The Nine important silent era films

February 28, 2023

There were countless silent films produced around the world during the early days of cinema, and unfortunately the vast bulk of them are now considered "lost" movies (it is estimated over 90% are gone).

Here are nine of the most famous and influential which have survived and have consistently retained a quality reputation:

  1. The Birth of a Nation (1915) - This very controversial American film directed by D.W. Griffith is a source of consternation because of its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic band of knights. The film techniques used by Griffith (who later had regrets about the subject matter portrayal) revolutionized filmmaking and made popular the feature-length film.

  2. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - An Expressionist film from Germany directed by Robert Wiene utilizing highly stylized sets and distorted and turned perspectives that has been imitated ever since from Hitchcock to the 1966 Batman TV show. When the average filmmaker wants to tell you something is off about a character or scene, they will twist the perspective on a character just like in this film. The story of a hypnotist sending out a sleepwalking somnambulist to perform crimes has a remarkable twist-ending.

  3. Nosferatu (1922) - An illegal adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel Dracula directed by F.W. Murnau featuring an eerie and iconic portrayal of the vampire Count Orlok. Imitated and ground-breaking in establishing the template for vampire films going forward, and a copyright test case that could have resulted in all copies of the movie being destroyed if the courts had been more effective at the time.

  4. Battleship Potemkin (1925) - Sergei Eisenstein directed this story of a mutiny aboard a Russian battleship in 1905, predating the Soviet revolution (which officially dates from 1917) but establishing a clear link between the oppression of Russians then and their liberation "now" (1925). Eisenstein used montage editing techniques that has been utilized ever since in filmmaking around the world.

  5. The Gold Rush (1925) - Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp in the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska. Considered one of Chaplin's greatest films containing many of his most famous comedic sequences, such as the gourmet glories of cooking a leather shoe for a meal.

  6. Metropolis (1927) - Fritz Lang directed this German science fiction film which tells the story of a dystopian future where people are divided into two classes, a small wealthy elite and a much larger group oppressed working class, and how technology and robotics (which is half-science and half-sorcery in this movie) can be used to not just trick people, but to create a culture of idolatry.
  7. Safety Last (1928) - Harold Lloyd as a humble clerk referred to only as The Boy who enlists a friend to scale a tall building for a $1,000 stunt reward, but when the friend is unable to carry out the maneuver, The Boy has to do it himself. What follows is a floor-by-floor story of death-defying, goofy acrobatics, culminating in one of the most iconic images from all of cinema, Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high over city streets. This film helped make Lloyd considered one of the "three" comedy giants of the silent era along with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

  8. City Lights (1931) - Charlie Chaplin directed and stars in this American romantic comedy film telling the story of the Little Tramp's efforts to win the love of a blind flower girl. Famous for mixing together a tender poignancy with sequences of comedic farce and high humor.

  9. The General (1926) - Buster Keaton stars as an unlikely hero is this humorous adaptation of a true event from the American Civil War referred to as "the great locomotive chase." Keaton steals back a train from the Union army and then is chased down the tracks by a combination of soldiers, mortar fire, and natural events which he overcomes one by one in order to finally impress the girl he's got a crush on. Considered one of Keaton's best works in a long list of great short films during the silent era .

These nine films represent a wide range of genres and styles, but all have left an indelible mark on the history of cinema and continue to be celebrated and studied today.

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Original Page October 26, 2022