Here are my current selections of the ten best films of the 1910s in order of preference:
1. THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE (Victor Sjöström, Sweden, 1917). The argument has been made that Sweden’s Victor Sjöström was cinema’s first genuine artist. Cinema, which began as a visual recording device in the late nineteenth century, evolved into an art form, and Sjöström is given a good deal of credit for inventing or refining an expressive visual vocabulary for its use.
The Outlaw and His Wife is widely regarded as Sjöström’s masterpiece. It is about a couple on the run from the law.
In a key passage, the isolating height of mountains where the “outlaws” hide projects the egotism into which their circumstance has pushed them. From this height, in order to protect their infant from police capture and contamination, the woman hurls down the baby; the subsequent cut away—quick, startling—vividly conveys what brusque, desperate, incoherent and deadly acts this kind of egotism enables. (In addition, the abrupt cut shortcircuits any irrelevant sentimental response.) Both the shot describing the mother’s misguidedly protective act and the cut, then, conspire to reveal the woman’s harried mental state as well as Sjöström’s own, very different feelings regarding both the act and all this innocent couple has been forced to endure that has led to the commission of the act. To generalize: What we see here does more than move a plot along or provide dramatic emphasis; it means something.
It is also worth noting this purposefulness and expressiveness in another context. Silent Swedish cinema is celebrated for its pastoral beauty. Again, however, the scene I have described goes beyond merely recording natural splendor. Daunting rather than delightful, the setting illumines the feelings and psychology of the characters.
Sjöström uses film to disclose what is on his mind and what is in the minds of his characters.
2. LES VAMPIRES (Louis Feuillade, France, 1915). Written and directed by Louis Feuillade, in its current abbreviated form running nearly seven hours, Les Vampires influenced the future architects of surrealism (Aragon, Breton, Eluard), Fritz Lang, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Marcel Carné, Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Olivier Assayas. (The original Mabuse serial, 1922; two emissaries’ walk through guests at a ball frozen mid-step on the dance floor in Les visiteurs du soir, 1942; the Cat Burglar in To Catch a Thief, 1955: much derives from Feuillade’s film.) Blending airy naturalism and dark though entrancing intrigues bordering on fantasy, the ten-part serial finds contemporary Paris in the grip of a devilishly clever criminal gang led by The Grand Vampire and an eternally black silk-tighted Irma Vep (an anagram for vampire). Identities shift, as in a dream. The viewer appreciates the law (and their adjunct, a reporter investigating the crimes) but nonetheless holds dear the rogues, who oppose bourgeois literalism and sentimentalism. This is an intoxicating film—one that pirouettes off the murder of a Russian ballerina.
Shadows, kidnappings, killings, theft, chases, battles of wit—all this is here; but there are also ghostly imagery and set-pieces. In dusky daylight, her impossibly graceful figure-in-black stealthily making its way across a rooftop, Irma Vep is her own shadow—at once, reality and dream, charm and threat, athletic appearance and close-to-dissolving illusion. Aristocratic guests, gassed (“a delicate perfume floated through the ballrooms” at midnight), try desperately to exit a grand room, which they find impossible to do; slumped on sofas and in chairs, as fixed as the furniture, they are robbed by the gang, which weave around them in a radiant inadvertent mockery of their minutes-earlier turns on the dance floor: one of cinema’s greatest passages.
The French love “their” Poe—and the Vampires have again escaped!
3. LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1919). D. W. Griffith ponderously made Intolerance (1916) to prove he wasn’t the sentimental racist that The Birth of a Nation (1915) showed him to be. For me, the film is soporific. My opinion hasn’t prevailed. Filmmakers at the time, and since, have felt the film’s enormous influence.
Its collection of stories depicting different historical times and places within a loose philosophical framework informs Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book.
I reject much of the film, for instance, the segments on the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, where his sense of decorum finds Dreyer siding with reactionary forces. Nevertheless, the first two segments, on the Christ’s Passion and the Spanish Inquisition, are brilliant.
Naturalistic and unaffected, the Christ material has been surpassed only once, with Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). (At his death, Dreyer left unfilmed a long-planned film about the life of Jesus.)
According to Leaves, Judas is seduced into betraying Jesus by the argument that Jesus’s death is preordained and necessary for the completion of his mission. But the segment on the sixteenth-century Spanish Inquisition is the film’s most trenchant revelation of the workings of evil in our world. The terrifying opening shot is of torture devices in a dungeon. For a monk who is smitten with the aristocrat’s daughter he is instructing, an image of a saint assumes her sensuous form. Satan, the “Grand Inquisitor,” manipulates his unacted-on feelings, impressing the monk into service to the Inquisition, in which capacity he is ordered to condemn the woman he loves as a heretic—a rough sketch for Day of Wrath (1943).
For Dreyer, whose The Marked Ones (1922) is the most compassionate Gentile film ever made about Jewish suffering, religious persecution is unfounded in faith.
4. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1919). Made in Germany at the close of the decade and released at the dawn of the next, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari applies German expressionism to a masked meditation on the distress Germany suffered following its defeat in the First World War. It remains among the most intriguing and harrowing of horror films.
Robert Wiene directed Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s script about an itinerant showman under whose hypnotic spell a somnambulist commits nocturnal murders. There is a narrative framing device: the chance encounter of two strangers leading to an extended flashback that discloses “the truth”: the man who condemns this showman is, in fact, an inmate escaped from the insane asylum the man he accuses heads. No wonder, then, he loathes and fears Caligari! Only, can we not glean from the final fadeout—an ambiguous closeup of the “good” doctor—a likely germ of truth in the madman’s ravings? The last shot pulls the rug out from under us, leaving our minds in a scramble to sort out the film’s suggestions and insinuations.
To the sort of décor, in France, Georges Méliès had used in his curiously literal fantasies (among them, the 1902 A Trip to the Moon), Caligari’s painted backdrops, with their distorted perspectives, add an ambiguous subjectivism, helping film to become thereby a striking means of dark psychological probing. But that is not all. Here, proceeding from this probing are social and political implications that mine the national mood that eventually will give rise in Germany to Nazism.
History, then, would provide the lion’s share of this extraordinary film’s horrific aspect.
5. INGEBORG HOLM (Victor Sjöström, Sweden, 1913). From Nils Krok’s play, writer-director Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm is one of cinema’s earliest masterpieces, an overwhelming tearjerker about mother-love that strikes resonant chords of social commitment and consciousness. Its target is Sweden’s poor laws; its tack, to expose their deviation from Nature.
Hilda Borgström is irresistibly moving as Ingeborg Holm, who plummets into bankruptcy after the death of her husband, Sven, and her unsuccessful attempt to keep the family business, a grocery, going. She ends up with an ulcer and a bed in the poor-house, separated from her three young children, the youngest of whom is “boarded out” (whatever that means), and the other two assigned to different foster households—an arrangement she agrees to, hoping to prevent their becoming beggars. (Her own official identity has become “Ingeborg Holm, pauper.”) When her only daughter, Valborg, falls gravely ill, with the system refusing to pay for her necessary operation, Ingeborg runs away and visits her dying child, whose foster parents live out in the country. Ingeborg’s flight to Valborg’s bedside visually connects her (for our eye) to Nature, much as her forced separation from her children assaulted a parent’s natural bond with her children. Ingeborg is captured and returned to the poor-house; Valborg dies; brought in to visit, her younger boy no longer recognizes her. Ingeborg, shattered, drops into madness. Fifteen years later, Eric, her older son, a seafarer, who has held onto a photograph of his mother that she had once packed for her children, discovers her condition; but once he shows her the photograph, Ingeborg Holm is restored to herself and her sanity.
Each scene unfolds patiently and to the emotional full.
The same actor plays father and grown son, which influenced the casting of Hollywood’s To Each His Own thirty years hence.
6. J’ACCUSE (Abel Gance, France, 1919). Unlike his own 1938 “remake,” Abel Gance’s silent J’accuse! is a great film, perhaps a masterpiece. Made during the Great War and incorporating actual combat footage into its romantic melodrama about two soldiers, both from the same village, both of whom love the same woman to whom one of them is married, J’accuse has a real connection to the spirit of Zola, which the “remake” does not. Each version, while thematically similar, tells a different story. The silent version is one of the most massively moving antiwar films I have seen.
There are few, if any, decorous shots here; each shot instead is expressive, although one needs to be patient sometimes for this to become plain. A seemingly clichéd shot, when repeated, becomes haunting; a seemingly overwrought shot, when it also is repeated, becomes deftly ironical. The camera on occasion moves, following a character (humanity is at the center of J’accuse!); this surprises in a 1919 film.
But more surprising still is the inclusion of an instance of marital rape. Knowing that her husband wouldn’t remember doing this (the rape scene is, incidentally, terrifying), Edith attributes her pregnancy to a German soldier’s assault. Brilliantly, Gance accompanies her account with a seemingly expressionistic attack by German soldiers, all shadow and no substance—a visual indication that the pan-protective explanation is bogus.
War is initially folded into the romantic melodrama; gradually, the melodrama folds into the war, which shifts from background to foreground.
In the “remake” the dead rise up to warn people of the coming world war. In the original they confront the villagers with their sacrifice, to determine if that has helped in any way. They point out instances of ungrateful behavior, but commend the living anyhow: Christian sacrifice, Christian forgiveness.
The living owe the dead.
7. HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ (L. Frank Baum, U.S., 1914). One of a number of silent films that the author of the Oz books wrote and produced, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz was also directed by L. Frank Baum. Light and airy, it’s pure enchantment. Unlike the lumbering, unimaginative Wizard of Oz (1939), His Majesty doesn’t make us feel nostalgic for our childhoods; rather, it permits the adult viewer to enter a child’s world of unfettered fancy. There’s no place like Baum, there’s no place like Baum.
The story, of course, is fabulous, and the filming, liltingly magical. Baum’s cinematic guide is Georges Méliès, who in France had already taken his Trip to the Moon (1902) and made his Impossible Voyage (1904) and Conquest of the Pole (1912). These and other Méliès films helped fill Baum’s wondrous bag of camera tricks. But Baum’s sprightly humor is all his own. For instance, Scarecrow’s squaring off and dance with Giant Crow in a field is hilarious.
There is a remarkable passage in which Old Mombi assaults Scarecrow and tears the straw of life out of his chest as he lies on the ground. Seamless editing replaces the actor playing Scarecrow with a real scarecrow, permitting a scene of truly gripping witchly frenzy and scarecrowly vulnerability. More marvelous still are scenes on the barge as Dorothy and her companions pursue their plan to dispose of King Krewl. At one point Scarecrow is left behind, stuck on his pole in the water, and, looking for a way out, he goes into the depths of the sea, encountering a whole other realm. Later, the group on their barge goes up and comes back down the Wall of Water—one of the most deliriously beautiful passages in all of fantastic cinema.
There isn’t a moment of this film that doesn’t delight.
8. THE DYING SWAN (Yevgeni Bauer, Russia, 1916). Elegantly bourgeois, Yevgeni Bauer died months before Russia’s October Revolution. He had made more than twenty films, perhaps the loveliest of which is Umirayushchii Lebed, written by 20-year-old Zoya Barantsevich before she turned to silent film acting. Denouncing it as decadent, the Bolsheviks banned the film.
It’s a shame whenever live or recorded music is appended to outstanding silent films, a practice commercial pressure has been known to dictate. Silence is one of the most expressive elements in silent film and remains, even today, the grace of cinema. Musical attempts to heighten the emotional content of films strike me as barbaric and manipulative; as with other artistic elements, even in sound films the best music is analytical or distancing—not underlining, but aesthetically or thematically contributory.
Gizella (Vera Karalli, of the Bolshoi Ballet and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo) is a mute ballerina—and the silence of Bauer’s silent film expresses this muteness, as does the muteness of two dream passages that, together, compose the spiritual and emotional vortex of Bauer’s film: one is a waking dream—ours—in which Gizella performs (exquisitely) Anna Pavlova’s signature dance, “The Dying Swan”; the other is Gizella’s own sleeping dream, in which her fate is revealed to her should she continue sitting, in costume, for Glinskiy, the artist who, obsessed with the image of death that she projects in performance, is painting her. With its premonitions of the end of a class and a silken style in Russian cinema, Bauer’s film begs to be read in terms of unfolding Russian history. (The earlier end of Gizella’s romance with Viktor, whose unfaithfulness she discovers, creates a foundation for the principal theme.) Hauntingly, The Dying Swan mourns the loss that it anticipates.
And in silence! To paraphrase Shakespeare: Muteness is all.
9. THE CAMERAMAN’S REVENGE (Władysław Starewicz, Russia, 1912). Born in Wilno, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire (and is, today, Vilnius, Lithuania), Władysław Starewicz is one of cinema’s great animators. His animated short “Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora,” from Russia, is a deft demonstration of marital hypocrisy and the double standard.
Two bourgeois beetles, a fat male and a plain-Jane female, have complacently settled into their marriage. Restless, taking off for a little excitement, the husband goes on one of his business trips, briefcase in tow. In the city, as is his wont, Fatso heads for The Gay Dragonfly, the nightclub where his mistress, a gorgeous dragonfly, performs. After her act, the two head for a room at Hôtel d’Amour, unawares they are being followed by the dragonfly’s jilted spouse, a grasshopper, a budding filmmaker with camera in tow. Beginning with a keyhole shot, Grasshopper films his sweetie and her new partner bugopulating. Meanwhile, the fat beetle’s plain-Jane wife is also having an affair, in her case, with a bohemian painter-bug—not just an artist, but an artiste, as telegraphed by his flamboyant gestures and big, floppy hat. Back home, Fat Beetle walks in on his wife and her lover bugopulating. He beats his wife and tries to kill Painter-Bug. With apparent generosity he forgives his wife, whose gratitude turns to rage when, taken by her husband to the movies, she sees the film of him and his mistress bugopulating. His forgiveness exposed as smug superiority laced with guilt, she whacks him with her parasol, and he takes off to kill Grasshopper, who is the projectionist for his own film. Both Beetles, husband and wife, end up in their new home: jail. Now they will know how the other half lives.
Most of the animation is intricate and brilliant—especially all the bugopulating.
10. A MAN THERE WAS (Victor Sjöström, Sweden, 1916). From Henrik Ibsen’s poem, Victor Sjöström’s Terje Vigen, from Sweden, is about a Norwegian sailor (Sjöström, robust, excellent), who, returning home, finds waiting for him, along with his wife, the fruit of his previous homecoming: an infant daughter. Terje Vigen “sobers down” as a result, rejecting a night of barroom comradery in favor of staying home. Implicitly, were his wife still his only companion, Vigen would scoot out in a heartbeat.
The land and the sea, family and himself: these polar forces tug at Vigen’s heart. (In an amazing shot, Vigen stands at the open door of his cottage, looking out, his body indeed leaning out, the sea beckoning him.) A British blockade during the Napoleonic Wars leaves his family destitute, starving. Vigen will leave wife and daughter, but fortified with a rationalization capable of concealing his abandoning them: he will impossibly defy the naval blockade and procure food for his family at a safe port. On his way home the inevitable occurs; he is captured and imprisoned by the British. Part of the brilliant flexibility of Sjöström’s film is its impassioned anti-war plea at the time of another European war; but Terje Vigen homes in on Terje Vigen. Returning home, he discovers that wife and child both died after he “fled.” His denial that he did this provokes Vigen to seek unChristian revenge against the British captain who barred his reunion with homeland, wife, family. The sight of the man’s wife and daughter, though, purges Vigen of this madness and confronts him with his own responsibility. The closing image is one of peace and redemption: the cross marking the shared grave of his wife and daughter.
Here facilitating his plans, there obstructing them, the sea suggests Vigen’s tortured ambivalence, his convoluted psychology.
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