Silent Films at the London Film Festival

A thoughtful and expressive piece appeared in today’s Guardian, praising the value, worth and beauty of silent cinema.

Three silent’s are slated to be screened at the London Film Festival later this month: Underground (1928, directed by Anthony Asquith), J’accuse! (1919, directed by Abel Gance), and Laila (1929, directed by George Schneevoigt), which, Guardian writer Ronald Bergan says, remind modern audiences just how eloquent dialogue-free movies are capable of being. He also makes the provocative argument that “if cinema history had started with sound, it would have been necessary to invent silent movies.”

Read his reverent op-ed below:

The London film festival is screening three silent classics this year, reminding us just how eloquent dialogue-free movies are capable of being.

Is there anyone out there who still needs to be convinced of the superiority of silent movies? They hold their own easily against sound, colour and widescreen films in any canonical list. Silent movies are the ne plus ultra of cinema. The rest is… theatre or literature. How exciting, therefore, that this year’s London film festival is screening three silent movie treasures: one British (Underground, 23 October), one French (J’Accuse, 24 October) and one Norwegian (Laila, 29 October).

Pre-sound movies are closer to Erwin Panovsky’s definition of cinema as “the dynamisation of space and the spacialisation of time”, and to Alfred Hitchcock’s belief in “pure cinema”. When film theorists attempt to define cinematic specificity, it is to non-talkies that they turn. I have a theory that if cinema history had started with sound, it would have been necessary to invent silent movies.

Actually, there is no such thing as a silent movie, because a musical accompaniment was an essential component of every performance. And how can anything so eloquent be termed “silent”? That is why I prefer to call them pre-sound movies, or non-talkies. Ironically, one of the few things that non-talkies couldn’t do was create silence. Silence as an acoustic effect exists only where sounds can be heard, as in Abel Gance’s The Life and Loves of Beethoven (1937), in a sequence where the composer loses his hearing. Incidentally, it is interesting to compare Gance’s non-talkie 1919 version of J’Accuse – which depicts death, delusion and insanity in the trenches – with his far less effective talkie remake of 1938.

Pre-sound films were more universal, with no need for subtitles or dubbing – FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) is so expressive that intertitles were unnecessary. Charlie Chaplin, feeling that talkies would limit his international appeal, and being popular enough, resisted dialogue for 13 years, making two of the screen’s greatest comedies, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), in the midst of an avalanche of talk.

Much is written about the cinematographic beauty and the use of montage in pre-sound films (for Sergei Eisenstein, sound destroyed montage, which he considered the essence of cinema) but of equal importance were the closeup and the performances. The absence of the spoken word concentrates the spectator’s attention more closely on the visual aspect of behaviour. Acting in non-talkies, now a lost art, had to be done in a manner different from the style on stage or the reality of ordinary life. This was precisely what the great actors of the silent period accomplished, far from the pantomimic exaggeration seen in films like Singin’ in the Rain. Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Conrad Veidt, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino and Asta Nielsen were among those that gave the most extraordinary performances in screen history. As Norma Desmond (Swanson) says in Sunset Boulevard (1950): “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”

Underground (UK, 1928)
Underground (UK, 1928)

Laila (Norway, 1928)
Laila (Norway, 1929)
J'accuse! (France, 1919)
J'accuse! (France, 1919)

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

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