silent film, revisited
In the early days of film, movie-watching was said to induce a kind of madness: “The hypnotic power of cinema could cause members of the audience to become anxious, or even lead to bodily harm,” said District Court Judge Albert Hellwig in 1916. This critique is not too far from those that modern critics level against the effects of violence in modern film. Nevertheless, Hellwig was speaking to an entirely different cinematic environment: For one, there was no sound.
Sound films are now the norm. They have been for a long time, slowly but surely moving toward complete dominance of film since the release of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927. “The Artist” (2011) was the first widely-released silent film since Mel Brooks’s “Silent Movie” in 1976. It’s also only the second silent film in history to win Best Picture, the first being “Wings” at the Academy’s inaugural ceremony in 1927. Films with sound and color are so dominant that when “The Artist” was released, an audience in Liverpool demanded refunds after realizing the film they walked into was sans dialogue. The consensus is clear: The movie-going public loves it some sound.
Yet for all this, we wouldn’t have a movie industry if not for silent film. During the golden age of silent film between 1912 and 1930, almost 11,000 silent movies were produced. The vast majority have since been lost to fire, deterioration, or misplacement, but many of those that remain deserve better than the rap they’ve been given. Even putting aside the fact that 50 percent of the silents made between 1911 and 1925 were written by women (compared to the paltry 7 percent of female writers and directors making blockbusters today), silent films hold up surprisingly well to the test of time.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is a personal favorite of mine. Directed by Robert Wiene and written by pacifists Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, the 1920 German film opens with a young man, Francis, relating a horror story to his companion. Some time before, he and his friend Alan had attended a village festival where they met the mystic Dr. Caligari. Using his powers, Caligari had awoken the somnambulist Cesare from 23 years of hypnosis-induced slumber in order to tell the crowd’s future. When Alan asked how long he had to live, Cesare prophesied that he would die by the next day’s dawn. Alan did die, becoming the first in a string of strange murders and crimes that included the attempted abduction of Francis’s fiancée.
This might sound like a straightforward horror movie, but the framing of the story reveals many more layers—all of which are just too brilliant to spoil. What’s really fascinating about this film is how it reflects the culture of post-WWI Germany, a country overwhelmed by both individual and broader cultural trauma. Probably the example of German expressionism, the film’s set design is characterized by distorted, fractured, and claustrophobic forms meant to convey a visceral sense of discord. The muddled narrative, as well as the film’s unstable relation to time and space in the form of flashbacks and convoluted sets, makes the audience as well as the characters question the nature of reality.
I can say with certainty that no film like this could be made today—not just because of the evolved zeitgeist, but because of the genre itself. The visceral levels of madness and grief suffered by the characters and their culture couldn’t be conveyed through modern methods of scripting and acting. Silent films are often derided for their campy, over-the-top performances or cited as boring for their lack of speech. But there are few shots in film history more haunting than Cesare’s first waking: With a close-up on his face, his heavily lined eyelids draw slowly upwards, and his face settles into a rictus of terror and psychotic breakage, which seems to encompass the whole of the horrors of war.
In this sense, “The Artist” is not a true silent film; the acting and other elements were updated so they would be accessible to mainstream audiences. These changes were appropriate for this particular story, but would not have worked for “Caligari.” “Caligari” is a film about war and its aftermath—events too terrible for the subtlety of modern acting to convey, or even for spoken word to explain.
But cinematic memory is short. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Times change, technologies evolve. I would never advocate a complete return to the days of mouthed speech and black-and-white images. But that doesn’t mean such films don’t deserve a place in our memory and a spot on the shelf.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is on YouTube in its entirety. It’s a little over an hour—give it a try.
‘Cause you never know. It might be time to let a little madness into your life.