Whether you’re a silent film buff or are new to cinema before talkies, here’s a list of ten silent films spanning the genres that are worth watching and re-watching — from romantic comedies to creepy horror movies to high drama to historical epics. Whatever the occasion, you can find a silent film on this list to suit the mood and convince those in your life who may be skeptical that a silent film could actually be entertaining or edgy that something from the genre can appeal to any movie lover.
1. The Artist
Some silent movie buffs will be mad at me for including this, but I promise the rest of this list is composed of films made pre-1936. The Artist is a French film made in 2011 that swept that year’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture. This movie focuses on an aging star of the silent screen played by Jean Dujardin who watches his career fall apart as he’s replaced by stars better suited for “talkies,” like the young and beautiful dancer-turned-actress played by Bérénice Bejo. The actor and actress fall in love as their careers are propelled in opposite directions by the rise of talkies.
The film is a romantic comedy that’s simultaneously a lesson in film history. This is the perfect movie to watch with friends or family who may not be so into old silent movies and to introduce skeptics to the genre of silent film. The Artist was the first silent movie to win Best Picture, since Wings won at the very first Academy Awards in 1929.
2. Modern Times
There is some controversy over whether this 1936 Charlie Chaplin film is really a ‘silent’ movie or not, but for those not entrenched in the genre, it certainly looks like one. This is one of Chaplin’s most beloved as well as most political films about his Little Tramp character who, in Modern Times, is faced with the challenge of keeping a job in an industrial factory.
Chaplin uses the film to criticize then-modern industrialization through scenes in which the Tramp gets stuck inside machinery and is even force-fed by a machine to improve efficiency. It’s also a commentary on the horrors of the Great Depression. The love interest, played by Paulette Goddard, is a starving girl arrested for stealing bread and the Tramp faces a variety of horrors at the factory for very little pay. Despite the dark undertones, this is still a comedy at Chaplin’s best and will make even a non-silent film fan laugh.
3. The Birth of a Nation
This is just one of two three-hour historical epics from D.W. Griffith on this list. This film is a must-see for anyone even vaguely interested in film history, as it’s credited with inventing standard film techniques like close-ups, camera pans, and eyeline matches, as well as pioneering nighttime photography and the use of extras.
However, there’s also a dark side to the history of this movie, as it has been criticized for its racist depictions of African Americans by white actors in blackface and for making the Klu Klux Klan look heroic. After all, it is based on Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. With Birth, Griffith was “single-handedly responsible for codifying the language of cinema and shattering the world’s notions of what a film could be,” according to film critic Eric M. Armstrong, but the filmmaker would never live down the legacy of bigotry and racism left by the movie.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is considered to be the first feature-length science fiction movie ever made, a must-see for anyone interested in sci-fi or creepy tales of a dystopian future. The movie’s large and impressive sets depicting a futuristic city with a growing divide between the upper and lower classes also made Metropolis the most expensive film ever made up until that point. The film takes place in the city of Metropolis, which is ruled by the wealthy, for whom the place is a paradise.
Underneath the city, however, workers ceaselessly toil in miserable and dangerous conditions to create energy for the city. Freder is the son of the evil ruler of Metropolis. He falls in love with Maria, a member of the lower classes, and when he follows her to the tunnels only to discover the horrible working conditions of the lower class and witnesses several deaths caused by an exploding machine. From there, Freder tries to save Maria and bring justice to the workers. The film is carried by the spooky sci-fi sets and imagery, as well as a terrifying performance from Brigitte Helm as Maria and the robotic ‘false-Maria.’
5. The General
The General is Buster Keaton’s triumph, a comedy set during the Civil War that’s funny, romantic, outrageous, clever, and touching all at the same time. Orson Welles has called it “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made,” in his introduction to the restored version of the film on DVD and Blu-ray. Now regarded as one of the best movies ever made, when it was released in 1926, it was an enormous flop and started the downfall of Keaton’s career.
The movie is loosely based on the true story of a train robbery and hijacking during the Civil War, with the addition of a romance interrupted by the Confederate army’s refusal to enlist Keaton’s character, which causes his girlfriend to dump him. Epic and hilarious adventures ensue as he tries to save her from a train car abducted by Union soldiers. “But if you had to convert one stubborn refusenik to Keaton’s greatness, to the magic of silent cinema itself, The General will cast that spell for you every time,” said Guardian critic Pamela Hutchinson.
D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance is a three-and-a-half hour epic showing how the concept of intolerance as a part of human nature has wrecked havoc throughout history. The movie follows four different storylines spanning the centuries, and was created by Griffith in an attempt to make up for the bigotry in Birth of a Nation.
There’s a ‘modern’ story detailing how capitalism and moral puritanism oppress the masses. There’s a story set in 539 B.C. in Babylonia detailing the conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persia. There’s a story about how intolerance led to the crucifixion of Jesus. There’s a story set in Renaissance France about how intolerance caused the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants by the reigning Roman Catholics. All of these narratives are spliced together to illustrate how history repeats itself. The film itself is one of the most ambitious projects ever brought to the screen.
F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu is both one of the earliest horror films and first vampire films ever made. It was supposed to be a take on Bram Stocker’s Dracula, but since the filmmaker couldn’t get the rights to the novel, alterations to the plot were made. It still stands as the terrifying epitome of German Expressionism and Max Schrek’s take on the vampire Count Orlok — aided by makeup and prosthetics that grow more intense as the film continues — one of the scariest performances ever caught on film. This is a perfect Halloween movie and goes to show that the scariest movies don’t have to rely on expensive special effects and loud soundtracks to make viewers’ skin crawl.
8. City Lights
Yes, it’s another Chaplin comedy, but it was difficult to narrow it down to just two. If you’re a silent film purist and deem Modern Times to be “a mute silent film,” then you can use this as a Chaplin gateway film for the silent skeptics in your life. The movie is a romantic comedy starring the Little Tramp, who falls in love with a blind woman who, through a misunderstanding, becomes convinced that the Tramp is very wealthy. All kinds of chaos ensues as the Tramp attempts to keep up the illusion and help the struggling blind girl. This stands as one of the most romantic and greatest films ever made, and the ending in particular is considering a masterpiece of cinema. In 1949, film critic James Agee called the final scene of City Lights “the greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.”
9. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Sunrise is a heartbreaking love story that will surprise you with its power. This 1927 film from German director F.W. Murnau plays on the age-old dichotomy between life in the alluring, modern city and the stable, moral country. The two opposites are personified in symbolic female characters, the Wife from the country and the Woman from the City. Of course, the Man is intoxicated by the sexy flapper Woman from the City and neglects his wife in pursuit of her. Her hot, captivating veneer becomes unhinged when she suggests that the Man drown the pious Wife to begin a new life in the city.
Murnau had a field day making Sunrise — his first Hollywood feature — building expensive sets and experimenting with new film techniques. The Man tries to murder both the Wife and the Woman from the City on more than one occasion in the movie, but George O’Brien’s performance makes the Man’s psychosis, desperation, and love all equally palpable. Sunrise is romantic, tragic, touching, and disturbing. It’s a good choice to show someone who maybe only thinks of Chaplin’s slapstick humor when they think of silent film.
10. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
This 1920 psychological horror movie is considered to be one of the first art films, the first true horror film, and is thought by some to have the first ‘twist’ ending in cinema. Caligari features a beautifully creepy set that looks like something straight out of a Tim Burton film. The alluring Dr. Caligari, inspired by a weird myth about an eleventh-century monk, uses hypnotism to keep a somnambulist named Cesare under his control. Caligari both displays Cesare as a carnival attraction and uses him to commit murders. The film uses jarring cuts, shaky movements from the actors, and heavy makeup to create a world teetering on the edge of insanity. Any fan of Tim Burton or David Lynch, or even the novels of Chuck Palahniuk, will appreciate this movie.
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