying the Marxist concept of the dialectic, Eisenstein favored a notion of montage that depended on opposing elements coming into collision, and producing in their interaction a synthesis that would lay the groundwork for the next clash of opposites. He also likened each shot to a cell, which reverberated with the potential for montage. Placed into rapid juxtaposition with other similarly charged shots, the cumulative effect was one of revolutionary propulsion. One finds ample demonstration of Eisenstein's theories in action in Battleship Potemkin : early on in the film, Eisenstein conveys the potential for the sailors' rebellion through a quick series of simple shots itemizing basic daily tasks aboard the battleship. Each shot tends to be defined by a dominant quality (a geometric shape or pointedly directional movement), such that rapid cutting from one to the other produces a sense of agitation, until the action climaxes in the famous sequence detailing a sailor (dressed in a striped shirt) smashing a circular plate, this singular action broken down into a short burst of ten distinct shots.

As the Soviet government's attitude toward artistic experimentation hardened near the close of the decade, both Constructivist art and montage filmmaking found themselves subject to charges of needless formalism. Government officials questioned how the increasingly abstract intellectual connections underlying shot combinations in films such as The Man with a Movie Camera and Eisenstein's Oktyabr ( October and Ten Days That Shook the World , 1927) could be understood by the peasantry; eventually, filmmakers were forced to abandon the modernist "excesses" of the montage movement. Although direct government intervention was not always responsible, the aesthetic ambitiousness of the late silent cinema was arrested worldwide by the close of the decade, the main culprit being the introduction of sound. From the mid-twenties onward, the medium underwent a formal maturation, spurred in part by the increased circulation of accomplished films, but also by a growing sense of film's potential for artistry.

Even Hollywood, typically identified as driven by commercial success over artistic aspirations, seemed to reach new aesthetic heights in the years immediately before the wholesale conversion to sound. In part, one can attribute the flurry of masterworks to the presence of European directors who had been lured to the studio system, such as Lubitsch ( So This Is Paris , 1926), Murnau ( Sunrise , 1926), Victor Sjöström ( The Wind , 1928), and Paul Fejos ( Lonesome , 1928); but American directors also contributed, among them Buster Keaton (1895–1966) ( The General , 1927), Frank Borzage (1893–1962) ( Seventh Heaven , 1927), King Vidor ( The Crowd , 1928) and Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969) ( The Docks of New York , 1928). Theorists like Rudolf Arnheim celebrated the unique aesthetic qualities of late silent cinema, while the combined stylistic influence of Expressionism, Impressionism, and montage resulted in striking films from countries as disparate as England (Anthony Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor , 1929) and Japan (Teinosuke Kinugasa's Kurutta Ippeji [ A Page of Madness ], 1926). The era's crowning achievement may well be Carl Theodor Dreyer's (1889–1968) La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc ( The Passion of Joan of Arc , 1928), whose stark compositions, unsettling editing patterns, and isolated, closely scaled shots of its star, Maria Falconetti (1892–1946), distill the spiritual struggle of Joan into a concentrated portrait of intense emotion. Some would say the film's extensive title cards indicated that cinema was longing to speak; others would long for the purity that the mute orchestration of complex images offered, terminated by the headlong rush to incorporate sound in the years to follow.

SEE ALSO Comedy ; Documentary ; Expressionism ; France ; Genre ; Germany ; Great Britain ; Narrative ; Pre-Cinema ; Russia and Soviet Union ; Shots ; Slapstick Comedy ; Sound ; Sweden ; Star System ; Stars ; Studio System ; Technology ; Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft) ; World War I

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Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

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de Cordova, Richard. Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Grieveson, Lee, and Peter Krämer, eds. The Silent Cinema Reader . New York: Routledge, 2004.

Higashi, Sumiko. Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Keil, Charlie, and Shelley Stamp, eds. American Cinema's Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Koszarski, Richard. An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915–1928 . New York: Scribners, 1990.

Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age . New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Taylor, Richard. The Politics of the Soviet Cinema, 1917–1929 . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Thompson, Kristin. Exporting Entertainment: America in the

World Film Market, 1907–1934 . London: British Film Institute, 1985.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction . 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Waller, Gregory, ed. Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition . Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Charlie Keil

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