Given the frightening and unpredictable state of the world, it’s not surprising that nostalgia has been a tour de force in pop culture for the past several years now. Anything mimicking the 1980s, for example, from ’80s-themed TV shows (e.g., “Stranger Things”) to ’80s music styles (e.g., “Afterhours” by The Weeknd), has garnered an impressive following. Overall, people are craving escapism in a way that blocks out – even if only temporarily – the horrors of the present day. They want to mentally slip into a simpler time, a time when today’s nightmares couldn’t be found even in people’s imaginations.
If you’re in that demographic (with me), then let me introduce you to immersive nostalgia that thrusts you into yesteryear’s zeitgeist like nothing else can: silent movies. I’m referring to the earliest movies in cinema history, spanning the mid-1890s to the early 1930s. The technology didn’t exist to record synchronized sound on set back then, so these movies had no audible dialogue. Instead, people “spoke” with intensely expressive body language. When that couldn’t be achieved, dialogue would be presented onscreen as intertitles. Audiences would be further swept up into these movies’ emotional presence through musical scores that were played live at each movie’s showing.
“But all the reading!” you might think, or, “I’d be too bored without special effects!” Well, see now, that’s where you’re wrong. To get around the language barrier and promote international distribution, directors kept intertitles at a minimum. A lot was expected of the actors to make up for not having the benefit of speech. And the movies that have survived for 100+ years are the ones with actors who had the talent to pull that off.
As for special effects, you would be stunned (like I was) by just how advanced they were back then. In Germany in particular, movie production was incredibly lavish, and no expenses were spared in turning out historic “moving pictures.” So, not all of them look like they were produced by well-meaning freshmen in film school. Many do, I’ll admit – but not all.
“Faust” (1926) had remarkable special effects as a lavish production of 1920s German cinema.
Of course there’s also the aspect of reverence for silent films as precursors to today’s cinema. The earliest films established the industry standards for lighting, camera angles, continuity editing, flashback sequences, simultaneous action in separate places, and just about everything modern moviegoers take for granted today. So, passionate cinephiles will watch these films for sheer love of movies. That’s how I myself got hooked on them.
Films like “Nosferatu” (1922) established how a director could project simultaneous actions occurring in separate places.
An unabashed movie addict, I decided to have a movie marathon loaded with silent classics. I knew already that I loved “Nosferatu” (1922) and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) simply because I’m a horror film aficionado. But I wanted to peek more intently into the 1920s to explore the world as it was when those two movies were made. I love watching footage of archaeological discoveries and shipwreck explorations, and my curiosity in this case was parallel: I wanted to spy on something hidden by time. So, I sat down for 13 movies:
- “The Man Who Laughs” (1928).
- “The Phantom Carriage” (1921).
- “Nosferatu” (1922).
- “Faust” (1926).
- “Häxan” (1922).
- “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927).
- “The Golem” (1920).
- “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920).
- “Pandora’s Box” (1929).
- “The Midnight Girl” (1925).
- “Metropolis” (1927).
- “City Lights” (1931).
- “The Hands of Orlac” (1924).
Over the course of two days, I ended up discovering the equivalent of an entire lost civilization (and most of it free of charge on YouTube or other online media forums, no less). Since then, I’ve continued to unearth moments in time by digging up ever more silent movies, especially those with Bela Lugosi or Conrad Veidt (my two favorites). It’s an experience anyone who’s in love with the general vibe of oldies (songs, movies, etc.) will absolutely relish, and it’s like nothing I was remotely expecting. Before, I was curious; now, I’m insatiable. The 1920s are calling my name from beyond the celluloid veil between then and now, and I can’t get enough of them. Silents, please!
Kathleen Hearons is an editor, writer, voice over actor and avid cinephile. She lives and works in the greater Los Angeles area.