Silence in film makes a comeback

Some of the best movies that the silent screen has to offer.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller in Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 film The Artist. The Weinstein Company
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The race to the Oscars began in earnest last month, with the New York Film Critics Circle handing out a clutch of awards to some of this year's prestige movies. But the recipient of its best picture gong - and now leading the charge for Academy Award success - is undoubtedly the most unlikely contender for some years. Also recognised by the Washington Area Film Critics Association and just this week by the Boston Society of Film Critics as the best film of the year, the 1920s and early 1930s-era The Artist is an ode to the silent screen - it doesn't just use the medium's tricks to tell its heartwarming story, but its limitations as well.

The black-and-white romance focuses on a fading star of the silent era who struggles to make the transition into talkies (played masterfully by France's Jean Dujardin). Not only does the film deliver tap-dancing routines and exaggerated acting, but it provides little more aural stimulation than a jaunty score - surely a tough sell in the age of Avatar?

Maybe not. After leaving audience spellbound at its premiere at Cannes and inspiring waves of nostalgic glee at film festivals around the world, The Artist is being lauded and adored, even by those who admit they have never seen a silent movie before. With the film about to go on general release in most territories, talk of a silent revival has already begun. In preparation, here is a guide to some of the best films of the silent era.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Often hailed as the very first Western and the catalyst for a genre that would become Hollywood's most popular for decades to come - today, the claim is heavily disputed.

The 12-minute heist movie made by the Edison Company (established by the light bulb inventor, Thomas Edison), however, shows remarkable narrative sophistication and makes for surprisingly thrilling viewing today. The scene in which one of the robbers fires, point blank, at the screen brought the audience closer to the action than had ever been attempted before.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Based on the play The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, it's easy to guess why DW Griffith's film is reviled by many. But if you can look past the deplorable racial stereotyping, The Birth of a Nation is an ambitious and momentous civil war epic.

By all accounts, Griffith was indifferent to the racism of the story and more interested in pushing the limits of cinema. With its huge battle sequences and more than three-hour running length, it smashed all previous box-office records and was even the first film to be screened at the White House.

Les Vampires (1915)

Early cinema adopters, the filmmakers of France quickly realised that the medium of shadows was perfect for stories of terror and suspense. More thriller than horror, this 10-part serial follows the exploits of the criminal gang Les Vampires in a Paris that is riddled with trap doors and hidden passageways.

A precursor of surrealist cinema, it's a film that delights in its villains - particularly the vampish Irma Vep (played by the spectacularly dark-eyed Musidora) - more than it cares about following a coherent narrative.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919)

While Hollywood was busy making epics, German filmmakers experimented with bizarre horror stories, tinged with expressionism. With angular sets and grotesque characters, Caligari sees a deranged doctor and his sleepwalking associate linked to a series of murders in a German town.

Robert Wiene's film is a treat to behold, with its slanted windows and macabre imagery, but it also has a brilliantly articulated story - and even a twist ending.

The Thief of Baghdad (1924)

Known for portraying Robin Hood and Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks was the best-loved action star of the silent screen. Not only did he play The Thief of Baghdad's bare-chested hero, he also wrote and produced the film.

With a six-and-a-half-acre set (reportedly still the largest in Hollywood history), Baghdad was recreated in glorious detail. Some artistic licence was taken, however, such as the inclusion of dragons, winged horses and flying carpets.

The Battleship Potempkin (1925)

Perhaps the most famous and influential piece of propaganda in film history, The Battleship Potempkin is based on a real-life 1905 mutiny by Russian sailors.

The movie sees the ship's weary and oppressed crew-members overthrow their superiors - members of the old Tsarist regime - as well as a massacre of Odessan citizens by government soldiers.

The director Sergei Eisenstein wanted the film to have the maximum emotional effect on its audience and devised revolutionary camera and editing techniques to help achieve this.

The Gold Rush (1925)

After graduating from merely acting in films, Charlie Chaplin began writing, directing and even scoring his own projects. The Gold Rush was his most technically ambitious.

It sees his Little Tramp character head to the Yukon in search of his fortune, only to encounter fellow prospectors that are as treacherous as the conditions. It contains many timeless moments of comedy, but the scene in which the Tramp boils and eats his own shoe is perhaps the best remembered.

The General (1926)

America's greatest silent clown, Buster Keaton brought more than his famous deadpan expression and mind-blowing stuntwork to this, his greatest work.

Set during the civil war, the runaway-train movie sees Keaton attempting to save his locomotive (named The General) and his beloved, from the clutches of Union spies.

Not only in front of the camera, but also sitting in the director's chair, Keaton made a movie that is not just a great comedy, but a brilliant action-adventure and a stirring war film. Not bad for a clown.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Germany's FW Murnau was best known for Nosferatu, his deliciously gothic retelling of Dracula, when he was brought over to the US. But the film he chose to make in Hollywood was a far gentler affair.

With every frame resembling a perfectly composed still photograph, Sunrise tells the story of a rural couple whose lives are disrupted when a temptress arrives from the city. It boasts a level of emotional depth that no other silent quite achieved.

Metropolis (1927)

Considered cinema's first sci-fi masterpiece and, in its day, the most expensive film ever made, the German filmmaker Fritz Lang ensured the silent age went out with a bang when he made Metropolis.

Set in a futuristic dystopia where a bourgeois elite live a carefree existence above ground while a raggedy underclass toil in its bowels, the film's political message is not difficult to determine. Applying the expressionist flourishes seen first in Caligari to giant sets and cityscapes, it's as visually breathtaking as any film made since.