Pre-Talkie Spectacles: The 10 Most Striking Silent Films

Sonia Redmond Zhao

In 1895, the Lumière brothers, Louie and Auguste, changed the world of entertainment. Silent film reigned supreme as the most astonishing technology of the era, and left the world of the early 20th century in absolute awe.
Cinema has developed quite significantly since its early days but the atmospheric and haunting imagery that they portray is still worth admiring. Truthfully, much of silent cinema’s optical brilliance remains unmatched against many films produced today. We check out ten extraordinary films that exemplify the beauty of silent films.

Toll of the Sea (1922)

A retelling of John Luther Long’s, Madame Butterfly, an American man washes up on a beach in China and is rescued by a local Chinese girl. They engage in a doomed romantic relationship that is ultimately overshadowed by heartbreak, deep tragedy and loss. Importantly, this was the first Technicolor feature film, made in Hollywood and given a wide release. The intense hues are due to red and green filtering, creating a striking chromatic vibrancy. It solidified Anna May Wong as not only one Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses, but as the very first American Chinese superstar to grace the silver screen.

Metropolis (1927)

Set in the year 2026, the wealthy creators of Metropolis reside above ground in soaring buildings, while the working class remain below in the depths of the city, operating machines and contraptions that keep the city afloat. A privileged son of the upper world discovers the injustice and exploitation of those below the city and endeavors to change the system alongside his love interest, a teacher from beneath. The film took one year to make, due to elaborate sets and effects. A pioneer in the science fiction genre, this German expressionist phenomenon appears to be years ahead of its time.

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

This SwedishDanish silent classic is based on the Mallus Maleficarum, which is a Medieval book discussing the treatment of witches, witchcraft, magic and the devil. The film itself acts almost like a documentary, with lurid and sensationalised historical vignettes of demons, possessions and torture. However, it possesses a deeper humanistic message, which concludes that age-old superstitions are obtuse and ignorant explanations for those who suffer hysteria and mental illness. With expertly designed costumes and makeup, stop-motion and double-exposure shots, it certainly earns its place within this list and exists as one of the most forward-thinking fantasy pieces in cinematic history.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Talkies were already established by 1929 and garnered an array of mixed opinions by critics and audiences. However, this new and exciting technology did not stop the great Luis Buñuel from creating one of the most famous and bizarre silent films of all time at the very end of its era. Buñuel and surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí, came together to create a short screenplay of just under 16 minutes. There is no plot, nor are the scenes arranged chronologically, comprising of purely dream-like imagery. Before viewing Buñuel and Dalí’s genius, know that gore, nudity and chaos, are sure to ensue.

Les Voyage dans la lune [A Trip to the Moon] (1902)

Georges Méliès is one of the earliest filmmakers, having directed hundreds of films throughout his lifetime. This whimsical tale is a simple one, relatively based a number of stories, such as The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells and From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne. A group of 5 astronomers build a space capsule and travel to the moon successfully, meeting extraterrestrials during their visit. Other than the fact that this is considered one of the greatest cinematic treasures of all time, it is also is a pioneer in the use of special effects.

Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc [The Passion of Joan of Arc] (1928)

Based on Joan of Arc’s trial and death, her final moments are told through the lens in this haunting and evocative production, thought to be lost for decades. It was finally rediscovered in a mental institution in Oslo, Norway in 1981, much to the cinematic word’s delight. The cinematography is hailed as masterful, due to a large portion of the film being predominately comprised of close-up shots. The actors wear no make-up either, in an attempt to portray elements of realism. However, it is the performance of Maria Falconetti in the title role that many consider unmatched to this day.

Nosferatu (1920)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of the most adapted pieces of literature in history. Countless films based on the legends of Vampires have been created, but this was the very first one. The vampiric protagonist, Count Orlak, develops a curiosity in the form of an estate agent’s wife, and relentlessly hunts her down. What makes this an effective horror film is the playfulness of shadows and lighting that create its famed eerie ambience. Orlak’s physical appearance is also chilling, with his elongated fingers, sharp pointed ears and long teeth, which make him a recognisable character within popular culture today.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle-Eastern folk tales, inspired the making of this action-packed love story about an unruly rogue who vies for the love of a princess, against Mongol royalty. This is an early epic that shines with its elaborate Arabian themed set designs and costumes. Color tinting and special effects proved costly and the production is notorious for being one of the most expensive in Hollywood in the 1920s. However, it was very much worth every penny as the final result was very much a positive one, due to the sheer artistic opulence alone.

Faust (1926)

F. W. Murnau, who also directed Nosferatu in 1922, is a mastermind when it comes to film effects and atmosphere. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s, Faust, was no exception to his talent. In a bid to win reign over earth, a demon makes a bet with an archangel that he can corrupt a virtuous man. Pandamonium undoubtedly follows. Murnau, again, constructs a visually imposing fantasy film with large sets, misty effects and expert lighting, accentuating the most important visual points on the screen. Ghostly, dark and expressive, it truly earns its place on this list.

Cabria (1914)

An Italian film set during the Second Punic War of the 3rd century BC, this film tells the tale of an abducted girl named Cabria, who is sold into slavery, only to be rescued by a Nobleman. Eventually they fall in love during the course of natural disasters, wars and affiliations. The film was shot on location in Turin, Italy, and tracking shots of ornate sets feature prominently. Controversial due to the political undertones of the storyline, it is still a much-respected piece that is so elaborately adorned, it could efficiently contrast with the current ancient war epics of today.

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