The Birth Of A Nation, USA, 1915, 186 min. Starring Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Two friendly families find themselves at odds with each other when forced to choose sides in the Civil War. Extremely controversial owing to its seemingly pro-segregationist politics and unquestionable lionizing of the Klan, this is still a valuable piece of educational filmmaking by one of the original architects of the art form. You will find yourself cringing at some of the things depicted on screen, and they deserve to be cringed at. But the film is what it is and always will be, so it is up to the individual whether or not they wish to learn what technical education the film has to offer.
Intolerance, USA, 1916, 178 min. Starring Lillian Gish, Constance Talmadge, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Walter Long. Directed by D. W. Griffith. Griffith’s masterwork tells four different stories of prejudice and hatred through the ages, one about the downfall of ancient Babylon, one an abridged version of the story of Christ, one set in 16th Century France regarding the persecution of the Huguenots, and a modern tale concerning a workers’ strike in a mill town. Anyone looking for a thorough primer on the earliest examples of almost all of the modern film language we now take for granted need look no further than here. And while the stories may seem a bit heavy-handed message-wise, you can always lose yourself in the mind-blowing production design, particularly in the Babylonian sequences.
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Germany, 1919, 69 min. Starring Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover. Directed by Robert Wiene. Classic of German Expressionism tells the tale of a hypnotist who uses a sleep walker to commit murder. A macabre triumph of visual design.
Nosferatu, Germany, 1922, 84 min. Starring Max Schreck, Alexander Granach. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Probably the best of the many adaptations of Bram Stoker’s tale of horror, Dracula. Schreck provides an indelible image as the title ghoul.
The Navigator, USA, 1924, 69 min. Starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Frederick Vroom. Directed by Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp. Two spoiled upper class people, a man who has just proposed marriage and the woman who rejected him, find themselves adrift on an ocean liner, a situation that calls for some real survival instincts. Only problem is neither one of them has ever done anything for themselves in their lives. The premise allows for Keaton’s usual brand of ingenuity, particularly in the beautifully Goldberg-ian contraptions the couple construct to make the ship livable.
The Last Laugh, Germany, 1924, 90 min. Starring Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Jannings plays a larger-than-life doorman at a swanky hotel, who is unfairly stripped of his position, and must face the humiliation that comes from his fall. Murnau’s revolutionary use of the camera, in part the work of another soon-to-be-legendary director Karl Freund, helps create a distinct world that sardonically pokes at the notion that a man is no more than what his uniform makes him.
Greed, USA, 1925, 140 min. Starring Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Chester Conklin, Dale Fuller. Directed by Eric von Stroheim. Von Stroheim’s labor of love suffered severe studio interference but remains a compelling depiction of the title deadly sin.
The Gold Rush, USA, 1925, 82 min. Starring Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. The Little Tramp goes Yukon in this gem. Includes some of Chaplin’s most recognizable bits, such as him eating his shoe and making the rolls dance.
Ivan The Terrible Parts I & II, Russia, 1943/1946, 96/88 min. Starring Nikolai Cherkassov, Serafima Berman, Ludmila Tselikovskaya, Mikhail Nazvanov. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein planned a trilogy about the life of Russia’s notorious Czar. Part three never got made, and part two almost never saw the light of day, owing to interference from Stalin. Sergei Prokoviev wrote original music for the project.
Battleship Potemkin, Russia, 1925, 65 min. Starring Alexander Antonov, Vladimir Barsky. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. The most famous of the ‘red silents’, detailing a crucial event in the 1905 Revolution. Includes the oft-referenced ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence.
Metropolis, Germany, 1927, 120 min. Starring Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frölich, Directed by Fritz Lang. A young man of privilege finds himself enthralled by the plight of the working class of the sprawling city in which he lives and joins their cause. The symbolism is less than subtle – the elite live up in the clouds in their skyscrapers while the poor workers toil beneath ground level – but this is still the most influential science fiction film ever made. The art design of Lang’s city is still jaw-dropping, the film’s vision has inspired just about every cinematic dystopia since conceived, and Brigitte Helm dressed as the robot Maria is one of the most famous sci-fi images in the world.
The General, USA, 1927, 74 min. Starring Buster Keaton, Marion Mack. Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman. Keaton’s wild comedy, based on a true story, about a Civil War era man trying to hold on to the only two things he loves in life – his girl…and his train! Exciting and hilarious.
Sunrise, USA, 1927, 110 min. Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingstone. Directed by F. W. Murnau. Murnau’s first American film depicts a farmer torn between his wife and a conniving woman from the city. Simple yet powerful tale of deceit and treachery.
The Cameraman, USA, 1928, 69 min. Starring Buster Keaton, Marceline Day. Directed by Edward Sedgwick. Once again Buster is out to impress a woman, this time playing a young man working as a street photographer who strives to get a job shooting Hearst newsreels to get closer to the girl who assigns the news tips. As per usual, Keaton turns the character’s incompetence into comedy gold while simultaneously showing the audience a little something about the way he himself constructed his films.
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, France, 1928, 117 min. Starring Maria Falconetti, Eugene Sylvain, Maurice Schutz. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Based on the actual trial transcripts, Dreyer directs Falconetti through a stunning performance as France’s most famous saint.
Earth, Russia, 1930, 90 min. Starring Semyon Svashenko, Stepan Shkurat. Directed by Alexander Dovzhenko. Classic ‘red silent’ about a struggle between collective farmers and a land baron, symbolizing the changes in Soviet life, with imagery way ahead of its time.
City Lights, USA, 1931, 86 min. Starring Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Hank Mann. Directed Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s masterpiece mixes humor with pathos as the Little Tramp falls in love with a blind girl who sells flowers on the street.