Your First Year of Silent Films: This is where they get weird

Welcome back to my curated list of silent films selected with the newcomer in mind and designed to be viewed one weekend at a time. This week, we’re getting very artistic and weird but don’t worry, it’s going to be fun!

(You can read my complete list of curated selections here. If you want a more general guide to silent film, read my Silent Movies 101 posts here.)

Silent movies have a way of burrowing deep into the imagination and they sometimes leave some very weird stuff behind. Of course, if you’re trying to get into silent films you have to be just a little weird so this should be right up your alley!

Weird? Who? Us?
Weird? Who? Us?

Both the features we will be examining this week are European and were chosen specifically because of their being on opposite ends of the fame spectrum. One is so well-known that it is casually thrown about as a pop culture reference while the other is obscure even to silent movie fans. I promise you, though, that both are wonderfully weird. This week’s selections will also give me an opportunity to talk a little bit about the importance of obtaining the highest quality releases available.

Evening One: The Famous

Well, here’s one of the most famous silent films ever made, a dark and strange tale with an influence that continues to be felt in motion pictures down to this day.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

cabinet-of-dr-cailgari-what-is-in-the-cabinet

If you stopped a random person on the street and asked them if they wanted to watch a silent German art film, they would probably give you a resounding “NO!” And yet The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains one of the most popular silent films ever made.

The film creates an off-kilter world and dedicates itself to it. Wild painted backgrounds, stylized performances, heavy makeup… This is an eccentric place. However, Caligari is also accessible because it is very much plotted like a classic whodunnit mystery. It’s about a strange doctor who brings a somnambulist to a local carnival and unsolved murders follow. Brrr!

Also, crazy sets
Also, crazy sets

Such a weird, wonderful film is sure to have different interpretations. Any work on film theory worth its salt must contain at least one reading of the film. I think you lose tenure or something if you don’t have your own explanation of what is going on in Caligari. It’s even better if you can debunk a rival theory at the same time. However, don’t let anyone fool you: there is no definitive answer to Caligari‘s riddles.

cabinet-of-dr-cailgari-animated-gif-du-musst-caligari-werden

Why am I watching this? It’s one of those silent films that is famous for a reason. It’s aggressively arty but one of the more accessible art films of any era, thanks to its horror/mystery trappings.

This film will give you valuable experience in mulling over a bit of cinematic art. Because there are no right or wrong answers, you are free to interpret as you please and make this film your own. Plus, you get a chance to see Conrad Veidt, one of silent era Germany’s finest actors, in his signature role as Cesare the somnambulist.

cabinet-of-dr-caligari-german-film-1920-conrad-veidt-cesare-werner-krauss-image17

You can read my full-length review here.

Danger! Danger! Danger! Be extremely careful with this film. It’s famous and in the public domain, which means that there are numerous low quality DVDs floating around. Blurry, faded, scratchy prints, cheesy music, no thank you! The version you want to see is the gorgeous new restoration from the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, which was released in the United States under the Kino Lorber banner. (I believe it is sold under the Eureka! label in the UK.) Trust me on this, it’s for the best.

Availability: The Kino Lorber release is available on both DVD and Bluray.

Evening Two: The Obscure

Soviet silent film is justly famous but you may not have heard of the czarist Russians who fled to Paris. Once there, they set up their own studio (Albatros, one “s”) and began churning out wondrous films that managed to simultaneously delight critics and thrill audiences. It’s time these talented filmmakers were celebrated!

The Burning Crucible (1923)

burning-crucible-image-41

This movie is insane but cheerfully so. It was directed by its star, Ivan Mosjoukine, who was the most famous actor among the Russian emigres. The film proved to be ahead of its time and did not do well at the box office but it’s ripe for rediscovery.

A wacky send-up of the popular detective genre, it tells the story of a woman (“Elle”) who has fallen in love with Paris and who refuses to accompany her husband back to South America. In desperation, the husband hires a detective known as Z to help him win back his wife’s love. While Z’s exploits are celebrated in pulp fiction, the man himself is… well…

burning-crucible-master-of-disguise-soloI dare you to tell me that isn’t the greatest thing you have ever seen.

Naturally, Z himself ends up falling for Elle and things get a bit tangled but we’re just drinking in the set design and creative flourishes. Bliss!

burning-brazier-rapid-cross-cutting

Why am I watching this? There’s no reason why arty has to equal depressing. Mosjoukine and co. do a fabulous job of blending whimsy, symbolism and genre elements into a wacky roller coaster of a film. It’s fun!

This is also your introduction to Ivan Mosjoukine, a wildly versatile performer who wowed European audiences for much of the silent feature era. His persona is often described as steely, intense or even demonic but this film shows off his versatility. The guy was funny! Also, he had no problem with strong female co-stars and his films often feature juicy roles for women. What’s not to love?

burning-crucible-tackle

Read my full-length review here.

Availability: The Burning Crucible was released as part of Flicker Alley’s excellent Russian Emigres in Paris box set. They also offer the title for rent via streaming.

Extra Credit: Judex (1916-1917)

judex-brood

Watch episodes two and three of the French serial Judex, one on each evening. (You watched the prologue and episode one last week.) The plot is really starting to heat up at this point. Caped crusader Judex must use his fantastic dog pack to track down the woman he loves, who has been kidnapped by the dastardly Musidora and her gang. Good stuff!

Judex is available on DVD.

***

I hope you enjoyed this week’s selections! Come back next week and we’ll be enjoying selections from a much-maligned genre.

4 Replies to “Your First Year of Silent Films: This is where they get weird”

  1. I am very pleased that you are bringing Mosjoukine to a broader discussion! He deserves much wider recognition for his acting style which feels athletic while exuding charm. Add him to the canon of silent film stars, I say. (I am also very pleased to learn that Mosjoukine’s plastic surgery myth is just that–a myth. It’s bad enough that he died of tuberculosis roughly 10 years later but I digress.) About a year ago, I watched The Burning Crucible and the other films which comprise the excellent Flicker Alley box set that you mention. Mosjoukine’s performances are versatile and impressive. My interest in his acting led me watch The House of Mystery too which can be at times convincingly arty with its use of lighting, set design and camera work.

    How he can change characters onscreen like he did in The Burning Crucible is incredible–and a unique study in and of itself. I remember Fritz Rasp doing a similar but much more sober transformation in Die Frau im Mond when he revealed himself as the nefarious Walt Turner.

    To me, Mosjoukine is resolutely contemporary–maybe that’s because his appearance reminds me so much of someone I know. His ability to disguise himself, shift his body language and still come out looking more like a Daniel Craig than a Lon Chaney is deserving of applause. But seeing that I watch his movies in the privacy of my own home, I don’t applaud but simply watch with amazement. Mosjoukine’s films are very accessible to contemporary viewers who are unfamiliar with the breadth of silents and its transcendent qualities. You are an excellent advocate for his work!

    P.S. Maybe you should organize a competition where you have readers Photoshop silent stars into modern advertising campaigns. I imagine Mosjoukine doing an ad for Omega watches John Barrymore could model a new Canali suit, and Pola Negri could model for Louis Vuitton? (And is it me or does Adrien Brody look a lot like Buster Keaton, height excepted?)

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, one of the projects I assigned myself this year was to push Mosjoukine more into the silent film mainstream. Now that more of his best films are available, it’s easy to see why he was so beloved and respected in his day. He is long overdue for resurrection.

  2. I had a hard time getting into Judex myself (though I need to pick it up again, I never finished it), but The Burning Crucible is unjustly forgotten. It’s so quirky and surrealistic!

    1. Yes, it’s a blast! I have noticed that many people who watch Feuillade serials like either Judex OR Les Vampires, not both. I don’t know if you’ve tried it but Les Vampires may be more your cup of tea if Judex isn’t working well for you. Or you could chuck all the French stuff and go Soviet with Miss Mend. 🙂

Comments are closed.