In a time of overwhelming and oppressive “realism” on screen, it’s worth looking back at the creative virtues of silent cinema

Words by George Turner

One chilly autumnal morning in the first year of undergraduate studies, I took a seat in a small lecture theatre. The lights dimmed as my classmates and I prepared ourselves for Cœur fidèle / The Faithful Heart (1923), Jean Epstein’s silent masterpiece. Maxence Cyrin’s piano score began as the opening credits rolled. The film was being screened as part of a Film Histories course, which explored a different nation’s contribution to early cinema each week. This particular week examined the French Impressionists of the 1920s. To my dismay, though, the screening was not met with any sense of enthusiasm from my colleagues. Regrettably, in fact, by the time the lights rose an hour and twenty minutes later, some had even fallen asleep. And yet, just a few days earlier, the screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) on a different course was met with overwhelming approval.

One, then, begins to wonder: why and how do we engage with silent films differently to those with sound and that feel, ostensibly, more “realistic”? Informal observations of fellow students, relatives and friends, has indicated to me that silent film is regarded as an ‘outdated’ version of contemporary cinema, as if silent films were mere prerequisites for later, more compelling releases. It is true that early films laid foundations for technological developments, but it is too simplistic to say that the films themselves are less ‘advanced’. This wrongly implies that watching contemporary films ‘covers more bases’ than watching early films, so to speak, since they are more “developed”. Rather, watching silent film enriches movie consumption and to neglect these pictures, as many do, would be a detriment to our appreciation of contemporary film. This remains a particularly pressing issue with recent movements in consumer tastes that are more favourable to sensory experiences, chasing big-screen “realism” and caring less for “good” storytelling. A film is far more than just its visual clarity or lifelikeness. For silent film to be adequately appreciated, one must consider the merits of the film within and (more importantly) beyond its technological historical context.

In the opening scene of Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1917), a passenger is seen arched over the side of a ship, his body squirming and shaking. The spectator can only assume this poor fellow has fallen victim to a severe case of sea-sickness. Suddenly, the debilitated figure stabilises himself, stands upright and turns to reveal that he was, in fact, merely fishing. This humorous punchline, typical of Chaplin’s signature visual comical style, shows its age when viewed in an era of advanced film production and exhibition technologies, perhaps most prominently in the absence of any synchronised sound. Despite this, Chaplin’s film still exhibits a distinctive brand of charm and wit more than a century on, and the sequence retains its ability to guide spectators’ comprehension of the narrative event. In fact, one existing argument insists that the humour of this scene may only exist because of its era’s limitations.

Spectator engagement has remained central to the academic field of film studies, yet little scholarship exists on why exactly contemporary audiences deem silent cinema to be of less interest than sound cinema.

The Immigrant (1917), Mutual Film, USA, 35mm, black-and-white, silent, 25 minutes, Immigrant (Charles Chaplin)

While comedic expectations and tastes evolve, potentially limiting the success of the joke among contemporary audiences, it is no mystery to viewers where the joke ‘exists’, nor are the spatial dimensions of the scene somehow incomprehensible. It would seem fair to predict that the common spectator would not laugh at Chaplin’s joke aloud. Some, perhaps. Others may simply ‘reject’ the film due to its aged visual style. Spectator engagement has remained central to the academic field of film studies, yet little scholarship exists on why exactly contemporary audiences deem silent cinema to be of less interest than sound cinema. Answering this question wholly is not possible here, but a brief examination of one potential reason for this rejection will demonstrate two things: that a whole variety of both informal and philosophical discourses regarding silent film are too seldom granted due consideration, and that these discourses are valuable for all cinema-goers (laypeople and scholars alike).

So, perhaps one could consider what Michel Chion calls “temporal elasticity” responsible for the aforementioned rejection of silent films. In his seminal work on film sound, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1990), Chion denotes “synch points” as moments in audiovisual films when sonic and visual events meet. The absence of these points in silent films frequently resulted in the contortion of film temporality, where the time of a film scene is longer or shorter than it may be if it were restricted by audible synch points. This is seen in Chaplin’s sequence, as it does not display a lifelike representation of movement. Instead, characters move melodramatically, in peculiar and humorous ways and at speeds faster or slower than is recognised in real life. The result is a visual style that draws particular attention to movie-ness of the film, as the absence of audio urges one to acknowledge the events on-screen as staged, consciously not lifelike fictions and a charming uniqueness is exhibited, as the very things that define a movie are brought to the fore. Thus exposure to such visual style is a unique opportunity that, as mentioned, is seldom available in sound films. Several stylistic elements of these early films that have remained within the cinema throughout the decades might also be picked up by viewers: a heavy reliance on continuity (or discontinuity) editing to narrate the events or specific use of settings to heighten mood for example. To bear witness to these elements in their formative years is endlessly valuable for any film enthusiast.

Pay particular consideration to the dialogues between different viewers of these films too. Simply put, conversations about a given film may address the above points, as well as many others, and this should be recognised as an essential part of the film watching experience. We are, after all, social animals, and cinematic entertainment is a ubiquitous domain of social conversation. As philosopher Noël Carroll acknowledges, “evaluating films is something that we do all the time”, and to recognise elements of silent cinema unique to its era without sharing such thoughts is no more than half of the sociable film experience. In other words, the dialogues that I have described (recognising stylistic elements, rejecting or enjoying silent films for various reasons, discussing theories with other viewers) and engaged with myself (Exploring engagement, audiovisual synchronicity, noting the comedic potential of unnatural movement) are all conversations that enrich the layman and philosopher’s filmic experiences alike. To omit the sampling of silent films such as The Immigrant would not simply preclude a conversation on its comic or cinematic value from occurring but would, more dramatically, restrict and dull the palette of the film-goer and their filmic vocabulary.

Engaging with such revolutionary material puts one in direct contact with a historical artefact, almost in a process of exhumation.

The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927), Universal Pictures, USA, 35mm, black-and-white, silent, 80 minutes, cast and crew production still

A sophism? I assure not. An awareness of and fluency in these classic pictures enhances any movie-goer’s evaluative potential. It is axiomatic that early cinema laid foundations for later years of filmmaking and viewing and is, therefore, appropriate to heed the natural call to discover the pioneering roots of cinematic storytelling and the technological advancements they documented. As a result, engaging with such revolutionary material puts one in direct contact with a historical artefact, almost in a process of exhumation. Indeed, one could conceptualise every film technology (celluloid then digital projection, home viewing, on-demand) as ‘of its time’. However, silent cinema’s peak occurring several generations before this one affords it an aura of notable historicity. Unlike the theatre, the actions displayed are not live. Hence actors portraying characters are almost all deceased, and the film will have had a history of exhibitions to audiences from years past that may too be deceased or from a very different era of filmmaking (one might think of André Bazin’s notion of the indexical relationship between the image and its subject here). In this way, viewing a silent film, Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) for instance, yields a more historically significant engagement than a modern-day production of the 1922 John Willard stageplay that was adapted for Leni’s film. In a similar vein, the formal elements of films from this era are too often neglected. By this I specifically refer to elements in the narrative construction and special effects that, considering the medium’s relatively young age, were revolutionary – so much so that they more closely resemble contemporary films than the novice spectator might first expect. Few films are quite as demonstrative of this than Victor Sjöström’s horror masterpiece, The Phantom Carriage / Körkarlen (1921).

A black screen. Swedish intertitles set the scene: “Once there was a poor Salvation Army sister at death’s door.” An iris wipe widens to reveal Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), moribund and somnifacient, her expressionless mother and a Salvation Army colleague beside her. It is a frightfully cold New Year’s Eve, and Edit’s dying wish is to speak with David Holm (played by Sjöström) — a spiteful and arrogant drunkard. What follows is a mammoth tale of supernatural hauntings, familial disparity, reminiscence, salvation and, finally, redemption. David dies in a brawl and his old friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) appears riding Death’s carriage after collecting the souls of all who perished in the previous year. Georges shows David the horrors that await him for his descent into alcohol abuse, violence and neglect of his family. Upon finally hearing Edit blame herself for David’s sins, David begs Georges to revive him and rush to Anna before she kills herself and her children. Sprinting in a blind panic, David arrives with little more than a moment to spare and convinces Anna that he is a reformed man.

Sjöström (later spelt Seastrom for the ease of American audiences’ pronunciation after his move to Hollywood) is often credited as the father of Sweden’s Golden Age of cinema, and The Phantom Carriage holds its rightful place in the horror film canon. Sporting an intricate narrative fraught with temporal jumps, and pioneering optical tricks to produce the ghostly figures of Georges and David, the film was a soaring achievement upon its release and has rightly maintained its reputation as essential viewing among various, albeit esoteric, circles. Beyond this, its influence resonates throughout some of the most critical moments in cinematic history: Swedish arthouse director Ingmar Bergman was very vocal about Sjöström’s influence on him, citing his first viewing of The Phantom Carriage as the moment that inspired him to become a filmmaker, later casting Sjöström himself in the leading role of his magnum opus, Wild Strawberries / Smultronstället (1957). Likewise, the influence behind the notorious chess game between Antonius and Death in The Seventh Seal / Det sjunde inseglet (1957) is attributed to the moment of David and Georges first meeting in the graveyard. More within the scope of the mainstream, David’s alcohol and rage-fuelled rampage including the door-axing was the inspiration behind the “Here’s Johnny!” sequence from The Shining (1980).

Silent cinema should not be disregarded as an underdeveloped version of the same cinematic attraction. In contemporary viewing, early silent cinema serves a different purpose; it is not an inferior predecessor to a superior successor, but an alternative form of film altogether.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927), Gainsborough Pictures, UK, 35mm, black-and-white, silent, 90 minutes

The Phantom Carriage is just one of countless examples of silent films that were pioneering in multiple ways both in its narrative, distinct visual style and special effects. Even Alfred Hitchcock’s work would be reminiscent of silent-era techniques in his distinguished Vertigo (1958), in which Scotty’s secretive stalking sequences feature extended periods of no dialogue, instead constructing spatial dimensions with blocking and cinematography, and establishing semantic value with non-diegetic score. No doubt this style is redolent of his time spent working during silent-era production that laid the foundations of Hitchcock’s filmmaking career, with his first “true” film credited as the silent thriller The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). But the significance of these early films go beyond their historical context, and this is an essential detail. After all one may, albeit defiantly, suggest that the films of silent-era pioneers including Chaplin, Sjöström, Hitchcock, Jean Epstein, Sergei Eisenstein, Yasujirō Ozu, and F. W. Murnau do not pertain to any discussion on contemporary movie consumption; these films are of an era gone by and thus needn’t be recognised as significant in the historical canon; to be merely cognisant of the above phenomena is sufficient, and so on. The refuting of this suggestion lies at the heart of this essay. Silent cinema should not be disregarded as an underdeveloped version of the same cinematic attraction. In contemporary viewing, early silent cinema serves a different purpose; it is not an inferior predecessor to a superior successor, but an alternative form of film altogether. One early cinema thinker had put forward an idea akin to this almost a whole century ago, and The Immigrant, The Phantom Carriage and The Lodger are interesting demonstrations of his views.

Rudolf Arnheim is renowned for his scepticism toward synchronised sound. He considered the introduction of the ‘talkies’ indicative of a shift towards “the complete cinema” whereby “technological advancements would bring the film medium closer and closer to an exact representation of reality.” However, for Arnheim, “the narrower the gap between the filmic reproduction and reality, the slimmer are the chances for film to become an art.” He regarded “[showing] speech in a silent way” to be “the most effective artistic device”:

For if a man is heard speaking, his gestures and facial expression only appear as an accompaniment… But if one does not hear what is said, the meaning becomes… artistically interpreted.

Rudolf Arnheim, Film As Art (1932)

Arnheim uses the example sequence from The Immigrant as an instance of creative visual storytelling unique to cinema, as the restriction of no sound limits the audience from hearing that Chaplin is not in fact being ill overboard, making the visual gag possible. In a famous scene in The Lodger, Hitchcock implicitly narrates “the three protagonists heard Jonathan pacing upstairs” by dissolving a low angle shot of the ceiling sporting a swinging chandelier to a low-angle shot of a glass panel (through which Jonathan can be seen), maintaining the same perspective. Finally, Sjöström employs coloured tints to denote semantic value at different moments in the narrative of The Phantom Carriage: with warm rose-tinted colours during moments of fond reminiscence and cold, melancholic midnight blues in the nighttime sequences. All of these examples, by Arnheim’s logic, diverge from realistic cinematic representation towards a more ‘artistic’ mode of production.

The notion that silent film is ‘less realistic’ is inaccurate, and therefore simply inadequate, as the truth and the realism described pertains only to the technologies that birthed the film, rather than the text’s merits.

Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007)

It goes without saying that the suggestion of cinema only being art by diverging from reality is a problematic doctrine, and so is suggesting that moving images with synchronous sound are necessarily intending to be realistic. Many films exploit their sonic dimension for artistic flair without maintaining a ‘realistic’ aesthetic. Similarly, large-budget mainstream films often construct their soundtracks during post-production, generating sounds that are considered realistic on the diegetic side of the fiction operator; the instantly recognisable lightsaber sounds from the Star Wars franchise, for instance, are realistic in reference to the internal logic of the story world without resembling the sounds of any real-life object. A silent version of Star Wars would not necessarily be ‘more creative’ without such features. So, as the years have progressed, the supposed limits of film have been eliminated and ongoing technological advancements still push cinematic images ever closer to ones that look or feel ‘real’ — the opposite direction to what Arnheim would advocate for.

With this, though, comes an ever-evolving consumer appeal that seems to ignore the storytelling potential that these technologies bring. Promoting The Lion King (2019), one particular advertisement insists that the viewers ‘experience every detail’ by viewing the film in IMAX projection, with no story content mentioned. The current trend of classic (in this instance Disney) films retold with state of the art technology complicates the art vs. realism question further, for the novelty of the cinema now seems to lie in its sensory experience and the verisimilitude that this brings to the stories told. Of course it is not ‘realistic’ that a meerkat and warthog that can speak the English language and decide to befriend a lion cub who can likewise speak fluent English, but these characters look and move in a more ‘realistic’ way than in the 2D animated original, by virtue of not being a cartoon. With humanistic voice acting and animalistic body movements and appearances, the cuteness of the animals appeals widely. The ‘realistic’ visuals of modern fantasy stories are a large element of the films’ allure, other attractions such as star appeal and nostalgia for the original version notwithstanding. Even in modern-day superhero blockbusters, advanced CGI and post-production effects allow for the destruction of cities on behalf of alien forces to look and feel “more realistic”.

But the sensory experience that comes with theatrical viewings of superhero epics cannot be considered synonymous with a realistic one. Noël Carroll has referred to a fiction operator that determines where the real world ends and the story world begins. In this way, the ‘authors’ of a film can say that it is fictional that Bruce Banner can transform into the Hulk, but only story world agents such as characters or narrators on the other side of the operator could assert that this is actually truthful. By this logic, the notion that silent film is ‘less realistic’ is inaccurate, and therefore simply inadequate, as the truth and the realism described pertains only to the technologies that birthed the film, rather than the text’s merits.

The Phantom Carriage weaves a tale of loss and salvation, using an intricately woven plot with several characters and locations. The tragedy of David’s descent, the warmth of Edit’s forgiveness, Anna’s sorrow, the tension of David’s rush to save his wife.

The Phantom Carriage / Körkarlen (Victor Sjöström, 1921), Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 35mm, black-and-white, silent, 107 minutes

A friend of mine, when asked why he would not want to sit through a silent film, compared it to listening to 1920s music on a gramophone: the appreciation would extend no further than a brief admiration of the historical significance (say, in a museum) before the novelty would wear off. But this ignores that the music itself has its own merits, and this should be thought of separately from the clarity of the audio, or the extra difficulties that come with acquiring and playing music on a gramophone. Likewise, The Phantom Carriage weaves a tale of loss and salvation, using an intricately woven plot with several characters and locations. The tragedy of David’s descent, the warmth of Edit’s forgiveness, Anna’s sorrow, the tension of David’s rush to save his wife — all elements of Sjöström’s story that are supplemented by the ambitious cinematography and, if viewed under usual circumstances, Matti Bye’s seminal 1998 score. The film possesses many valuable merits regardless of its realism and should not be seen as a boring version for a film that could be ‘better’ if remade today.

One can certainly enjoy and appreciate cinema without the knowledge of Arnheim’s theories, but it would be problematic to suggest that an awareness of such theory could weaken the experience of any film viewership. In fact, with silent films (and ‘old’ films with synchronous sound for that matter) continuing to be restored in new formats, Arnheim’s views remain as intriguing as ever. The Lodger becomes a valuable example yet again, with its 2012 re-release featuring vocals, tonal composition and percussion typical of contemporary western pop music across several key scenes. The meaning of the words in the lyrics run parallel with the events in the narrative, not too dissimilar to what is achieved with more typical silent film scoring. Some might contend that this hinders Hitchcock’s vision. Of course, there are intriguing questions regarding what Arnheim would think of all this too. Exposure to silent films via their ongoing circulation and exhibition is key to a more enlightened and sophisticated discourse surrounding cinema; the very fact that these debates can continue existing is a testament to early cinema’s importance in modern times.

There is great value to be found in engaging with both silent films and their salient informal, philosophical and theoretical discussions. As a concluding sentiment, I urge thee to consider the breadth of areas for examination and discussion within contemporary cinema that may be augmented by engaging with the era that laid its foundations, and continues to hold its own distinct merits in a time of overwhelming sensory ‘realism’. Advocacy of silent film consumption extends beyond self-absorbed re-affirmation. It calls upon the movie-goer to not only recognise cinema’s ability to teach, guide, entertain and enlighten, but to respect the medium’s initial growth and establishment as a powerful art form that deserves its place in everyday film-viewing life.

George Turner

By George Turner

George Turner is a student at The University of Kent, studying for Film BA (Hons). His primary interests include analytic philosophy and theory of film, cognitive narratology, and silent cinema. George has also engaged with film practice; his most recent short film being officially selected by London International Moving Picture Awards (LIMPA) 2019 and Dumbo Film Festival 2019.