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As everyone knows, silent film was the only type of film in the early days of cinema. While silent films persisted into the 1930s, the release of The Jazz Singer effectively marked the end of silent movies and ushered in the era of talkies. By now, we are not only accustomed to talkies, we are so far removed from silent films that they seem anachronistic, amateur, and nearly unwatchable for large swaths of cinema goers. While there are exceptions to the absence of silent film in contemporary cinema (The Artist won best picture in 2012), talkies dominate the film landscape. That is not to say, however, that there is not immense value to be gained by watching silent movies. The pioneers of the craft were forced to work without sound and, in many cases, this limitation galvanized the creation of cinematography and directing as we know it today.
Without sound, directors were forced to rely heavily on unique, interesting perspectives that could capture a viewer’s imagination from sight alone. In this sense, silent film is a distillation of pure cinema, relying mostly on affective images instead of dialogue. It is a good idea for any artist to go back to the roots of their medium of choice in order to see how the artform evolved. For filmmakers, then, silent movies can be a great source of inspiration. That’s why we at have compiled a list of four ground-breaking silent film directors to study, enjoy, and emulate.
Any list about influential silent film directors would not be complete without Charlie Chaplin. He is rightfully remembered and admired mostly for his command of slapstick humour. His iconic character, the little tramp, vaulted him to height of Hollywood fame and success. There are an incredible number of famous scenes directed and starred in by Chaplin. In his film Modern Times alone, the roller blading scene, factory scene, and eating scene stand out as truly magnificent, and hilarious examples of the power of cinema without spoken dialogue. Chaplin was not just a comedic actor/director. The character of the little tramp helped expose the experiences and hardships of the working class. It is a testament to Chaplin’s genius that these disparate categories – humour, tragedy, and social commentary – managed to exist simultaneously on the silver screen.
Sergei Eisenstein was a Soviet film director who, early on in his career, gained immense fame and positive critical response from around the world. His first, and most famous, feature length film, The Battleship Potemkin, fundamentally changed the form of cinema. His focus on structure, camera angles, montage, and crowd movement had never been seen before, and it was immediately clear that he was destined to be a significant auteur in the history of film. His most famous and eventually emulated scene was the massacre on the Odessa steps from The Battleship Potemkin. The haunting, and immensely powerful scene showcased Eisenstein’s mastery of a new form of filmmaking, and, to this day, remains a cinematic touchstone that has been paid homage to throughout film history.
Carl Theodor Dreyer
The legendary Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, like Eisenstein, was the forerunner of cinematographic techniques that are still widely used today. Unlike Eisenstein whose legacy is primarily attached to montage, Dreyer harnessed the ability to portray human emotion through brilliantly shot closeups. This technique was on full display in Dreyer’s most famous work, The Passion of Joan of Arc, wherein the camera work brilliantly exposed the heart wrenching story of Joan of Arc. Dreyer said of the work: ‘There were questions, there were answers- very short, very crisp… Each question, each answer, quite naturally called for a close-up… In addition, the result of the close-ups was that the spectator was as shocked as Joan was, receiving the questions, tortured by them.’ Dryer’s work, perhaps more so than the other directors on this list, proves that silent films can often be more powerful and affective than those with spoken dialogue. The spectacular The Passion of Joan of Arc can be seen in full here.
The last, but by no means least, director on this list is Lois Weber. Weber, perhaps even more than the legendary Chaplin, Eisenstein, and Dreyer, was one of the most prolific, talented, and, unfortunately, overlooked silent film directors in the history of the artform. Film Historian Anthony Slide wrote, ‘Weber was the American cinema’s first genuine auteur, a filmmaker involved in all aspects of production and one who utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies.’ Weber was the first American woman to direct a feature-length film, she is credited as pioneering the use of the split screen technique and was considered the ‘premier woman director of the screen and author and producer of the biggest money making features in the history of the film business.’ She was a champion for female rights who advocated the benefits of birth control and was vehemently anti-censorship. While perhaps forgotten in the history of film, at least compared to other male directors, her work is equally as astounding and influential. Every contemporary filmmaker owes it her or himself to watch one of her most controversial and influential films Hypocrites.