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Tag Archives: E.A. Dupont

E.A. Dupont’s VARIETE at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center

My latest blog post for Time Out Chicago concerns the University of Chicago Film Studies Center’s October 2 screening of Variete featuring a live score by the esteemed Alloy Orchestra. You can read the article in its entirety below.

Variete

University of Chicago will screen 1925 German film Variete with a live score

One of the supreme masterpieces of Weimar-era German cinema is set to make its Chicago re-premiere at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center on Sunday, October 2. Director E.A. Dupont’s Variete will screen in a new restoration with live accompaniment by the percussion-heavy three-man ensemble known as the Alloy Orchestra. Although I haven’t yet heard this new score, theHollywood Reporter called it “indispensable,” and said the film is “the vintage restoration sensation of the year.” Considering that Alloy’s score for Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is the greatest I’ve heard for any silent film, this upcoming screening should be considered essential viewing for local cinephiles.

Variete was Germany’s biggest box office hit of 1925. It came out during the height of the movement known as Expressionism but, in spite of the extraordinarily fluid camerawork of Karl Freund (Metropolis) and a clever plot about the sinister goings-on within a circus, Dupont’s movie actually feels closer to the social realism with which directors like G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box) and Josef Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) would soon make their mark. The film begins with a prisoner, “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings in an uncharacteristically restrained performance), breaking a 10-year vow of silence and telling a warden the tragic story, seen in flashback, of how he came to murder his unfaithful trapeze-artist wife (Lya de Putti). The whole movie is great but the highlights are the exhilarating trapeze sequences, the deft camerawork of which puts viewers in the middle of the action, creating a thrilling “you are there” effect.

Variete screens at the Logan Center for the Arts on Sunday, October 2 at 7pm. For more info visit filmstudiescenter.uchicago.edu.

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Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2015

My top 10 favorite new home video releases of 2015 (and 20 runners up):

10. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953, Warner Blu-ray)

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Warner Brothers has a track record of putting out impeccable high-def transfers of their catalogue titles on Blu-ray — when they can be bothered (their neglect of the considerable number of silent movies to which they own the rights is unfortunate) — and The Band Wagon is no exception. This is for my money Vincente Minnelli’s best film and the greatest of all Hollywood musicals. Fred Astaire, in a role that must’ve been uncomfortably close to his real-life situation, is a legendary but over-the-hill hoofer hoping to make a triumphant return on Broadway but who must first contend with a pretentious director (Jack Buchanan) and a saucy young co-star (Cyd Charisse). The Blu-ray of this love letter to the musical genre and the process of collaborative art-making is perfect. Among the extras, ported over from the DVD, is a nice audio commentary track by Liza Minnelli who vividly remembers visiting the set as a little girl. That’s entertainment indeed.

9. Variete (Dupont, 1925, Edel Germany GmbH Blu-ray)

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The new Blu-ray of the F.W. Murnau Foundation’s impeccable restoration of this classic German silent was mired in controversy due to the inclusion of a single musical-score option: a track by the British musical group The Tiger Lilies that features a prominent vocal throughout. Personally, I kind of like it but, even if I didn’t, this is still a must buy; it’s Variete, uncut and looking better than it probably has since the silent era. For those who’ve never seen it, the chief selling points are the heartbreaking and uncharacteristically subtle lead performance by Emil Jannings and the dazzlingly subjective cinematography, especially during the trapeze sequences, by the great Karl Freund (Metropolis). This reasonably priced German disc thankfully comes with optional English subtitles and is region free. There are no plans for a U.S. release. Full review here.

8. Love Unto Death / Life is a Bed of Roses (Resnais, 1983-1984, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)

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I don’t think that either of these individual movies or their respective HD transfers are quite as impressive as, say, Criterion’s recent release of Hiroshima Mon Amour or Kino/Lorber’s Je t’aime, je t’aime disc. However, there is something to be said for an enterprising distributor like Cohen Media Group taking a chance on putting out the lesser-known work of a master filmmaker. And there is even more to be said for the incredible value of bundling two films together into one package (Cohen did something similar a few years back with their essential Claude Chabrol/Inspector Lavardin set). Not only was it a pleasure to revisit these underrated gems, I also greatly appreciated the casual audio commentary tracks by Francophile-critics Andy Klein and Wade Major. Further thoughts here.

7. Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1966, Mr. Bongo Blu-ray)

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The Criterion Collection is putting this out next year and there’s no doubt in my mind that their release — in terms of transfer quality and, especially, extras — will handily best Mr. Bongo’s disc. But I don’t regret scooping up this bare-bones release for one second. The first time I saw Chimes at Midnight was on a terrible-quality VHS tape that I rented from Facets Multimedia (the only way it could be seen in the U.S. at the time) and I recall putting my face only inches away from the screen so that I could absorb the sounds and images of Orson Welles’s masterpiece as thoroughly as possible. Jonathan Rosenbaum once noted that, in making this film, Welles essentially created a new Shakespeare play by mashing up the Falstaff cycle (the two Henry IV plays, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor). The result is also, perhaps paradoxically, Welles at his most cinematic: the famous “Battle of Shrewsbury” sequence is an insanely great montage that stands as the most remarkable such battle scene in the history of movies. I still cannot believe that I am finally able to see this in an amazingly restored version (courtesy of Luciano Berriatúa of the Filmoteca in Madrid) in 1080p on my home television.

6. The Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955-1959, Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

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Deciding which Criterion release will make my year-end best-of list (I limit myself to one title per distributor in the interest of diversity) is always a challenge. This year, the decision was made a lot easier by their amazing Blu-ray box set of Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu trilogy. Not only are these among the finest films in the history of cinema — they capture the ebb and flow of life as it is simply lived with an uncommon clarity and power — Criterion also did heroic work in “rehydrating” and restoring the brittle, fire-damaged original negatives (for a thorough account of what this elaborate process entailed, read this illuminating interview with Lee Kline). What a joy it is then to revisit these humane masterworks, which follow the experiences of one individual from his early childhood in a poor and rural Bengali village into adulthood and professional literary success, in such exceptional quality.

5. Dragon Inn (Hu, 1967, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

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Chinese director King Hu is the most important director of the martial arts genre (his relationship to wuxia is similar to that of Hitchcock to the thriller or Ford to the western) and Dragon Inn is one of his most significant achievements. It was the first film he made after leaving Hong Kong (where he was a contract director for Shaw Brothers Studios) and establishing his own independent production company in Taiwan where he was able to exert more creative control over his work. The plot details the attempts of an evil eunuch to kill off the children of a rival politician in ancient China. Meanwhile, a brother/sister martial-artist duo also conspire to help the children, and all of these characters come together for a memorable showdown at the titular inn located in the desert. The fight choreography is killer but how that choreography is captured via Hu’s rigorous cinematography and editing schemes is what truly impresses. This new transfer looks amazing on Blu-ray, especially the deep-focus exterior shots of desert vistas, some of which seem to stretch into infinity. Thankfully, Eureka/Masters of Cinema has also announced a limited-edition release of A Touch of Zen, Hu’s greatest movie, on Blu-ray in January.

4. Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works (Vertov, 1929, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

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Man with the Movie Camera, an experimental documentary that served as the apotheosis of the Soviet-montage era, is a film that continues to look better and more modern with each passing year. Director Dziga Vertov, along with his brother and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman and wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova, created the definitive self-reflexive movie with this hyperkinetic portrait of a day in the life of a cameraman (which was actually filmed over five years in three different cities). Flicker Alley did the world a huge favor by putting out a Blu-ray of this deathless masterpiece based on a definitive new restoration (courtesy of the joint efforts of Lobster Films, Blackhawk Films Collection, EYE Film Institute, Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and the Centre National de la Cinématographie). Not only does Man with the Movie Camera now look better than ever, it also contains shots missing from all previous home video releases and runs at the correct speed for the first time. Best of all, it is married to the best soundtrack of the many that have been composed for it over the years: the Alloy Orchestra’s pounding 1995 score that itself was based on Vertov’s detailed instructions. Flicker Alley’s set is very nicely fleshed out by an additional three features: Kino Eye, Enthusiasm and Three Songs of Lenin.

3. Goodbye to Language 3D Godard, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

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In 2014, Jean-Luc Godard reinvented cinema yet again with Goodbye to Language, his fascinating first feature-length foray into the 3-D format. The use of stereoscopic cinematography was crucial to the overall meaning of the film — from the jokey use of floating intertitles to the innovative way he had a single 3-D image break apart into two overlapping two-dimensional images by panning the right-eye camera while keeping the left-eye camera stationary. More so than any other 3-D movie, there is no point in even attempting to watch this in 2-D. Knowing that to be the case, I purchased a 3-D television and a 3-D Blu-ray player pretty much for the sole purpose of being able to experience this masterpiece again and again at home. Kino/Lorber’s Blu-ray looks almost identical to the film’s theatrical presentation (with the only significant difference being the absence of the variation in color grading between the left and right-eye images that could be observed on the big screen). Among the fine extras are an interview with JLG conducted by the Canon camera company, who were clearly proud of the fact that this God-level director was using their equipment, and a booklet essay by David Bordwell.

2. Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection (Dreyer, 1925-1964, BFI Blu-ray)

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The British Film Institute really upped their Blu-ray game in 2015, releasing, among many worthy titles, two separate Roberto Rossellini box sets — one devoted to his celebrated War Trilogy and another devoted to the cycle of melodramas he made with paramour Ingrid Bergman. But the crown jewel of their release slate this year was the “Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection,” a limited-edition box that bundles together four features by the Danish master-filmmaker: the silent feminist-comedy Master of the House (1925), the medieval witch-hunt expose Day of Wrath (1943), the austere spiritual drama Ordet (1955) and his sublime final film Gertrud (1964), which examines the romantic life of a woman with impossibly high ideals. The BFI did Dreyer justice by putting out these transcendentally uplifting films in wonderful quality and also stacking the set with welcome extras, including seven(!) shorts by Dreyer as well as the informative feature-length doc Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier.

1. The Complete Works of Hayao Miyazaki (Miyazaki, 1972-2013, Disney Blu-ray)

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I’ve often said that animation has long been something of a blind spot for me, citing my preference for watching live-action movies as the result of my fondness for “looking at real people.” My interest in animation, however, has grown exponentially over the past few years due to the fact that it has been of so much interest to so many of my students. Besides, if one accepts that “mise-en-scene” can be defined as the director’s control over all of the elements within the frame, then the truest masters of mise-en-scene are arguably the world’s greatest animators; do they not, after all, have the tightest control over all of the details that appear in every shot of every film? This is certainly true of Japan’s beloved Hayao Miyazaki, who both wrote his own screenplays and painstakingly animated nearly all of his films by hand; and one must give credit to the Walt Disney Company (in spite of their dubious and occasionally evil business practices) for bringing the work of this great auteur to a wide American audience. The eleven feature films included in this box set are all presented complete and uncut and feature the option of the original Japanese language soundtracks (with faithful English subtitles) in addition to the option of the English-dubbed tracks. This is so much better than the raw deal that many foreign-language films — especially those from Asian countries — have gotten in the States over the years. Best of all, the films themselves are consistently terrific. From the relatively conventional but rip-roaring damsel-in-distress rescue yarn Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro to his perfect swan song, the aeronautical-engineer biopic The Wind Rises, Miyazaki obsessively revisited the same stylistic tropes and themes — feminist heroines, prescient anti-war and ecological themes, exhaustively detailed science-fiction landscapes, images of aircrafts in flight, and an admirable, near-total absence of villains. Prior to the release of Disney’s box set, I had only seen three of Miyazaki’s films. Purchasing his collected works gave me just the excuse I needed to finally watching them all and I’m so glad that I did; I may be late to the party but I now regard him as Japan’s finest living director. Here is my “report card” for each of the individual films within the set:

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro – B
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – B+
Castle in the Sky – A-
My Neighbor Totoro – A+
Kiki’s Delivery Service – A
Porco Rosso – A
Princess Mononoke – A+
Spirited Away – A-
Howl’s Moving Castle – A
Ponyo – A-
The Wind Rises – A+

20 Runners-Up (Alphabetical by Title):

3-D Rarities (Various, 1922-1962, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Paramount Blu-ray)
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Chaplin, 2015, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker, 1967, Criterion Blu-ray)
Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980, Criterion Blu-ray)
Faust (Murnau, 1926, Kino Blu-ray)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, 1959, Criterion Blu-ray)
The House of Mystery (Volkoff, 1921-1925, Flicker Alley DVD)
Inherent Vice (Anderson, 2014, Warner Blu-ray)
Je t’aime, Je t’aime (Resnais, 1968, Kino Blu-ray)
Kiss Me Kate (Sidney, 1954, Warner Blu-ray)
Life of Riley (Resnais, 2014, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015, Warner Blu-ray)
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001, Criterion Blu-ray)
Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1981, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Roberto Rossellini Ingrid Bergman Collection (Rossellini, 1950-1954, BFI Blu-ray)
Rossellini: The War Trilogy (Rossellini, 1945-1948, BFI Blu-ray)
Sherlock Holmes (Berthelet, 1916, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Speedy (Wilde, 1928, Criterion Blu-ray)
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau, 1931, Kino Blu-ray)
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1989, Criterion Blu-ray)


For the Love of Film: Varieté and The House of Mystery

The invaluable National Film Preservation Foundation is currently in the process of restoring a silent one-reel comedy titled Cupid in Quarantine from 1918. In order to raise funds to cover lab costs for its preservation as well as the recording of a new score to accompany its online premiere, the essential movie blogs Ferdy on Films, Wonders in the Dark, and This Island Rod are hosting the annual “For the Love of Film” blogathon. White City Cinema is proud to be participating in this blogathon again by contributing reviews of two silent masterpieces newly released on home video in new restorations: Variete and The House of Mystery. Please consider making a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation, no matter how small, after reading my review. Film preservation is a very worthy cause!

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My two favorite home video releases of the year so far are Flicker Alley’s DVD of Alexandre Volkoff’s 1923 “cliffhanger” serial The House of Mystery and Edel Germany GmbH’s Blu-ray of E.A. Dupont’s drama Variete from 1925. Both films deserve to be called masterpieces of the silent European melodrama and both feature plots that revolve around bizarre love triangles. Yet their virtues are ultimately as different from one another as are the virtues of the new discs that house them. Both films have been the recipients of painstaking new photochemical restorations although each new edition is not without controversy: Variete has been saddled with an anachronistic new score that has silent purists crying foul and The House of Mystery has been released on DVD only and not the superior Blu-ray format. I nonetheless will argue that both releases are absolutely essential for anyone who cares about silent cinema.

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Variete (also known in the U.S. as Variety and Jealousy) was Germany’s biggest box office hit of 1925 and it’s not hard to see why. It came out during the height of the movement known as German Expressionism but, in spite of the extraordinarily fluid camerawork of Karl Freund (Metropolis) and a clever plot about the sinister goings-on within a circus, E.A. DuPont’s movie actually feels closer to the school of social realism with which directors like G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box) and Josef Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel) would soon make their mark. The film begins with a long-time prisoner, “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings in an uncharacteristically restrained performance), breaking a 10-year vow of silence and telling his warden the tragic story, seen in flashback, of how he came to murder his unfaithful trapeze-artist wife (Lya de Putti). The whole thing is great but the undeniable highlights are the exhilarating trapeze sequences, the deft camerawork of which seemingly puts viewers smack-dab into the leotards of the performers, creating a thrilling “you are there” effect.

Previously available on home video only in poor-quality and truncated editions, this definitive restoration of Variete by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation adds more than 20 minutes of footage unseen since its original release. While the image quality on the Blu-ray is predictably superb, the only option for an audio track is a controversial new score by the British musical trio The Tiger Lillies. This retro-cabaret act’s score features sung lyrics (a no-no for silent films, according to many cinephiles) that comment directly on the onscreen action. Personally, I love it; most silent movies did not have official musical scores so I have to wonder what the point is of commissioning contemporary musicians to compose new scores for silent films if one is only going to handcuff them into imitating something one would’ve heard in a theater 100 years ago (e.g., a generic pastiche of 19th century folk tunes)? Contemporary viewers are, after all, watching digital versions of these films in their own living rooms, no? The musical score for a silent film need only be effective, I say, not attempt to function as some sort of time machine.

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Until recently, The House of Mystery was for me an unknown quantity — a film I had never heard of by a director I had never even heard of — but I purchased it sight unseen anyway simply because it is drumming up excitement in certain cinephile circles. Directed by Alexandre Volkoff, a Russian filmmaker living in France, and co-written by Volkoff and his star and fellow Russian emigre Ivan Musjokine, this 10-chapter “cliffhanger” serial feels like the missing link between Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang. Like Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913), it begins with a montage of close-ups of Musjokine’s character, Julien, a master of disguise, posing in each of the many drastically different makeup jobs he will sport over the next six-and-a-half hours. Unlike Fantomas, Julien is not a master-criminal but rather a good-hearted factory owner who is framed for a murder he did not commit by the factory’s villainous director (Charles Vanel, later a favorite of Henri-George Clouzot) because he covets Julien’s beautiful wife (Helene Darly).

Also different from the serials of Feuillade is how The House of Mystery‘s narrative follows a single clean story arc. Feuillade’s capers were beloved by the Surrealists in part because of their “we’re making it up as we go along” quality (often a cyclical capture-and-escape narrative-loop structure that perhaps best finds a modern equivalent in the endless death-and-rebirth narrative-loop cycles of the Resident Evil series). The House of Mystery, by contrast, is closer to classic “hero’s journey” epics like The Odyssey and The Count of Monte Cristo in its portrait of a man who escapes from prison and spends years attempting to clear his name and reunite with his family. There are many astonishing set pieces along the way — including a wedding sequence depicted entirely in silhouette and an exciting prison-break/chase scene involving a hijacked train being pursued by mounted police. Flicker Alley’s release represents the first time The House of Mystery has ever been released on home video in any format and also serves as a reminder of how much our knowledge of film history depends upon the vicissitudes of fate. While a Blu-ray would have been preferable to this DVD-only release, you should definitely buy this anyway; it’s so good you won’t regret upgrading when and if a Blu-ray ever does hit the market.

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You can make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

You can purchase a region-free Blu-ray of Variete from Amazon Germany here. (Chicagoans should note I will be introducing a screening of my own projected Blu-ray of Variete this Saturday, May 16, at Transistor.)

You can purchase The House of Mystery on DVD directly from Flicker Alley here.


Mad Max: Fury Road / E.A. Dupont’s Variete

The following Mad Max: Fury Road capsule review was rejected by Time Out Chicago since they informed me they already have a “network wide” review (i.e., one that appears in each of Time Out’s city guides), which they also informed me is usually the case with “big box films.” So I’m posting it here instead. Enjoy.

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Forget The Avengers, Mad Max: Fury Road is the Summer Popcorn Movie You Need to See

Even if it weren’t any good, I would probably recommend Mad Max: Fury Road just because, as an R-rated “tent pole” movie, it’s something of an anomaly. I’m happy to report, however, that it’s more than good — it’s flat-out amazing from beginning to end, one of the leanest and purest pieces of action cinema I’ve ever seen. The film it reminds me of most is, believe it or not, Buster Keaton’s The General; the entire first half is basically one long heart-stopping chase from west to east and the second half one long heart-stopping chase from east to west. Exposition and the illusion of “character psychology” are refreshingly absent but it’s also full of the kind of highly idiosyncratic, occasionally surreal production-design touches that have always been director George Miller’s specialty (a combination electric guitar/flamethrower, chastity belts with metal teeth, etc.) and it’s all beautifully cut together (the shots match!) by his wife Margaret Sixel who had never edited an action movie before.

While Tom Hardy is credible as the laconic Max (a role originated by a then-unknown Mel Gibson), don’t let the title fool you: Charlize Theron, playing a kickass heroine with the irresistible name of “Imperator Furiosa,” is co-lead with Hardy and arguably the more important of the two characters. She’s the one on a specific mission — the details of which I won’t give away — while he’s more or less just along for the ride. Furiosa is also but one of several intriguing female characters in a movie that should satisfy fans of the earlier Max films while also offering surprises at every turn; the more I think about it, the more this action movie strikes me as genuinely subversive in its feminist bent — yet another reason why this is the one summer “popcorn movie” that everyone needs to see.

Variete

This Saturday, May 16, I’m introducing a screening of E.A. Dupont’s silent German masterpiece Variete at Transistor Chicago. I’ll be screening my German Blu-ray of the 2015 F.W. Murnau Foundation restoration, which runs 20 minutes longer than all previous home video releases (and one should note there are no plans for a North American release). The event is BYOB and admission is free. Here is the description I wrote for the Transistor website:

A major masterpiece of Germany’s silent film era, E.A. Dupont’s tragic, darkly ironic tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s the brilliant cinematography of Karl Freund (‘Metropolis’) that really makes ‘Varieté’ fly. Only released in the U.S. in truncated form, this 2015 restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation magnificently revivifies Dupont’s film to its original glory. (1925, R, 94 minutes)

More info here: http://www.transistorchicago.com/51615


A Silent British Cinema Primer

This list of essential British silent films is, above all, a testament to the power that “home video” has had to rewrite movie history. A couple of early Hitchcocks notwithstanding, the silent British cinema has never figured prominently into any official versions of the story of early motion-picture development. Fortunately, the efforts of numerous film institutions and preservation foundations have in more recent years seen to the restoration and re-release of many important silent British movies. (the story broke only a couple of months ago that an important British silent, George Pearson’s Love, Life and Laughter, was discovered in Amsterdam — proving yet again how notions of film history evolve with the vicissitudes of fate.) Below are nine eye-opening personal silent British favorites that I consider well worth any movie buff’s time.

Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon (Kenyon/Mitchell, 1900-1913)

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This is not a feature film but rather a series of brief documentary shorts of Edwardian England that were put out as a DVD anthology approximately 100 years after their initial release. Originally produced between 1900 and 1913, the movies of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were advertised as “Local Films for Local People” and screened at town halls and local fairs across the U.K. by itinerant showmen. A kind of Anglo-equivalent of the earliest films of the Lumiere brothers, the Mitchell and Kenyon shorts are mostly one-shot actualities that delightfully show how English men, women and children lived, worked and played in the early 20th century. These are invaluable documents of a now-vanished era, particularly interesting for what they reveal about fashion sense, social interactions and how the subjects vibrantly but unselfconsciously “perform” for the camera. Culled from 28 hours of footage, the superbly curated 85-minute “Electric Edwardians” DVD features an enlightening audio commentary by one Vanessa Toulmin and was released by the BFI in the U.K. and by Milestone Films in the U.S. Unmissable for lovers of what historian Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions.”

The Epic of Everest (Noel, 1924)

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“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

The White Shadow (Cutts, 1924)

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One of the great recent stories of the discovery of a film previously thought to be lost is the 2011 unearthing of Graham Cutts’s silent British melodrama The White Shadow from a New Zealand archive. The discovery sparked worldwide interest mainly because the movie was a formative work in the career of Alfred Hitchcock (who wrote the script and also functioned as set designer, assistant director and editor). Although Hitch wouldn’t make his own feature directing debut until the following year, it’s surprising how much his artistic DNA seems to be all over this (e.g., Expressionist lighting effects, a “doppelangger” motif, and a plot revolving around mistaken identity). Betty Compson excels in a dual role as twin sisters — one naughty, one nice — both of whom become romantically involved with an American tourist (Clive Brook) who is unaware that they are, in fact, the same person. Unfortunately, the last three reels of the film are still missing and so it ends in the middle, right when all of the characters have congregated at a seedy Parisian nightclub named “The Bohemian Cat” — the kind of joint in which Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang would have been at home. But a synopsis fills us in on the conclusion, which apparently involved a mystical transfiguration between the sisters. Cinephiles should be grateful for what exists, however, for an important, previously missing piece of the Hitchcock puzzle is now firmly in place.

Hindle Wakes (Elvey, 1927)

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My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (Also modern is an utterly sublime ending that suggests the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on carnival rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Hitchcock, 1927)

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One of the most delightful home video surprises of this decade was the UK label Network’s sensational Blu-ray disc of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. The master of suspense’s first thriller was originally released in 1927 and the Blu-ray was based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it was until viewing the BFI’s restoration. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous Blu-ray package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Bernard Herrmann-esque score.

Underground (Asquith, 1928)

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In recent years, the British Film Institute in particular seems to have spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of silent British cinema in general, which I’ve been delighted to find is of interest beyond the earliest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock. One of my most pleasant film-related surprises of the past year was discovering the great silent movies of Anthony Asquith, an English director better known for his less-exciting sound-era work. BFI’s home video division released a revelatory Blu-ray of Asquith’s second film, 1928′s Underground, last June. The plot, a love triangle between a shop girl, a nice-guy subway worker and a douchebag power-plant employee, allows Asquith to indulge in some wondrous cinematic conceits — including astonishingly fluid crane shots during a protracted climactic chase scene — and offers a fascinating, documentary-like glimpse of “ordinary” Londoners from a bygone era besides. The image has been painstakingly restored (as evidenced by a short doc included among the extras) and the new orchestral score by Neil Brand sounds brilliant in a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Hopefully, a Blu-ray release of the same director’s even better A Cottage on Dartmoor, a late silent from 1929, will not be far behind.

Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929)

blackmail

Alice (Anny Ondra), the girlfriend of Scotland Yard Inspector Frank (Johnny Longden), agrees to meet another man, a young artist, behind her inattentive boyfriend’s back. After the artist attempts to rape her, Alice kills him in self defense but refuses to confess to the crime. Frank is assigned to investigate the case and figures out the truth but the pair soon find themselves being blackmailed in exchange for their silence. This was originally released in silent and sound versions, making it both Hitchcock’s last silent and his first talkie. The latter version features a much-acclaimed experimental employment of sound and dialogue (in particular during the famous “knife” sequence) but I think the silent version trumps it as an elegant work of purely visual storytelling. Hitch’s effective use of real London locations, especially the climactic chase through the British Museum, prefigures the director’s celebrated use of iconic American locations later in his career. The silent version was restored, along with the eight other surviving Hitchcock silents, by the British Film Institute in 2012.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith, 1929)

dartmoor

This unique and incredibly dynamic film pulls out every cinematic trick in the book to tell the tragic story of Joe (Uno Henning), a barber’s assistant, who is sent to prison after using a razor to menace another suitor to the object of his affection, manicurist Sally (Norah Baring). The story plays out in flashback as the love triangle is remembered by Joe, who has escaped from prison and is making his way to the cottage in Dartmoor where Sally now lives with her husband and child. Director Anthony Asquith’s command of visual storytelling in this late silent, arguably more advanced than what Hitchcock achieved in the same era, is incredibly sophisticated — light and shadow, striking close-ups, and rapid-fire editing are all used to establish a poetic mood and sustain a suspenseful tone. The film’s undisputed highlight, however, is also its most lighthearted scene: the main characters go on a date to the movies to see a double-feature of a silent comedy followed by a “talkie.” A montage of faces in the audience watching the latter in stunned silence (undoubtedly meant to express Asquith’s displeasure with the new technology) is a poignant commentary on one of the most important transitional periods in cinema’s history.

Piccadilly (Bennett, 1929)

piccadilly

Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress to achieve movie stardom, although she’s better known today for her iconic visage (and pageboy haircut) in still photographs than for any of her actual performances, which tended to be supporting roles and “dragon lady” villains. The best showcase for her acting talent is not a Hollywood film at all but the 1929 British production of Piccadilly. The story concerns a love triangle between a nightclub owner (Jameson Thomas) and two of his employees — a dancer (Gilda Gray) and a dishwasher (Wong). Wong’s character, “Shosho,” makes a dazzling early impression in a sequence where she dances on top of a table in a restaurant kitchen and, much like Sessue Hayakawa in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, undeniably goes on to steal the show even though she’s ostensibly not the lead. The melodramatic courtroom finale is a little too twist-filled for its own good but the direction — by German filmmaker E.A. Dupont (who had earlier made Variety, one of the masterpieces of the Weimar-era German cinema) — is consistently lively, expressive and fluid.


A Weimar-Era German Cinema Primer

As a result of the popularity of my “South Korean New Wave Primer” post (in terms of total number of views), I have decided to launch a “Primer series” – a periodic listing of capsule reviews of 10 – 20 films that exemplify a particular historical movement or national cinema style. These lists are in no way meant to be definitive. Rather, they represent a sampling of films that I consider essential to understanding a given period in film history. They are also meant to be an ideal introduction to various movements for students in my film studies classes who would like to broaden their knowledge of world cinema, although I will always throw in a wild card or two for the benefit of my more seasoned cinephile readers.

The second post in the Primer series deals with one of my favorite eras, Germany during the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933). Although today this period is beloved for being birthplace and home to the movement known as German Expressionism, there were many remarkable films of different styles and genres made during this time, as the below list should make abundantly clear.

Madame DuBarry (Lubitsch, 1919)

Polish-born Pola Negri was a major international movie star and sex symbol during the silent era and Madame DuBarry, a biopic of Louis the XV’s mistress set (incongruously) against the backdrop of the French Revolution, is one of her finest star vehicles. Funny, tragic and sexually provocative for its time, this historical epic allowed German film studio UFA to break into the international market. Four years later, director Ernst Lubitsch would become the first of many German filmmakers to migrate to Hollywood (where he would achieve even greater fame).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) (Wiene, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

The Golem (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam) (Boese/Wegener, 1920)

A fascinating horror movie/political allegory about a Rabbi in 16th century Prague who creates the title character, a giant monster designed to defend the inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto against religious persecution. The Expressionist sets and monster make-up still impress today.

Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit) (Lang, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens) (Murnau, 1922)

The first and in my opinion best adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this influential horror movie introduced many now-familiar elements of vampire mythology (such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight). Max Schreck’s frightening incarnation of the title character is unforgettable, as is director F.W. Murnau’s equation between the vampire and the plague – a clear allegory for the senseless mass death that had recently swept across Germany in the first World War.

Warning Shadows (Schatten: Eine nächtliche Halluzination) (Robison, 1923)

A magician arrives at a dinner party and performs a shadow puppet play that seems to dramatize the desires, jealousy and romantic maneuverings of the various partygoers in attendance. This is the single best example of an Expressionist film using light and shadow in an explicitly symbolic way to underscore a film’s themes, which is saying a lot. Also notable for containing no intertitles.

The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann) (Murnau, 1924)

Murnau’s second masterpiece tells the sad story of a proud but aging hotel doorman whose entire world crumbles when his employers demote him to the position of bathroom attendant. Murnau’s new contract with UFA afforded him money and resources way beyond the relatively meager budget of Nosferatu and he put it all to good use by executing complex, elaborate and highly innovative camera movements.

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) (Birinsky/Leni, 1924)

A lighthearted triptych in which the owner of a wax museum hires a writer to compose stories about his statues for the benefit of his customers. This clever framing device allows the filmmakers to juxtapose stories set in different historical eras, à la Griffith’s Intolerance, while simultaneously dabbling in the Expressionist style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Destiny.

Variety (Variete) (Dupont, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

Faust (Faust: Eine deutsche Volkssage) (Murnau, 1926)

The well-known story of an alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a second shot at youth is, in the hands of F.W. Murnau, an extravagant, virtuoso piece of filmmaking that shows why some film writers, including me, consider him one of the greatest directors of all time. Indeed, out of all the silent films I’ve seen, I can only compare it to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from the following year in terms of sheer ambition. Disappointing box office returns for both films was a major factor in the decline of Expressionist cinema.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt) (Ruttmann, 1927)

The “city symphony” film, an experimental/documentary hybrid in which filmmakers composed images of a typical day in the life of a major city, was briefly in vogue as the international art film of choice in the late silent era. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Sypmphony of a Great City is a terrific piece of eye candy and a fascinating documentary window into Weimar-era Berlin. It also exerted a huge influence on Dziga-Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera.

Metropolis (Lang, 1927)

Metropolis is the most famous of all silent German films – a massively influential science fiction epic about class warfare in a futuristic Germany that dazzles with its visionary architecture and pioneering special effects. But the formidable formal qualities are nicely balanced by a stellar cast including veteran screen actors Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Alfred Abel and newcomer Brigitte Helm (terrific in a dual role). The “complete” version unveiled in 2010 is the great film restoration story of our time.

Spies (Spione) (Lang, 1928)

The Mabuse-like leader of a spy ring finds out about a romance between one of his employees, a beautiful Russian woman, and suave government agent “Number 326” who has been assigned to bring him down. Spies contains many incredible set pieces including political assassinations, heists of government secrets, a train wreck and a finale involving a clown performance that has to be seen to be believed. This is the real birth of the modern spy thriller, without which the James Bond series would not be possible.

Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) (Pabst, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü) (Fanck/Pabst, 1929)

A major reference point in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, White Hell of Pitz Palu is a good example of the “mountain climbing film,” a popular genre in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The story concerns a young married couple hiking in the Alps who meet a doctor looking for the wife he had lost on a similar hiking expedition years earlier. This is chock-full of exciting climbing and rescue sequences and the minimal intertitles make it easy to focus on the film’s spectacular snowy scenery. The female lead is played by future director (and Nazi propagandist) Leni Riefenstahl.

The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (von Sternberg, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag) (Siodmak/Ulmer, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

M (Lang, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

Maedchen in Uniform (Froelich/Sagan, 1931)

A beautiful film about a teenage girl sent to a boarding school where she falls in love with a female teacher, this is one of the earliest portrayals of an explicitly homosexual character in the history of cinema. The taboo-breaking content of the film, as well as its function as a plea for tolerance, are made exceedingly poignant knowing in hindsight that the rise of Nazism was just around the corner. Superbly directed by Leontine Sagan, one of the very few women to get behind a camera in this era of German movies.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) (Lang, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s farewell to German cinema resurrects his supervillain Dr. Mabuse from more than a decade earlier (again played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and has him match wits against Otto Wernicke’s Inspector Lohman character from M! Many critics and historians have interpreted the film as an anti-Nazi parable in which characters belonging to the criminal underworld are equated with the Nazi party. Indeed Joseph Goebbels promptly banned The Testament of Dr. Mabuse from German cinemas and Fritz Lang soon headed to America where he became one of the most prominent directors of film noir.


Top 25 Films of the 1920s

25. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Russia, 1925)

The film that launched a worldwide revolution . . . in terms of editing! The most famous of all silent Russian movies is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece about a failed revolution that took place twenty years earlier. The crew of the battleship Potemkin rebels against unfair living conditions (including being told to eat maggot-infested meat), which causes them to mutiny and kill their commanding officers. When the ship docks in the port city of Odessa, the revolutionary fervor spreads to their comrades on land until the White Russian army is called in to crush the rebellion. The ensuing massacre is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in film history, a frenetic, rapidly edited montage that purposefully breaks the rules of classical editing in order to convey an overwhelming impression of violence and chaos. Whenever you see a shot of a baby carriage rolling down a flight of stairs in a T.V. show or movie, this is what’s being referenced.

24. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, USA, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

23. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, USA, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

22. Variety (Dupont, Germany, 1925)

One of the major masterpieces of the entire silent era that, for reasons unknown to me, has only ever been released on VHS in the United States. This tragic, darkly ironic crime tale concerns a love triangle between trapeze artists that ends in betrayal and murder. Emil Jannings is at his best as the cuckolded husband but it’s Karl Freund’s brilliant cinematography that really makes Variety fly.

21. The House of Mystery (Volkoff, France, 1923)

House

20. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good representation of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story of subjectivity set within an insane asylum. Silent Japanese films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-commercial work of cinematic poetry like this all the more valuable.

19. 3 Bad Men (Ford, USA, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

18. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)

This is the definitive German Expressionist film, in which all of the elements of director Robert Wiene’s mise-en-scene (lighting, set design, costume design, the movement of figures within the frame) have been deliberately distorted and exaggerated for expressive purposes. The end result, a view of the world through the eyes of a madman, single-handedly inaugurated the Expressionist movement, which dominated German cinema screens for most of the rest of the decade.

17. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, USA, 1921)

In 1968′s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

16. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

15. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928)

14. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)

hindle

My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (This is perhaps best exemplified by a sublime ending suggesting that the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

13. Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, USA, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

12. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

11. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Lang, Germany, 1922)

The first in a cycle of Fritz Lang films about a diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise who crashes the stock market and swindles countless innocents out of their money seemingly for no reason other than the sheer fun of it. Indebted to the mystery serials of Louis Feuillade, this four-hour movie (split into two parts of equal length) remains a fast-paced, rip-roaring entertainment from start to finish.

10. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

9. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ‘em and leave ‘em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

8. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodrama with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

7. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

6. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)

A lot of German stars have tried their luck in Hollywood. In the late 1920s American actress Louise Brooks did the opposite, moving to Germany and teaming up with director G.W. Pabst for a trio of memorable films. Pandora’s Box is their masterpiece, a realistically told, naturalistically acted story of a woman forced into prostitution who meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Although her career went into decline immediately after she returned to Hollywood, Brooks was rediscovered in the 1950s and today has become one of the most iconic visages (and bobbed haircuts) of the silent cinema.

5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)

Dziga Vertov’s radical experimental/documentary hybrid shows “a day in the life” of Moscow circa 1929 although the film had been shot over a period of several years in multiple cities including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The strobe-effect editing is mind-blowing even by today’s standards (the average shot length is less than three seconds) and the film is so densely packed with ideas that even after dozens of viewings, it still has secrets to reveal. But this is more than a “city symphony” film; it’s also one of the greatest movies ever made about the act of filmmaking, showcasing the talents of not only Vertov but his brother Mikhail Kaufman (the cinematographer who also frequently appears on screen as the title character), and his wife Yveta Svilova (the editor and the film’s true hero). The result is a film that playfully calls attention to the filmmaking process and its almost magical ability to record and transform reality.

4. Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, USA, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

3. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

2. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)

1. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.


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