With the release of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, people are rediscovering the magic of silent films. As a young film student I learned to appreciate these early films and they helped shape my understanding of modern cinema. Sadly, most of silent cinema has been lost to time. More films were destroyed than exist today. The amazing thing is a lot of these gems are available for free on YouTube.Here are five silent films that every cinephile should be familiar with. These are the building blocks of modern cinema.
A Trip to the Moon – George Melies is one of the greatest innovators in film history. His background in stage magic was perfect to create the first special effects laden films. A Trip to the Moon can be found in both black-and-white and hand-colored prints. The first science fiction film, a Trip to the Moon features a group of scientists who climb into a giant bullet that is fired at the moon. Upon arriving they meet aliens and bizarre events. It’s still a fun spectacle.
Greed – What started out as a 9-10 hour epic story was cut down to a mere 2.5 hours. When a dentist’s wife wins a lottery ticket, his life is turned upside down as they become consumed with greed. Considered one of the great “lost” films in cinema history, you can now see a 4-hour version of the film.
Un chien Andalou – This short surrealist film combines the impressive talents of Luis Bunuel with the bizarre ideas of Salvadore Dali. There is no real narrative story but a collection of dream like sequences loosely strung together. It’s filled with gory, uncomfortable images that are more disturbing than most modern horror films. You can see where director David Lynch draws some inspiration from.
The General – Buster Keaton is the greatest comedy actor/director of the silent era. Like most silent stars, he wasn’t able to successfully move over to the talking era. Keaton stars as a railroad engineer who dreams of being in the Confederate army. When his train is stolen by Union soldiers, he goes after them. The film is an amazing blend of spectacular stunts on real trains blended with hilarious comedic moments.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans – F.W. Murnau is one of the greatest silent film directors. When you look at the best silent films of all time, he usually has two or three in the top ten. After making his mark with expressionist films, Murnau made his way to Hollywood to try his luck. He succeeds to amazing affect. Sunrise tells the classic tale of a man who starts to cheat and plans to murder his wife to be with a trampish woman from “The City”. It’s an amazing collection of surreal imagery and challenging storytelling.