Our Crack Tongue & Groove
Silence is golden
As we move into the 2020s, I’m looking forward, in the coming years, to the 100th anniversary celebrations of some of the greatest films ever made – all from the silent era.
I recently saw Jean Epstein’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1928), which is loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe story (very loosely – the assistant director, the surrealist Luis Buñuel, quit because he couldn’t fathom what Epstein was trying to do with it). But what this silent film loses in literal translation, it more than makes up for with an oneiric atmosphere that captures the essence of Poe better than anyone else has before or since.
The titular house is one of the most peculiar spaces in cinematic history. Its vast and mostly empty halls contain just the odd item of furniture, which are dwarfed by the surrounding emptiness. Leaves blow ominously across floors and white curtains are set aflutter. Living here are Roderick Usher and his young wife, Madeline (they are brother and sister in the original story). Roderick is all a tither because he has a fear that his wife will die, and is also worried that she will be buried alive.
A haunting film its singular weirdness makes David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ look like ‘The Emoji Movie’.
It was released in 1928, which was probably the last great year for silent works, and it remains a perfect showcase for what such films are good at, which is to say using impressionistic – and, with ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, expressionistic – ways of telling a story. And it wasn’t a one-off. The 1920s are rich with such fare.
F.W. Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’ (1927) thoroughly deserves its place in the top 10 of the last Sight & Sound critics’ poll. A richly allegorical tale about a man fighting the good and evil within him, it remains a work that is astonishing for its visual experimentation and boldness. Murnau was also responsible for ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), which wrote much of the visual language of the horror film.
Another silent film that made the top ten of the Sight & Sound poll was Carl Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928). As the critic Roger Ebert has stated: “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renne Maria Falconetti.” She gives an astonishing turn as the French martyr with another heavyweight critic, Pauline Kael, noting: “It may be the finest performance ever recorded on film”.
There’s nowhere near enough space here to include all the great silent films that will be celebrating their 100th anniversaries this decade, but no list would be complete without ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929 – Dziga Vertov’s dazzling documentary of urban life); ‘Battleship Potemkin (1925 – revolutionary Russians, ahoy!); ‘The General’ (1926 – Buster Keaton’s finest); ‘Metropolis’ (1927 – Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic); and ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (1929 – Buñuel teaming up with Salvador Dali for predictably off-the-map results).