|let's play a round of "shut up"|
i was a little disappointed to see cenk uygur of "the young turks" unleash a stram of twitter fury when "the artist" [rightly] took home an armful of oscars, insisting that if silent films were such a great form, we wouldn't have started making films with sound. while it's true that talking pictures certainly allowed a greater sense of realism [even when portraying something that was self-evidently unrealistic], that doesn't remove the merits of the older style. colour films were introduced in the thirties and by the fifties had become dominant, but no one argues that martin scorcese's "raging bull"  is a lesser film because it was shot in black and white.
i think that some of the reticence to grant silent films their due is that most people associate them with short clips they've seen of early melodramas, largely the product of hollywood's early film-making machine, which were more about stars and lavish costumes and ornate sets [sound familiar?], whereas the real gems were harder to come by.
so, as a self-appointed expert in the genre [i'm totally not an expert in any meaningful sense of the word], here's a list of silent films that push the limits of what can be done without sound, in various ways.
|lovely lady + gun = big, big trouble|
|my dream house|
interesting side note :: the role of cesare [the prototype of every goth-boi] was played by german actor conrad veidt. veidt was vehemently against the nazi party from well before they rose to power and reportedly identified himself as jewish on a national survey, although he was as aryan as they could have asked. in 1933 he married a jewish woman and wisely moved to england, where he donated a great deal of his money to the british war effort. ironically, his most famous role in spoken films was as the evil nazi commandant in "casablanca". another silent classic that he starred in was "the man who laughs", where he played a man whose face is disfigured into a grotesque smile, an unsettling achievement in early makeup effects that was eventually used as the basis for the character of the joker in "batman". that's quite a lot of cultural influence for a man who died at 50!
SEE THREE MORE ESSENTIALS...
|feel the pain|
i actually had a hard time figuring out whether to name this or dreyer's "vampyr" , which to my mind is superior to toddd browning's "dracula" and even to murnau's "nosferatu". although technically not a silent film, dreyer was strapped for money [most of the cast in the film were not professional actors] and the film needed to be translated into three languages, so he opted to use only a few words to limit costs. much less macabre than the classic vampire tales, it is nonetheless an unsettling piece.
|let's try to list everything wrong with this image|
also, more than any other film on this list, it does suffer from the grandiosity of the hollywood epics, with wild overacting, overblown drama and an apparent hatred for the concept of subtlety.
so what the heck makes it worth watching?
well, as a historical document, you won't find an uglier or more honest view of the deep divisions that remained from the civil war fifty years after its end. the romanticization of the old south and the bitterness passed down to its sons [of which griffith was one] clearly persisted beneath the thinnest veneer of civility. the idea that the worst of racism died out with abolition could not be more definitively disproven.
visually, it's also an astonishing accomplishment, bringing the director's huge and wide-ranging vision to life with remarkable beauty. griffith pioneered many modern cinematic techniques, such as the use of lighting and camera placement to augment atmosphere. "the birth of a nation" also represented the establishment of the feature length as the dominant form of film. up until that point, short features were more common. so it's because of this deeply problematic piece of history that you aren't paying $15 a head to go see a section of avatar that's ten minutes long released every month.
modern times  :: "the artist" isn't the first film to meet with public and critical success in a world where sound had become more prominent. charlie chaplin made some of his best known pictures without saying a word well into the era of the talking picture. perhaps it was because the film illustrated rather than shouted its message, or perhaps it was just because chaplin's "tramp" character had simply become so beloved that film censors seemed to miss the film's overt political and anti-industrialist [anti-corporate in today's parlance] message. the mid-thirties was a a time of considerable censorship in film, especially compared to the relatively liberal standards of the twenties. interspersed with the light comedic and romantic story, the film has a lot to say about the desperate circumstances of the poor and the working class during the great depression.
while you may not ever have seen "modern times" in full, i can virtually guarantee that you've seen something from it, or one of hundreds of parodies- the scene where new factory-worker chaplin is literally pressed under the gears of industrial production. it is a moment of comedy genius touched, as his best films were, with a social conscience.
although there is a bit of controversy over the film- chaplin was twice sued and finally settled out of court over the story's similarity to "liberty for us", a rene clair film that predated it by five years- there is no disputing that "modern times" is a classic and, with the resurgent tension between the very rich and the great mass of the population, its message continues to resonate today.
i could go on, but i think that, for those who have an interest and don't know where to start, i think that these will give you something to think about, silently.