The New Era of Silent Movies, Part I

still of the film Dr Mabuse (1932) by Fritz Lang
‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’ (1932), dir: Fritz Lang

“There’s so many great films that you feel like you’ve seen everything, but then you crack open a vault of amazing stuff.”  Rob Zombie

The recent release of several fully restored classic films from the 1920s on Blu-ray suggests that silent movies are no longer a niche market for the cineast and art house audience, but are a core element of the DVD retail market with an increasing share of disc sales. And with sell-out screenings for the recent theatrical reissue of the influential German expressionist classic ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920), F. W. Murnau’s iconic ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), Buster Keaton’s comic masterpiece ‘The General’ (1926), Raoul Walsh’ opulent ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924), and Fritz Lang’s dystopian SF epic ‘Metropolis’ (1927), silent cinema appears to be enjoying a real revival.

Doubtless the critical and commercial success of Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’ (2011) and Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ (2011), both multi-Academy Award-winning homages to the silent era, have helped revive interest in early cinema and made modern audiences more receptive to watching films from the pre-talkie era, provided these are presented in high-definition with newly recorded digital scores.

Making of Faust

The making of ‘Faust’

When cinema goers and home theatre viewers are given the opportunity to see such seminal films as Murnau’s supernatural fantasy ‘Faust’ (1926), Pabst’s sensual tragedy ‘Pandora’s Box’ (1929) with the delectable Louise Brooks, or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s harrowing ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928) in pristine quality, they soon shake off the image most of us have of silent movies as quaint museum pieces cranked out in the primitive, rather than pioneering days of cinema. It is a misconception which can be blamed on the glut of cheap Public Domain discs which are invariably taken from 16mm prints played at the incorrect speed until every action scene resembles a chase sequence with the Keystone cops. These flickering third of fourth generation Xerox quality copies have been the bane of film buffs for decades and are in stark contrast to those titles released by early cinema specialists Kino, Eureka, MK2 and Cohen Classics, all of whom are committed to preserving and presenting classic films the way they were meant to be seen.

“I always loved silent movies… It’s not the same form of expression as a talkie. The lack of sounds makes you participate in the storytelling.” Michel Hazanavicius

Harold lloyd

Harold Lloyd in ‘Safety Last!’ (1932)

As every film buff knows silent films were never silent. When prestige pictures were screened in the more upmarket Picture Palaces they would be accompanied by a full piece orchestra performing an original score. In smaller theatres a small ensemble would play a selection of classical pieces or adaptations of popular songs of the day. In the more modest picture houses a solo pianist or organist would often improvise an accompaniment. All of these permutations have been utilized for the Blu-ray and standard DVD releases and can greatly enhance the movie, or detract from it as anyone who has suffered the cheesy organ or cheap synthesizer accompaniment on Public Domain releases will attest. But when a composer who is sympathetic to the medium is commissioned to provide a new score the combination of music and image can create an unforgettable experience.

'The Thief of Bagdad' (1924)

‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924)

Carl Davis’ exotic score for ‘The Thief of Bagdad’, which uses motifs from Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ and was originally composedfor a screening during the Thames Silents season back in the 1980s, and Robert Israel’s ragtime style solo piano accompaniment to Harold Lloyd’s films are proof of that.


“The silent era was the richest in the cinema’s history.” Kevin Brownlow (author of ‘Hollywood – The Pioneers’)

So why should you watch black and white silent movies after you’ve invested a small fortune in a superlarge Full HD flat screen TV and 5.1 Home Cinema set up with floor rumbling subwoofers?

Quite simply, the best silent movies are as thrilling, engrossing and entertaining as anything being made today. Ask anyone who has seen the pin-sharp frame-by-frame 4K restoration of Keaton’s ‘The General’, the refurbished ‘Caligari’ in a glorious high-def edition, or the spruced up ‘Metropolis’ (1927) after it had been given a 4K digital makeover and restored to near its original length with 25 minutes of rediscovered and reinstated footage. Lang’s masterpiece had been subjected to extensive cuts by the studio, UFA, immediately after its lukewarm reception at the Berlin premiere and the American print had been insensitively edited by the distributors so that the meaning of the film was altered and the significance of key scenes were rendered incomprehensible to US audiences. Now it can finally be seen as its director intended.

photo of Fritz Lang's film Metropolis, 1927

‘Metropolis’ (1927), dir: Fritz Lang

Such extensive restoration is very costly in terms of both time and money, but the Murnau Film Foundation and the Cohen Media Group evidently believe that they have an obligation to preserve our cultural heritage and are confident that their considerable investment will be recouped through the sales of DVDs and selective theatrical screenings. ‘Metropolis’ took a year of intensive work at a cost of 600,000 euros ($840,000) and ‘Caligari’ is said to have taken two years to refurbish, during which the original camera negative was subjected to a chemical clean up to remove the patina of dirt and perforation damage was repaired to ensure stability of the image. Once they had a new working print, it could then be digitally processed to repair or replace damaged and missing frames, erase scratches and fix other distracting imperfections. ‘Caligari’ posed a particularly difficult problem as it had 67 incomplete scenes, each with between 20 and 40 missing frames, causing breaks in continuity and disruptive jumps which have been the plague many silent films. These frames had to be digitally recreated using information from preceding and subsequent frames. ‘Caligari’ restorer Anke Wilkening described this as a “very complex process,” but one which produced a new digital master that she considered to be a “quantum leap” in quality. “We have all the details in the frames, so all the shades of gray are there, there is detail in the faces and that of course also means that the movie no longer has this appearance of being a dusty old film.”

Read: The New Era of Silent Film Part II and Part III (feat. essential filmography, bibliography and documentaries)

film still showing Louise Brooks in 'Pandora's Box' (1929)

Louise Brooks in ‘Pandora’s Box’ (1929)

*Rob Zombie quote via

About RealPaulRoland

PAUL ROLAND is a prolific recording artist, producer and author of more than 30 books. He has been spinning his musical tales against a backdrop of gothic rock, psych pop and, occasionally, baroque strings. He has been called 'Edgar Allen Poe of psych pop' and the 'Godfather of Steampunk'.

Posted on December 7, 2014, in films & movies, silent films and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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