In the 1910s, before Hollywood’s complete dominance of the film industry, some silent films were made in Ithaca. In fact, this fall the city of Ithaca is celebrating its cinematic heritage through a series of events hosted by the Ithaca Motion Picture Project.
At first glance, perhaps, the worth of silent films to the everyday viewer is debatable. Why would we return to silent cinema when there are decades and decades of movies with sound to enjoy? Outside of the context of Film Studies, why would we watch silent film? Is it possible to enjoy — I mean, genuinely enjoy — a medium that is so blatantly outdated?
I think it is tempting to conceive of silent film in this way — an old, musty set of movies, glorified only by academics or those who aspire be like them. For a long time these too were my associations with silent film. This week, I hope to bring silent movies out of the classroom, so to speak.
Ironically, though, the classroom is where I have most been exposed to silent film, especially this semester in my film class on Weimar cinema. (The Weimar Cinema class is actually where I got this week’s recommendation from.) However, if my studies have taught me anything, it’s that, contrary to its stigma, silent cinema is still very much alive. From an aesthetic standpoint, these films are beautiful. And from a thematic one, they are (almost eerily) relevant. It is shocking to see how, in some ways, so little has changed. People in the 1900s seem to have many of the same preoccupations as today’s audience — love, sex, power etc. We can even pinpoint the origins of the now oh-so-popular vampire flick to 1922’s Nosferatu. (Although, here the vampire is pasty and androgynous, not sparkly and sexy.)
In fact, because cinema was still a novel medium in the early 1900s, silent films borrowed heavily from more established art forms such as theater, opera and literature. For example, literature lovers will recognize the legacy of gothic literature in early narrative films... And you can add to these eternal themes a whole host of issues that are inherently “modern,” like anxieties about new modes of mechanical creation, and technology.
Another misconception about silent film, which dissuades many from watching these movies, is the slight misnomer of “silent film.” While it is true that silent films have no speaking, they are not without sound. The movies all have music — original scores that accompanied the films when they were shown to contemporary audiences. Current restorations of silent films have either tried to re-create this music or have composed new scores that complement the images.But this week I do not want to showcase a film which exemplifies silent cinema’s similarities to today’s blockbusters. Instead of a narrative film (of which there are many), I turn instead to Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. This 1927 German film by Walter Ruttmann is an example of how silent film as a medium can achieve something that current film, for the most part, doesn’t.
As the title suggests ,the entire movie functions as a visual symphony. By this, I mean it is a series of images which rhyme with music to which they are set. The film follows not in the tradition of literature or theater, but that of visual art. Though, as discussed earlier, much of early cinema was an extension of performance art and literature, some of the pioneers of cinema came out of visual art. Indeed, a lot of experimental films from the beginning of the nineteenth-century are preoccupied with the relationship between images and sound. How can we represent music visually? Do shapes and figures have a natural motion to them?
This is the tradition which Berlin: Symphony of a Great City comes out of. The movie follows a day in roaring-1920s Berlin. The shots were filmed by Ruttmann throughout the course of a year and then artfully pieced together in a chronological order. We see Berlin wake, work, eat and play. Each act of the movie corresponds to a different time of day, and each sequence corresponds to a vigorous musical motif. The city appears to us as an organic being with its own natural rhythms, its own pulse. Indeed, in the opening scene there are no human beings whatsoever. It is early morning and the streets are desolate. And yet, the music begins, and the city itself starts to move in the form of water running in a gutter, or a piece of flyaway litter.
Needless to say, the movie is visually overwhelming — each frame is magnificent and blends perfectly into the next. It is also historically fascinating, as it presents, in almost documentary form, 1920s Berlin (soon to ravaged by World War II). Most compelling, though, is its completely different understanding of the goal of film. It does not tell a story, but instead creates a symphony of images. Never dull, always beautiful, it is a perfect example of why silent cinema is worth remembering.