The success of a silent film at the Oscars was something few saw coming, even if, as I have argued, once The Artist found itself in the race proper, it was always going to be the most likely to win. But that is easy to say in hindsight. Silent film, though long cherished by purist cinephiles, has been rather unloved by the general public, viewed as an imperfect if unavoidable stage on the way to a full technological realisation of cinema. For many, an interest in the movies of the pre-sound era seems as bafflingly quixotic as cleaving to a Generation 1 iPod or continuing to run Windows 98 on your computer. And that was, naturally, the way it was viewed by the studios when the switch to sound was made in the late 1920s. There were those that demurred, much like The Artist’s George Valentin – Graham Greene was one – fearing that the new medium would lose its uniqueness and become merely a workaday adjunct to theatre and fiction. They needn’t have worried, as film pulled through swimmingly in the end, with every major filmmaker still working at the time of the changeover embracing the new medium, however reluctantly. Not that there weren’t teething problems, even if, looking back today, they were mercifully brief. A number of early sound films are stiff and uninvolving, as actors took time to get used to a new way of acting that called for neither the physical expressiveness of the silent cinema nor the vocal theatricality of the stage, and directors grappled with the challenges of filming with still primitive sound recording. Even masters such as Alfred Hitchcock were affected – his 1930 adaptation of Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is watchable only as a historical curiosity and has none of the energy or style of his better silent films, such as The Lodger and The Manxman.
In an ideal world, silent cinema would have continued to exist as a minor form alongside its more popular successor, but with filmmaking for a long time a capital-intensive, practically industrial, undertaking, there was never much chance of that. Even Charlie Chaplin, whose huge popularity allowed him to resist immediate change, eventually caved, for The Great Dictator in 1938. Silent cinema became the preserve of experimental filmmakers, such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, sometimes by aesthetic choice and sometimes due to simply not having the resources to provide sound accompaniment. There have been mainstream filmmakers who have dabbled occasionally in silent cinema since then but these have always been one-offs, such as Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha. The financial obstacle remains and even a bankable art-house name like Kaurismäki saw his film confined largely to the festival circuit. Not surprisingly, Thomas Langmann and Michel Hazanavicius also found it difficult to gather the funding to produce The Artist and said they expected to make a loss on it. That they didn’t was undoubtedly down to a carefully selected array of elements that made the film more easily digestible, such as a familiar plot-line, a charming little dog and a novelty hook that plays on the very disappearance of silent cinema itself.
The Artist is no exceptional piece of filmmaking but it carries its gimmick very well and its charm and likability are accompanied by a humbleness that might not have been there if it were a Hollywood production – Hazanavicius is sincere in his love for silent cinema and his film makes no great claims for formal or thematic originality. Even though its audience was relatively small for an Oscar winner, it is probably responsible for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, watching a silent film for the first time in their life. The majority of these will most likely not stray any further in exploring the medium but if even a small percentage are moved to watch another silent film, the success of The Artist and Martin Scorsese’s wonderful tribute to Georges Méliès, Hugo, will be amplified tenfold. The enthusiasm of many on watching Hazanavicius’ film came largely from surprise that silent film is not as difficult or boring as might at first be thought; the fear of inaccessibility regrettably deters people from trying any number of things that ought not to be so forbidding, from Ulysses to learning a foreign language, and silent film is no different.
Even when you get over the interpretative barrier of watching a film without any sound, silent film still prevents difficulties. The films are necessarily anchored in their particular era – as is, admittedly, the case with any epoch of film history – and that overly expressive acting can be initially hard to absorb. There is also an innate suspicion among modern viewers that a relative lack of dialogue or complex plot renders a narrative vulgar or childish. When you begin to realise though that silent film is a different beast altogether to the talkies, which requires a different way of viewing and interpreting it, the prospect of sitting through one becomes much less onerous and, for many, exhilarating. The adjective most often summoned to describe silent cinema among new viewers is ‘ghostly’ – this, of course, is largely because we don’t hear the actors speak and because practically all of them are now dead (though the latter is by now true of most films made prior to 1960). Rudyard Kipling had a similar reaction in the early days of the cinema, writing a beautifully haunting short story ‘Mrs Bathurst’, about a British colonial officer seeing at a cinematograph screening a woman he once knew in real life in a distant country. Even while silence was the ‘native language’ of cinema, filmmakers knew its capacity for conveying ghostliness, seen in the double exposures – still arresting today – of Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or the jagged dreamscapes of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
But silent film is not actually silent, any more than Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ or Munch’s ‘The Scream’ are silent. There was musical accompaniment much of the time and scores continue to be composed for restored prints, most notably by Philip Glass and Carl Davis, the latter, by now, a silent specialist. There are also purists who insist that there should be no music; Henri Langlois, the legendary programmer of the Cinémathèque française, was one and screenings at its old cinema in the Palais Chaillot were always held in complete silence. But even then, the medium cannot exploit silence in the way sound film can – one need only look at the films of Michelangelo Antonioni or Aleksandr Sokurov or the first half-hour of There Will Be Blood to realise this. The robust drama of so many silent films, from Eisenstein’s proto-action films to the intense Hollywood melodramas of European emigrés (Von Stroheim’s Greed, Sjöström’s The Wind and Murnau’s Sunrise), blares symphonically even when not underwritten by a musical score.
So what future for silent film? Restoration of old prints has been constant in many countries over the past forty years, with Martin Scorsese a particularly tireless campaigner on that front, and it is unlikely the success of The Artist is going to change that. It is estimated 70% of films made before 1950 are lost – to material decay, war and commercial indifference – and that figure rises to 90% for films from the pre-sound era. But conservationists are fully aware as to the urgency of preserving those that survive. Finding them a new audience is key. As ever, hardcore cinephiles will always inevitably gravitate towards silent film; perhaps The Artist will prompt more casual moviegoers to do the same. The internet is a great resource for this, with a treasure trove of films, both silent and sound, in the public domain, through sites such as UbuWeb, Open Culture and the excellent YouTube channels of the British Film Institute and British Pathé. Many of the silents available are also short, perfectly tailored for the modern attention span. It’s a good place to start.
Extract from The Wind (1928)
Extract from Greed (1924)
The Phantom Carriage (1921) in full
Battleship Potemkin (1925) in full
Extract from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Extract from Juha (1999)
Originally published by France 24.