Something remarkable happened when Sight & Sound held its ten-yearly poll of critics and filmmakers around the world in 2012. It wasn’t just that Hitchcock finally took the lead, but that three silent films appeared in the top ten – with another at number 11, and two more in the top 50: a total of six films, all from the period between 1926 and 1931, when cinema faced its first major revolution. In fact, five came from the peak years 1926-29, with Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights an outlier, from the one filmmaker who was independent and stubborn enough to resist the march of the Talkies. So what was so special about silents?

It was of course the talkies, as the first synchronised films were popularly known, that made earlier films ‘silent’ – just as colour would make others ‘black and white’. Ironically, we know more about those who hated the tinny sound of the first talkies than we do about the mass of ordinary cinemagoers who accepted them, perhaps with misgivings. With their encouragement, first Warners – who had broken the sound barrier with The Jazz Singer in 1927 – and soon every production company around the world invested in sound technology and started learning a new language.

But was there a special ‘language of silents’ – one that enough present-day connoisseurs have managed to relearn to reinstate the silents among cinema’s classics, and to make festivals like Pordenone and Bologna successful? In the ’teens, when the long film of 90 minutes or more became established as cinema’s equivalent of a play or a novel, D. W. Griffith told an actress never to speak disrespectfully about “the flickers”, because she was “working in the universal language that was predicted in the Bible, which was to make all men brothers, and could end wars and bring about the millennium”.

Even if few would have put it quite so fervently, the reality was that silent-era films could and did reach global audiences, with their intertitles easily translated into local languages. Characters could be renamed to suit local tastes, especially in comedies, and storylines could skip across decades, or even millennia, with a well-chosen phrase – ‘After many years…’.

But above all, this was visual story-telling, with characters acting out dramas that their vast audiences could identify with in a new and often intensely emotional way. And with all this outpouring of identification, the actors became stars of a new magnitude, far beyond the fame of earlier stage legends.

The emotional bond between filmgoers and their idols became shockingly clear when some of the early stars died prematurely. Vera Kholodnaya, Russia’s first great star, was only 25 when she died in 1919, but her funeral in Odessa attracted thousands of mourners. Even more spectacularly, the death of Rudolph Valentino in 1926 drew vast crowds in New York and across America, with reports of suicides among distraught admirers. Such public displays, together with accounts of obsessive fascination among fans and how the major studios worked to encourage this, tells us something about how audiences related to films in the 1920s which is very different from detached critical judgement about who were the ‘greatest’ actors and directors.

I’m particularly struck by one account of what it was like to be part of a silent-era audience, which appeared in the 1964 autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre [Words/Les mots]. Attending the boulevard cinemas with his beloved young mother, Sartre “loved the cinema for its two-dimensional quality… making primary colours of its black and white. Above all, I loved the immutable dumbness of my heroes: but they were not mute because they knew how to make themselves understood. We communicated through music; it was the sound of what was going on inside them.”

In just one eloquent page, Sartre evokes the intensity and the intimacy of the spectator’s relationship to a screen that didn’t speak, but where audible music – often popular classics pressed into service by accompanists – and a unique visual music put him fleetingly “in touch with the absolute”.

No doubt the Saturday night customers at the local Palais or Essoldo would have put it differently – but the fact that few ever recorded their feelings about this new mass phenomenon shouldn’t blind us to the extraordinarily democratic and emotional appeal of the silents at their peak. Royalty and politicians were as much in thrall to the giants of the silent screen as shop-assistants and mechanics. Maybe Griffith was right about the ‘universal language’.

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Cinematographer Billy Bitzer and director D.W. Griffith

And did it all change with the talkies? Opinion has been divided on this ever since the early 1930s, when the die was clearly cast. And every history of cinema published since has offered some kind of verdict. There is no simple answer, because the experience was so varied across generations, continents and professions.

And nor was it an overnight transition. There had been synchronised speech and music in film shows since the early 1900s, much more widely than film history has acknowledged, and often billed as a special climax to the programme. But the all-sound film, with a continuous recorded track, was a gamble in 1927. And even after the worldwide impact of The Jazz Singer, experienced in major cities around the world across three years after its New York premiere on 27 October 1927, silent films would continue to be produced until as late as 1934 in a number of countries, with many productions during 1927-29 issued in two versions, or with only synchronised portions, as in Paul Fejos’s Lonesome.

One way of assessing response to the transition is to compare two comments by the same highly opinionated critic: one dated March 1930 and the other July 1931. In The Film Till Now, Paul Rotha wrote of “the cacophonous presence of the dialogue film” that “as a mechanical invention it is marvellous”, but “all dialogue films are simply reductions to absurdity of the attempt to join two separate arts.”

A year later, in Celluloid: The Film Today, he wrote: “However much we may deplore the coming of the dialogue cinema… we must admit that it had one great merit inasmuch as fresh ideas and new personalities found their way into the studios. It was as if a stimulating wind blew through the exhausted, leaden atmosphere of the film factories.” In the second book, Rotha admits that “the silent cinema was losing its public” during the year before the talkies arrived, blaming this on “the monotony of the star system” and “the standardization of product”.

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Lonesome (1928)

Even among experimental filmmakers, not (yet) faced with commercial considerations, there were signs in the late 20s of a growing desire to bring sound into the expressive apparatus of cinema, while not wanting it to be used merely to ‘photograph plays’. Amid all the over-familiar anecdotes about actors whose careers were destroyed by sound and cameras that could no longer move due to cumbersome sound-blimping, there remains the obvious fact that the conversion to sound was massively expensive, yet was felt sufficiently worthwhile for producers and exhibitors to undertake it, in order to “bolster up”, as Rotha put it, the somewhat faded appeal of cinema. There were undoubtedly serious losses, not only of careers and livelihoods, but also of film itself, with a terrifying proportion of all silent films simply junked on the assumption that they would be of little future interest.

But what else was lost? In the decade after the mid-teens, when Griffith and DeMille created films which convinced many doubters that cinema had finally revealed its potential as a ‘seventh art’, a number of theories emerged about just what this new art consisted of.

For some, it was a new form of narrative, freed from the confines of page, stage or painting, able to manipulate bodies in natural and constructed spaces with a freedom previously unimagined. Invocations of Shakespeare, Dickens and other great storytellers became common, as enthusiasts insisted they would all have wanted to make movies.

But for others, the new art had to be distinct; to have its own medium-specific techniques. The earliest of these to be championed were cutting and the close-up; and the canonisation of Griffith owed much to his spectacular use of ‘parallel editing’ in Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. But when the new Soviet filmmakers burst on the scene in the mid-20s, cutting took on a new significance. Now often called ‘montage’, it meant cutting increasingly fast between very different images, to create what Russian theorists believed was a physiological, potentially unconscious response to the image-stream.

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The Last Laugh (1924)

Whatever the impact of the Soviets, spearheaded by Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin – which was dissected more eagerly in Berlin and Los Angeles than in Moscow – there were other ideas in play about the specificity of film. From the French avant garde, especially in the writings of Jean Epstein, came an exploration of the power of the close-up, which it was argued brought viewers into a new relationship with the human face and with objects. And during the 20s, German cinema moved beyond its stylised décor to make increasing use of camera movement, which reached a thrilling climax in two widely admired and imitated films, Murnau’s The Last Laugh and Dupont’s Varieté (1925), both shot by Karl Freund.

Hollywood would assimilate all of these favoured qualities in its own way, prizing camera movement, close-ups, subtly stylised décor and dramatic light-painting, with a discreet use of rapid montage, especially in bridging sequences. It also developed a style of acting that combined naturalistic detail with a kind of abstraction that created recognisable ‘types’. All are apparent in such highly praised films as The Crowd, 7th Heaven and Sunrise, which marked what was to prove the climax of ‘silent style’.

However, Europe could go even further towards realising cinema’s full potential as a silent art, notably in The Passion of Joan of Arc, with settings all but suppressed in favour of an unbroken series of close-ups, rhythmically edited into a stylised reality, as powerful as any painting or sculpture. Here, for many who lamented the breaking of cinema’s silence, was perfection.

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David Gill and Kevin Brownlow meeting Lilian Gish
© BFI National Archive

The 1960s and 70s saw the beginnings of scattered efforts to collect and preserve what remained from the silent era, often owing as much to the passions of collectors as to established archives. In 1980, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Hollywood series on Thames Television offered a substantial history of the silent-era industry, including interviews with many of its surviving personalities, and clips from a wide range of virtually unknown films.

In 1981, Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s Napoleon was premiered with a new orchestral score from Carl Davis, and proved a surprise hit, leading to a continuing series of full dress-presentations, with original scores, such as Shostakovich’s for Kozintsev and Trauberg’s New Babylon, and newly commissioned music by contemporary composers and musicians. Strange to relate, much silent film had previously been shown in complete silence in classrooms and archival cinemas, although a tradition of improvised piano accompaniment had also persisted – mostly far inferior to the virtuosity and imagination of today’s accompanists.

In 1982, the Pordenone Giornate del cinema muto, or ‘silent film festival’, started as an amateur showing of American silent film to entertain the victims of a local earthquake – and has survived to become the Mecca of silent film discovery and enjoyment.

As someone who has lived through (and contributed to) this recent history, it’s obvious to me that there has been a subtle yet massive shift in sensibility. Many doubted that Gance’s Napoleon would be a rewarding, or even bearable, experience; yet the overwhelming verdict was that it had been revelatory. One distinguished archivist said afterwards: “It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it did.” The experience of silent film has somehow been recovered, overcoming decades of neglect and condescension, to the point where an evening, or even a festival, of ‘live cinema’ is an attractive proposition for increasing numbers of enthusiasts, and where new DVD editions of the silent-era repertoire continue to appear.

But how to find our way around the silents, now that their riches are becoming available again? After some agonising, I hope the following 15 key works convey the essence of cinema in the peak years immediately before synchronised sound. Hollywood has to contribute the lion’s share, although half of these choices were created by recent immigrants, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between acknowledged classics and lesser-known discoveries. But the choice has to be, ultimately, a personal one.

1. The Circus

Charles Chaplin, 1928

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The Circus (1928)

Why choose the one film its maker didn’t even mention in his autobiography? Chaplin had enjoyed immense success with The Gold Rush in 1925, confounding expectations by sending his Little Tramp to the frozen North, and creating some of his most famous sight gags (the dance of the bread rolls).

Deciding on his next subject had become an increasingly agonising business, but a circus setting must have seemed obvious, with endless opportunities for pantomime business, and a potentially thrilling climax, as Charlie struggles to complete a tightrope walk while being attacked by monkeys. Sure enough, the high-wire performance is genuinely suspenseful, in the vein of Harold Lloyd’s aerial feats, and all the more so when we realise that Chaplin and his handsome rival in love, Harry Crocker, really did learn rope-walking to do it. And according to his biographer David Robinson, the scenes with lions were just as dangerous as they look.

None of this would make the film any better than Chaplin’s more famous early shorts, or his protest against the encroaching talkies, the elaborately and defiantly silent City Lights (1931), if it weren’t for the near-perfect balance between sentiment and superbly honed physical comedy. The Circus allows Charlie to be himself, revelling in the commedia dell’arte character he had created, of the little man who has to battle against all odds to win the girl. There’s also an intriguing hint of self-examination, since he’s taken on by the circus to be a clown, but finds he can’t do the business unless he’s in dead trouble.

The Circus reminded Chaplin painfully of the many calamities that befell the production, ranging from his disastrous emergency marriage to Lita Grey to the studio burning down, and it was all but forgotten until he re-released it in 1969, with his own specially composed (and sung!) score – an incomparable one-man show, and probably the most perfect expression of Chaplin’s art.

2. Big Business

James Horne, Leo McCarey, 1929

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Big Business (1929)

Laurel and Hardy are the odd couple of film history. Lacking the high-culture admirers of Chaplin or Keaton, their case rests on the simple test of whether you find them funny. If you don’t, then this late silent slapstick orgy, incongruously set in a sunlit suburban street of Culver City, is unlikely to impress. But if you do, then it may rate as the most hysterical 20-minute crescendo in the history of cinema – the prototype of every later attempt to orchestrate total destruction.

To some extent, Big Business is an arbitrary choice from among the dozens of shorts that Laurel and Hardy made during the last two years of the silent era, from 1927-29 – the apocalyptic pie-fight of The Battle of the Century, or the skyscraper antics of Liberty are equally great – but it illustrates perfectly what made their comedy unique. Always rooted in the everyday, and semi-improvised, usually from an idea by Stan Laurel – who shared the same English music hall training as Chaplin and co-wrote and directed most of their work – their films are logically constructed, with a slow-burn tempo that allows us to savour the inevitable. In this case, trying to sell a Christmas tree to the irascible James Finlayson, another member of Hal Roach’s Comedy All-Stars stable, leads to mounting mutually assured devastation.

Unlike their great contemporary, Buster Keaton, Stan and Ollie had little trouble transitioning to sound. Nor did their directorial mentor, Leo McCarey, who had learned his craft with some of the other now unfairly neglected 20s comedians, notably Charley Chase and Max Davidson. Together they would continue creating delirious variations on the oldest of gags and playing endless variations on their well-established characters: Ollie bullying and impetuous, and Stan childlike, often appealing directly to camera, as if pleading for audience sympathy, and occasionally dissolving in tears. Compared with Chaplin or Keaton, there’s a bumbling humanity here.

3. 7th Heaven

Frank Borzage, 1927

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7th Heaven (1927)

Based on a schmaltzy Broadway hit, written by the step-grandson of Robert Louis Stevenson, this is high Hollywood melodrama that’s almost guaranteed to reduce any audience to joyous tears. A young Parisian sewer worker saves the waif-like Diane from her drink-crazed sister, and shelters her in his picturesque La bohème-style garret, overlooking a Montmartre lovingly created in the Fox Studios. The Great War eventually separates the pair, but they have already “climbed to happiness through faith, hope and courage”, as Photoplay put it, announcing that the film had won its eighth medal of honour, as well as three of the first Oscars.

The film launched an unknown Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell on an 11-film partnership that made them Hollywood’s biggest attraction during the transition to talkies, and it also inaugurated Borzage’s run of successes. The performances of Gaynor and Farrell are certainly still touchingly sincere, but the sets by Harry Oliver also play an important part in creating the film’s almost palpable sense of love triumphant, with Ernest Palmer’s camera performing marvels, as the same pair would continue to do in Borzage’s subsequent Street Angel (1928) and The River (1929), both made as part-synchronised films.

Not everyone admired the film initially – the British critic Paul Rotha dismissed it as “eyewash” – but both French and Japanese critics and filmmakers responded passionately (a poster appears in Ozu’s Days of Youth). Borzage’s star has risen with restorations and retrospectives since the 1990s, and his late silents now seem little short of miraculous. As Kent Jones wrote: “7th Heaven represents the most dramatic instance in Borzage’s work of the collapse of time outside of the space created by love. Within Chico’s apartment ‘near the stars’, time is elongated and becalmed, allowing the smallest reverberation in Diane’s heart to register as her joyful certainty and the space around her unite.”

4. Sunrise

F.W. Murnau, 1927

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Sunrise (1927)

No sooner had the German film industry made its spectacular post-war recovery than it began to haemorrhage talent to the Hollywood studio bosses competing for big names. None was bigger than Murnau after the success of two films in very different genres, The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926), and William Fox gave him carte blanche to create this elemental fable of temptation leading to redemption.

Only in silent cinema could there be ‘The Man’ and ‘The Woman’, living in a fishing village near A City. Janet Gaynor played her second innocent of the same year (alongside 7th Heaven), partnered this time by George O’Brien, as the husband who thinks better of his murderous plan. But more than with almost any other film, it’s the composition and movement of Sunrise that grip us as we follow the pair from a rural paradise, via a magical trolley-car ride, to the City, where they’re reconciled amid its impersonal bustle.

The vast exterior set that Murnau’s art department built became almost as famous as Griffith’s Babylon for Intolerance a decade earlier, and was adapted for several other Fox films; but unlike that of Metropolis, it never becomes the focus of attention. This remains fixed on the archetypal couple and their experiences, recalling the contrasting vignettes of high and low life in The Last Laugh. Both films were written by Carl Mayer, the unsung genius of Weimar cinema, who had launched its success with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and believed passionately in film as visual storytelling, with few or ideally no titles to break the spell.

If Sunrise still moves us, in a version that’s survived with its original orchestral score by Hugo Reisenfeld, it’s surely due to Mayer’s vision being so faithfully realised by all concerned. Four years later, Murnau was dead and Mayer died impoverished in wartime London, but Sunrise still radiates its magic.

5. The Wind

Victor Sjöström/Seastrom, 1928

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The Wind (1928)

Sjöström became ‘Seastrom’ when he joined Metro in 1924, going on to become one of their leading directors during the late 20s. His Hollywood career reached a climax in The Wind. Shot partly on location in the Mojave Desert, this study of isolation on the bleak Western prairies reunited Sjöström with the already legendary Lillian Gish, star of Griffith’s greatest work, and the Swedish actor Lars Hanson, after the pair had triumphed in The Scarlet Letter (1926), a challenging story about America’s Puritan past. The Wind would take the same team, including MGM’s star scenarist Frances Marion, even further away from comforting entertainment, as Gish battles hostile relatives and an even more hostile climate.

Sjöström had been a pioneer filmmaker in Sweden, directing and acting in credible features from as early as 1913. But it was his adaptations of the Nobel prizewinning Selma Lagerlöf in the late ’teens, together with the sophisticated comedies of Mauritz Stiller (the discoverer of Garbo and also a short-lived Hollywood recruit), that made Swedish cinema an early force to be reckoned with.

Sjöström’s themes of physical and psychological isolation and of moral scapegoating – as recently seen at Bologna in a restoration of his magnificent The Outlaw and his Wife (1917) – carry over into his best work in Hollywood. It was Gish who stood firm against attempts to soften the harsh morality of The Scarlet Letter, and she would similarly bear the brunt, in every sense, of The Wind. When she and Sjöström were forced to give it a happy ending, their careers at MGM were over.

The film’s modern reputation owes much to one of Carl Davis’s most effective accompaniments, premiered in 1983 and scored only for strings and a large percussion ensemble, viscerally intensifying the sandstorm that all but engulfs the fragile Gish.

6. The Crowd

King Vidor, 1928

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The Crowd (1928)

The young King Vidor had scored an immense success with The Big Parade (1925), a fictional account of a ‘down-to-earth American doughboy’ experiencing the Great War, which played for two years in New York, making a fortune for MGM and establishing both Vidor and its star, John Gilbert.

This gave him the leeway to attempt an experimental approach to a similar theme: the drama of a truly ordinary life. Given the go-ahead by the ‘boy wonder’ Irving Thalberg, he cast unknowns in the lead parts and shot clandestinely on the streets of New York, tracing the life of Johnny Sims from his birth on 4 July 1900 to the then present. An untalented man who believes he can ‘beat the crowd’ instead remains just part of it, along with his bickering family, until all seems lost.

Despite some stunning sequences – tracking up a skyscraper to reveal Sims (James Murray) at work in a sea of identical desks; visits to Niagara Falls and Coney Island – the film is restrained, even realistic, in portraying everyday American life (including what is reputedly the first screen toilet). Vidor apparently shot nine alternative endings, and if the one finally chosen seems something of a cop-out, it’s truer to his original vision than studio boss Louis B Mayer’s rose-tinted alternative.

1928 also saw the Hungarian Paul Fejös’s Lonesome, showing isolated New Yorkers sharing an unexpected day of romance, and a group of European expats in Los Angeles making The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra as a satire on the industry’s contempt for its anonymous workforce. The Wall Street Crash of the following year would make these fanfares for the common man seem prophetic; and Vidor would pick up the theme again in Our Daily Bread (1934).

7. Pandora’s Box

G.W. Pabst, 1929

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Pandora’s Box (1929)

Ever since Louise Brooks emerged from shadowy retirement to reveal herself as a witty and self-aware memoirist in the late 1970s, there has been persistent conflation of the amoral role she plays in Pandora’s Box and her own rackety life. After three years of minor parts in Hollywood, two 1928 appearances, in Hawks’s A Girl in Every Port and Wellman’s Beggars of Life, led to her breaking a studio contract and heading for Europe, arriving in Berlin just in time to snatch the part of Lulu from Marlene Dietrich (yet to make her breakthrough in The Blue Angel).

Pabst had already established a reputation for sexual frankness in his The Joyless Street (1925) and a film ‘explaining’ psychoanalysis, Secrets of a Soul (1926). Now he turned to the second of Wedekind’s notorious ‘Lulu’ plays, dating from the turn of the century but still potent in their attack on bourgeois hypocrisy (Asta Nielsen had played her in a film of the first, Erdgeist, in 1923).

Brooks was an inspired choice, with her burnished flapper’s bob, projecting an extraordinary carnal innocence which radiates amid the melodramatic trappings of her descent from haute bourgeois luxury to a self-sacrificing, seedily romantic end in the imagined Whitechapel stalked by Jack the Ripper.

But Pabst’s expressionism was already giving way to a more documentary style, which would colour his second collaboration with Brooks, the equally fascinating, though underrated, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). As Pabst’s sound films struck out in new directions, from the pacifism of Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft to his controversial adaptation of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, Brooks’s career nosedived into obscurity – until her memoir Lulu in Hollywood helped revive the decadent allure of Weimar Berlin and its fleshpots, guaranteeing Pandora’s Box a permanent place in its folklore.

8. Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis

Walther Ruttmann, 1927

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Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927)

German cinema was beginning to emerge from its expressionist dream when Berlin boldly struck out in a new direction, more in tune with the prevailing artistic climate of ‘new objectivity’ and looking forward to the coming decade when documentary would gain status. Starting with a dynamic sequence of a train speeding into Berlin, the film chronicles a day in the life of the city, from the first figures appearing in the early morning streets, through the bustle of a working day punctuated by personal dramas, and into the hectic neon-lit nightlife for which Berlin was famous. Shooting with concealed cameras was combined with carefully staged incidents to convey the tempo and diversity of modern city life.

Soon there would be imitations – in Moscow, Dziga Vertov felt cheated that a film of city reality had anticipated his plans, but persevered to make his own, more complex Man with a Movie Camera in 1929; and Alberto Cavalcanti’s more modest account of life in Paris, Rien que les heures, was largely overshadowed by Berlin – while the genre would became known as the ‘city symphony’, no doubt in recognition of its pioneer.

Although it became a documentary benchmark, the film’s origins were actually more diverse. The idea came from the arch-expressionist scenarist Carl Mayer (also responsible for devising the composite fictional cities seen in The Last Laugh and Sunrise); and the cameraman Karl Freund, almost simultaneously engaged in photographing the futuristic city of Lang’s Metropolis, produced the film for Fox’s European branch. Its director and editor, Walter Ruttmann, was previously known only for his pioneering abstract animation and commercials, and must have been responsible for its rhythmic aspect, underlined by an original accompanying score commissioned from Edmund Meisel, who had written the live score for the German release of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

9. Earth

Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930

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Earth (1930)

Choosing among the clutch of masterpieces that Soviet cinema unleashed in the last years of the silent era is impossible, but the filmmakers most in danger of being neglected are probably Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, and the latter’s final silent belongs in a category all its own. Ostensibly part of the propaganda drive to promote mechanised collectivisation that also produced Eisenstein’s highly experimental The Old and the New, it’s actually an intensely lyrical poem about – well… life and death, nature and the machine, above all the fertile earth of Dovzhenko’s beloved Ukraine.

If this makes it sound pretentious, nothing could be more concrete, almost physical in the impact of its images. Hung on a slender thread of narrative that sees the young people of the village welcome the first tractor, while the rich farmers plot to murder the peasants’ leader, Dovzhenko wove a tapestry of ravishing images, which run the full gamut from an old man’s serene acceptance of death in the opening sequence to a naked frenzy of despair by the murdered man’s fiancée that had Soviet censors reaching for their scissors. Meanwhile the British censor primly cut a birth scene that’s intertwined with the young man’s funeral, crudely upsetting the film’s rich dialectic.

Stalin and his henchmen were right to mistrust Dovzhenko, since his films are all more poetic than reliably propagandist; and the delayed coming of sound to Soviet cinema allowed him to make this last great sensuous, ecstatic work while the rest of the world was grappling with recording. There were other late bonuses, like Preobrazhenskaya’s And Quiet Flows the Don, Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire and Kozintsev and Trauberg’s New Babylon, to set alongside the canonic Soviet classics by Eisenstein and Pudovkin that would form the backbone of international art cinema. But both Tarkovsky and Paradjanov acknowledged Dovzhenko as their lasting inspiration from this era.

10. Bed and Sofa

(Tret’ia Meshchanskaya) Abram Room, 1927

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Bed and Sofa (1927)

Not all Soviet silent cinema was epic or poetic. There were many filmmakers who wanted to explore contemporary reality in the new society, but one of the boldest attempts to do so was hit by political in-fighting at home and censorship abroad because of its theme.

Volodia is newly arrived in Moscow, and borrows a sofa from his friend Kolya, married to Liuda. When Kolya leaves town for work, an affair starts between Volodia and Liuda, leading to the husband moving out, before he returns to sleep on the sofa. Viktor Shklovsky’s script was inspired by a newspaper story about two men both believing they might be the father of a baby born to a woman they lived with, and it recalled an old Bolshevik belief in ‘free love’, which had been largely ignored since the Revolution.

With excellent performances by three rising young actors (Vladimir Fogel, Nikolai Batalov and Ludmilla Semyonova), carefully designed décor and rare glimpses of Moscow, Abram Room’s film was initially praised for demonstrating that everyday Soviet life could be filmically interesting. But in the febrile world of Soviet politics, with Stalin’s cultural revolution imminent, factional opposition began to mount, denouncing it as a ‘tearful comedy’ or an ‘apology for adultery’, and the film played for only a week in Moscow cinemas.

Abroad, it would provoke equal controversy, less for its politics than its moral frankness, and for broaching the taboo subject of abortion. A major success in Germany and France, it had only limited screenings in a cut version in Britain and was never shown commercially in America. For the young Paul Rotha, who saw it at the Film Society in London, it represented a welcome antidote to Soviet “left wing” rhetoric as an “unequalled instance of pure psychological, intimate, cinematic representation of human character”. “See it at all costs,” urged the trendy journal Close Up.

11. A Cottage on Dartmoor

Anthony Asquith, 1929

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A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

America wasn’t alone in seeing a last-minute surge of creative filmmaking as the talkies began, although Britain’s year of transition was 1929. Of the two most ambitious films that appeared in both silent and sound versions – Hitchcock’s Blackmail and Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor – the latter now seems the more intriguing discovery. A co-production with Swedish Biograph, it took Anthony Asquith to the very edge of experimental editing, on a par with Eisenstein’s in The Old and the New. The story also marked an attempt to escape overused screen locations and characters.

Set in the West Country, it begins with a convict’s escape from Dartmoor prison, then switches into extended flashback to trace the build-up to his crime of passion. Here, as in Asquith’s earlier Underground (now also restored), there’s a strong sense of the narrowness and frustration of provincial life that runs through so much English literature. But the aristocratic Asquith manages to treat this with both humour – in a visit to the cinema, with the anti-hero spying on his beloved – and ultimately drama, as his frustration reaches a snapping-point in the barber’s shop where they both work. These virtuoso sequences show that Asquith was not only well aware of advanced German and Russian montage techniques, but trying to drag British filmmaking into the modern era using the formal freedom of silent syntax.

The prejudices of British critics long discouraged exploring this most fertile period beyond the achievements of Hitchcock – and recent BFI restorations have shown just how little attention was paid to even his silents, apart from The Lodger. But alongside Hitchcock and Asquith, we can now savour the extraordinary feminism of Elvey’s Hindle Wakes (1927) and Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), with its sardonic contrast between backstage life in the West End and the vibrant ethnic diversity of Limehouse.

12. The Passion of Joan of Arc

Carl Dreyer, 1928

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The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Dreyer’s austere treatment of the trial and martyrdom of Joan of Arc has become one of the most widely shown and admired of all silents, attracting many musicians to compose a musical counterpoint, including most recently Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp).

Apart from chauvinistic protests against a Danish director handling an iconic French subject, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, with the New York Times critic claiming it took “precedence over anything that has so far been produced… [making] other pictures appear but trivial in comparison”. Rotha’s influential 1930 history The Film Till Now called it “immortal”, adding that “from a pictorial point of view the selection of visual images has never before or since been approached in any production” (although he also argued that it lacked “real filmic properties”).

Despite such early praise, the film suffered the fate of many expensive high-profile late silents, nearly bankrupting its producers when its limited exhibition failed to recoup the costs of the massive sets (which are rarely seen in a film of relentless close-ups) and long production schedule. Like Metropolis, it was soon crudely shortened, and the original materials believed lost until a copy of Dreyer’s original version was discovered in Oslo in the early 80s, making possible today’s high-quality versions.

Through all this tangled history, the film has undoubtedly survived because of Dreyer’s single-minded focus on Joan’s persecution and faltering resistance to her interrogators, which he based on recently edited records of the trial. Equally important has been the extraordinary performance by Maria Falconetti, a stage actress who had appeared in only one earlier film and who Dreyer had perform without make-up. Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to the film’s remarkable modernity, or timelessness, when he showed Anna Karina moved to tears by it in his 1962 Vivre sa vie.

13. An Italian Straw Hat

René Clair, 1927

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An Italian Straw Hat (1927)

René Clair may have become the forgotten man of classic French cinema, despite a prolific career that stretched from the dada short Entr’acte (1924) through the first French musicals of the early 30s, and up to the mid-1960s. Yet his command of sophisticated comedy, both silent and sound, was second to none; and in this inventive adaptation of a vintage farce he offered a spirited alternative to the dominance of Hollywood comedy, at a time when both the French avant garde and mainstream cinema had reached an impasse. Clair’s solution, in agreeing to film Eugene Labiche’s vintage stage play, was to update it to the belle époque of 1895 and to shoot it with the utmost simplicity, in the style of early film.

Labiche’s play was always a satire on petit bourgeois pretension, with the nurseryman as keen that his daughter should marry a ‘gentleman of leisure’ as Ferdinand is to secure his future. Everything that gets in the way of the wedding represents a threat to the social order that is being confirmed; and in this case most of the obstacles are objects, signs of property and status, which constantly threaten to get out of hand. Orson Welles recognised Labiche’s insight into bourgeois anxiety when he staged the play in 1936 as Horse Eats Hat, emphasising the incongruity of the original problem. And Clair is equally alert to the satirical undercurrent, without ever losing sight of what Henri Bergson termed the “snowball effect… as an object rolls through the play collecting incidents as it goes”.

The surrealists, who hated avant-garde pretension, saw that this was no mere literary adaptation. With its puppet-like characters trapped in their roles, and décor that threatens to engulf them, it achieves the dream-like quality that surrealism prized – while also remaining a thoroughly civilised, scathing and completely French comedy.

14. A Page of Madness

Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926

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A Page of Madness (1926)

Back in the early 1970s, before silent film became remotely fashionable, a mesmerising Japanese film from 1926 appeared, with an atmospheric soundtrack credited to the ‘Modern Bamboo Flute Ensemble’. Set in a mental hospital, the film retraces how one of the patients tried to drown herself and her baby son, and is now watched over by her husband, who has become the hospital’s janitor in the hope of rescuing her.

Although prolific, Kinugasa was virtually unknown alongside the acknowledged masters who had started in the silent period, Mizoguchi and Ozu, other than for his opulent samurai drama Gate of Hell (1953). A Page of Madness had been discovered in a garden shed, and with vigorous promotion and the enthusiastic support of mainstream critics became a hit on the radical film circuit, together with another orphan silent from Soviet Russia, Alexander Medvedkin’s 1934 Happiness.

In retrospect, this revival of interest may have owed something to the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement then in vogue, and the popularity of Antonin Artaud, but Kinugasa’s film most obviously referenced the deranged expressionist world of Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). However, the multiple superimpositions and narrative poignancy of Page of Madness are subtler than Wiene’s jagged nightmare world. Produced with the avant-garde Shinkankaku-ha or New Sensations group, the film was adapted from a story by Yasunari Kawabata, who would be the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in 1968. Kinugasa became one of the first Japanese directors to travel abroad at the end of the 20s, visiting Europe and Moscow, although he had already used Soviet montage techniques in his equally dizzying Crossroads (1928), set in the Yoshiwara pleasure district of Tokyo, and surely also due for revival?

15. Un Chien andalou

Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, 1928

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Un Chien andalou (1928)

Of all cinema’s very short ‘shorts’ – at just 15 minutes – this explosive debut by the young Buñuel and Dalí remains as provocative and mysterious as it was in 1929, and demands not to be shouldered aside by features. It was almost impossible to see until the 1960s, due to censorship taboos, but the addition of a soundtrack, supposedly reproducing the original accompaniment of gramophone records alternating between the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and a tango, gave the film a vast new lease of life.

The film was a product of an authentically surrealist collaboration, as Buñuel and Dalí swapped fetishistic dream images and rigorously rejected any narrative logic. But Un Chien andalou also invokes the golden age of cine-poems or ‘absolute films’, which proliferated in the late 1920s. The most famous of these were made in Paris, often by visitors like Buñuel and Dalí, or Man Ray (L’Etoile de mer), Dimitri Kirsanov (Ménilmontant, Brumes d’automne), Eisenstein and Aleksandrov (Romance sentimentale). And although the French filmmakers who came to be known as a semi-official ‘avant-garde’ – Delluc, Gance, Epstein, L’Herbier, Dulac, Chomette – produced many features in ‘impressionist’ and other experimental styles, their best work was often in short form, equivalent to poetry or to ‘motion painting’, as in Fernand Léger’s influential Ballet mécanique (1924).

Elsewhere, the ‘absolute film’ movement in Germany pioneered abstract animation and elaborate trick-films such as Seeber’s Kipho, while in Holland and Belgium Joris Ivens and Henri Storck made polemical documentaries that inspired other radical filmmakers. A growing network of cine clubs and film societies throughout Europe circulated these short films, often shown along with the emerging canon of silent ‘classics’, providing inspiration for future filmmakers and critics.

Originally published: 13 August 2020