The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923)

Madame Beudet is smiling. She is smiling, even laughing, at her own daydreams about what might befall her husband, whom she does not love. He, hearing her laughter, pulls his own favourite practical joke, putting an empty gun to his head and squeezing the trigger.

This is one of the key scenes in The Smiling Madame Beudet (French: La souriante Madame Beudet), a strong and very well-made silent drama, which qualifies for my own top ten or fifteen list of silent movies.

Germaine Dermoz in The Smiling Madame Beudet / La souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Madame Beudet is smiling, perhaps, as a way of dealing with the misery of her life. The film is a brilliant and finely nuanced portrait of a woman, but those who claim that it was the first truly feministic film should take a look at the ten years older Ingeborg Holm.

The Internet Archive copy I link to here has both French and German intertitles, as well as English subtitles, so it is essentially trilingual – one of the advantages of silent cinema. In case you know either French or German and would like to be rid of the subtitles, a copy of comparable quality but without subtitles is also downloadable.

The Smiling Madame Beudet was based on a play, the original French text of which is also available at the Internet Archive.

This film is best enjoyed for its exquisite imagery and visual language. Director Germaine Dulac makes use of many impressionistic techniques, providing both effect and subtlety.

Alexandre Arquillière in The Smiling Madame Beudet / La souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

The Smiling Madame Beudet
Download link
Year: 1923
Running time: 38 min
Language: French/German (English subtitles)
Director: Germaine Dulac
Stars: Germaine Dermoz
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (666×482)
Soundtrack: Good; orchestral music matching the film’s mood
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: H.264 (227 M)

Nanook of the North (1922)

The documentary is an interesting genre. In a sense, it may be said to be the first film genre. Some of the very earliest surviving films, such as Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), were just brief snatches of reality, but already with Blacksmith Scene (1893) we see actors performing what may best be described as a forty-second drama documentary, and Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) is an early example of the filmmaker tampering with reality rather than just recording it, as the “actor” Fred Ott is apparently putting snuff in his nose for the purpose of producing an effect on film.

Compared with the 19th Century efforts, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North plays in a completely different league. It has been described as the first feature-length documentary, and as such it has had a tremendous impact on the entire genre of documentary film produced ever since. But in essence, it is just a very much more polished and sophisticated variant of what had already been done ever since the dawn of film.

Inuit eskimo in Nanook of the North (1922)

In Nanook of the North we are provided with some samples from the life of Nanook, an eskimo living in northern Canada. We get to see life in the igloo, walrus hunting, and various other activities in the life of Nanook and his family. All of it appears very genuine, but when you start to think about the lighting equipment that would be necessary to film inside an igloo, or the realism of bringing cameras along on a strenous and dangerous hunting expedition, you realize that many scenes must have been staged to a greater or lesser extent.

As a factual description of an eskimo’s life, Nanook of the North is about as flawed as any later documentary. Whether a wartime propaganda, such as The Fighting Lady (1944), or a modern political statement, such as The Corporation (2003), you can be sure that the film-maker has his own purpose, his own vision and his own ideological background, leading every step in the creative process. While few documentaries actually lie about factual matters, they are selective in what they show, and how they present their message.

Nanook of the North was the first “modern” documentary, and like any good documentary, it tries to impress upon the viewer its creator’s vision. But regardless of what shortcuts and stagings were made between takes, it succeeds in bringing the humans in front of the camera to life. The film begins and ends with closeups of Nanook’s face, and in between, Flaherty makes me feel that I get a glimpse of the soul behind that face. And perhaps, to some small measure, I do get such a glimpse, nearly 100 years later. Such is the power of good cinema.

This film is best enjoyed for its considerable artistic merits. Regardless of whether the film reflects any kind of truth or not, it is in its best moments breathtakingly beautiful. If you are interested in the history of documentary film, or if you are just looking for an fascinating cinematic experience, this is one you will definitely not want to miss.

Inuit eskimo paddling a kayak in Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North
Download link
Year: 1922
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Robert Flaherty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×738)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.4 G)

Strike (1925)

Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length film, Strike (known as Stachka or Стачка in Russian), showed that the legendary director had already at that time formed most of those ideals that were to follow him through much of his career. And while it may not be as refined as some of his later works, it is just as powerful, poetic and artistic. Strike deserves to be seen for reasons beyond historical curiosity.

Workers in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike tells the story of a pre-revolution strike at a factory (apparently based on true events) and its voilent resolution. We get to follow the workers as their dissatisfaction with the poor and greedy management explodes into action, when one worker hangs himself because he has been falsely accused of theft. The workers unite in their demands for better conditions, but the managers plot to either force them back to work, or get rid of them once and for all.

One of the things that is typical about Strike, and that sets it appart from the Hollywood norm of story-telling that we are used to, is that there is no main character. Focus is always on the group, and even when individuals do emerge out of the formless mass of strikers (constantly running around from one place to another), they are not proactive in the way that you would expect your standard Hollywood protagonist to be. Rather, they react to things that happen around them, and they act together with the group. You could perhaps call them catalysts, sparking the fire in others to act in concert. This theme of cooperation permeates the film to the extent that one could probably write a book about it.

Another of Eisenstein’s identifying traits is the way he uses metaphor in his images. Some would perhaps say that he is too obvious when he interfoliates cuts with animals and with humans, thereby giving the humans animal characteristics. But to me, this is enormously powerful. Even more so, since this technique is practically never used in Western film, neither contemporary nor modern.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and emotional ending. As the military move in on horseback and massacre the strikers, Eisenstein interleaves cuts of cattle being slaughtered, and of laughing capitalists, fat and lazy. Regardless of whether you agree with the underlying ideology, this is truly effective and artistic film.

Revolutionary leader in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike
Download link
Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 34 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music and some sound effects
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (685 M)

La petite marchande d’allumettes (1928)

So, here we go again. Another new year begins, along with the usual celebrations. A few close friends; good food and wine; some fireworks. It is at times like these that one should perhaps, at least for a minute, stop and think about life. About how fortunate we are to be born at a time and place where there is really very little to worry about. Jean Renoir helps us find that reflective mood, through his 1928 masterful adaptation of H.C. Andersen’s La petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl).

Manuel Raaby and Catherine Hessling in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

It was just before the great breakthrough of sound film, and the silent film medium was at its artistic peak. Europe was spearheading the development through filmmakers like Fritz Lang (e.g. Metropolis), Carl Theodor Dreyer (e.g. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc) and F.W. Murnau (e.g. Der letzte Mann). La petite marchande d’allumettes falls right into this tradition with its splendid use of composition, cutting, lighting and costumes.

I guess you know the story already from your childhood. A poor match girl goes out on New Year’s Eve to sell matches, even though her shoes and clothes are pitifully inadequate. When she fails to sell any, she lies down in the cold snow to dream about the toys she saw in a shop window. Renoir’s dream sequence bears traces of the German expressionism, which was extremely strong in Germany about this time.

This film is best enjoyed as a fine example of late 1920s European filmmaking. The film is short, but given the story it sets out to tell, it could not have been made much longer and still kept the interest up.

Jean Storm, Catherine Hessling and Amy Wells in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

La petite marchande d’allumettes
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 32 min
Language: French (English subtitles)
Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Catherine Hessling
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; harmonium music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: H.264 (189 M)

The Cameraman (1928)

In 1928, just before making his last silent films, Buster Keaton moved from United Artists to MGM, a move that in retrospect ruined his career. In a very short time, he went from making immortal silent classics like The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – films where he had total creative control – to acting in cheap comedies. In between, he got to do one single film for MGM in his own trademark style, The Cameraman.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to become a newsreel cameraman. He also falls in love with a secretary at MGM, so he spends the rest of the film trying to impress both her and his boss. Further complications involve an ill-tempered policeman, a gang-war in Chinatown and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

It is interesting to compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Even though they are vastly different films, they give much information about what camerawork was like in the 1920s. Note, for example, how light the cameras were. With the coming of sound, cameras had to be made noiseless, so they became much heavier. The advanced camerawork of the 1920s was not to be seen again for many decades.

The Cameraman was co-directed by Edward Sedgwick, who went on to direct several Buster Keaton comedies. Since Keaton had by that time lost his creative control, quality varied wildly, but for instance Speak Easily (1932) is worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed for its high comic and romantic values. Perhaps to an even higher degree than other Keaton films, this one features some excellent acting. In some scenes, the acting is very low-key, very beautiful, and really more reminiscent of what would be typical in Hollywood ten or fifteen years later.

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×720)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Legendary directory Cecil B. DeMille made two radically different films titled The Ten Commandments during his long Hollywood career. Featured here is The Ten Commandments from 1923, a spectacular silent drama that is actually two films for the price of one.

The beginning of the film consists of a lengthy prologue which tells the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. With splendid sets and some very advanced special effects (still impressive today), it starts with God’s tenth plague on the Egyptians and ends as Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. This part is grandiose and majestic, and belongs among the great epics of silent film, but it is sometimes a bit overplayed, not least by Theodore Roberts in the role of Moses.

Julia Faye, Pat Moore, Charles de Rochefort as Rameses and Theodore Roberts as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The rest of the film (in itself a normal feature-length film) is a modern-day drama about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One is an egoistic atheist who believes in nothing but money and power, while the other is a pious carpenter who lives with their mother and ever strives to do what is morally right. The overly simplistic and moralistic plot is sometimes hard to swallow, but the acting and production values are so good that this is just a minor annoyance.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this film with DeMille’s later The Ten Commandments (1956). Both are majestic. Neither is terribly historically accurate when it comes to the depiction of ancient Egypt. The biblical portion of the older film is only about one fourth the length of the later, which in turn has no modern section. But perhaps the bottom line is that either film is an excellent representative of its time and that both deserve to be seen, each on its own merits.

This film is best enjoyed for the biblical prologue in the beginning. During fifty minutes, the film is one glorious feast in massive sets, special effects and biblical quotes. The rest is a standard melodrama. Not bad (especially not the actors), but no better than lots of other good silent dramas.

Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque and Edythe Chapman in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments
Download link
Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 16 min
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; organ music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)

Körkarlen (1921)

If you have been reading my posts about Ingeborg Holm (1913), Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (1918) and Klostret i Sendomir (1920), then you know that I, along with many others, consider Victor Sjöström to be one of the greatest directors of the 1910s and early 1920s. Perhaps the peak of his creative period came with Körkarlen, best known in English as The Phantom Carriage.

Victor Sjöström and Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen is a many-layered story about alcoholism, poverty, death and humiliation, but also about love, faith and atonement. It often balances on a thing edge between realism and sentimentality, and mostly manages to stay clear of any excesses in either direction.

The story is based on a novel by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (Nobel prize winner), and closely follows the original. At the core of the story, we find the Salvation Army sister Edit. She has been trying to save David from his sinful life in alcholism, but David has no wish to repent. That is when Death’s coachman (who drives around to collect the souls of the dead) steps in, and when David appears to die after a drunken brawl on New Year’s Eve, the coachman takes David on a journey through time and space to make him see the wrongs of his life.

The score of this version must be characterized as ambient. It is very mood-setting, but sometimes it seems to miss the mood a bit. On the whole, it works well, but I am sure better scores exist.

This film is best enjoyed as a true classic and an excellent example of Swedish film making around 1920. If anyone sees parallels with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that is no coincidence (compare Scrooge (1951)). Lagerlöf said herself that the story was inspired by Dickens, though this is far more than just a cheap imitation. Körkarlen deserves to be enjoyed on its own merits.

Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen
Download link
Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Language: Swedish; English subtitles
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Victor Sjöström
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; partly adapted to the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)