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!
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)
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!
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.
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.
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)
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…
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!
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?
Extra Credit: Judex (1916-1917)
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.