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The Rapture of the Silents

Criterion Collection
A scene from Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, 1921

Anyone who does set out now to explore the silents finds that we are living in a golden age, or at least golden moment, of film restoration and, through DVD and Blu-Ray disks, a golden age of accessibility. (It remains to be seen whether such accessibility will continue to be the case in the wake of the total digital conversion now underway.) An immersion that once required travel to distant archives can now be accomplished on one’s couch.

It is a very different sort of viewing experience. These restored and digitized editions are often a transformation of the originals they undertake to reproduce, collating disparate elements and restoring a look of wholeness to torn or decayed images. They are in some instances cleaner than any print ever was. The film speed has been calibrated and adjusted with a precision that would have been unlikely when they were first shown. (At times the images unfold with a voluptuous smoothness and slowness so beautiful and revealing that I cannot help wondering if this is as much a product of the restorer’s art as of the filmmaker’s.) They are accompanied by modern soundtracks that—sometimes more intrusively and anachronistically than one might wish—tease out new implications of feeling and cadence. We watch them in carefully controlled settings of our own choosing, with no hint of the raucous world of vulgar entertainment or mass propaganda into which they were originally beamed.

More significant than these seductive accoutrements is the dramatically expanded repertoire we are now privileged to experience. Newly discovered and restored films rarely or barely discussed in general film histories have been emerging at such a pace that it is hard to keep up. In recent years there has been a stunning procession of rescued films that turn out to be of far more than historic interest: Lé- once Perret’s L’Enfant de Paris (1913), George Loane Tucker’s Traffic in Souls (1913), Gustavo Serena’s Assunta Spina (1915), Evgeni Bauer’s The Dying Swan (1917), Mauritz Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919), Ernst Lubitsch’s Die Bergkatze (1921), F.W. Murnau’s Phantom (1922), John Ford’s Hangman’s House (1928), Frank Borzage’s Street Angel (1928), Franz Osten’s A Throw of Dice (1929), George Schnéevoigt’s Laila (1929), Mikhail Kalatozov’s Salt for Svanetia (1930), Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933).

How could we not have heard about Laila, with its extraordinary scenes of wolves chasing a reindeer-driven sled across a sub-arctic landscape, or Salt for Svanetia with its sublime contemplation of Central Asian isolation and unforgiving folkways? The list may seem long, but it only scratches the surface. There is much more still to come, films already restored and films just recovered in archives from Russia to New Zealand. The inevitable decay of nitrate film has apparently not in every case been as swift as feared, and so there are still opportunities to uncover, here and there, what was thought lost forever.

An excerpt from George Schnéevoigt’s Laila

The seduction of silent cinema is the seduction of a form as unique as opera or kabuki, a peculiar way of organizing one’s attention. It is a perpetual learning how to see, and a way of coming to the truth of one of Emerson’s observations: “The eye is final.”2 But there is the further peculiarity that what you see takes place in a world no longer there. Here are cities since reduced to rubble and rebuilt, stretches of countryside by now turned into interstates and strip malls, glaciated wilderness that has probably succumbed to climate change—and of course the faces of those now long dead, something too easily taken for granted but that haunts movies from the start. The inventors of the medium were already thinking about recording the living as a future consolation for their survivors.

It is a property that will only get stranger. People have had millennia to get used to the idea of the ancientness of written texts; we have not yet seen truly ancient films, having got just a little beyond the century mark. A passenger—a babe in arms—who got off the train at La Ciotat station as the Lumières were filming it in 1895 may well have lived on into the age of television and 3-D. In time everything prior to that may come to seem prehistoric, dating from the era before people could see the vanished generations moving in something like real time through a world also in movement.

The reality of their world included of course the desire to escape from that reality by means of the very movies we are watching. Two goals are at work from the beginning of film: to move in as close to the world as possible, and to move as far away from it as possible. They are not always contradictory goals. Even the most banal of natural settings became exotic when filmed; wind-blown trees and eddying waves were primordial special effects. A city street photographed at random, if it was someone else’s city, might be as unreal as any studio concoction.

Audiences came not necessarily to relish the fact of existing in 1912 or 1927 but to explore precisely the possibilities denied by that present moment, to look at something else, a distant steppe or the palace of a rajah, the deck of a millionaire’s yacht or the interior of a midtown brothel in the midst of a police raid, a world seen from above the clouds or a world entirely taken over by comical acrobats. The abstraction and stylization fostered by silent film were uniquely suited for establishing an obverse zone lying just within the well-named dream palaces, liberated from history and even from logic.

Every film becomes a documentary, even if it is a documentary on the making of illusions. To become aware of the exceptional artistry of the greatest silent filmmakers—of D.W. Griffith or Victor Sjöström or Ernst Lubitsch—is in the same instant to become sensitive to the living material, that is to say people and their habitat, that they are working with. The sense of how the filmmaker is operating in the world cannot be separated from the film. You can read King Lear without having to give a thought to Richard Burbage; you cannot watch The Birth of a Nation without registering the presence of every member of its large cast and by extension the precise time and place in which they go through their paces.

We feel for them because we see them and in the same moment measure their distance from us. I have not read Selma Lagerlöf’s novel The Phantom Carriage (1912), a tale of an alcoholic reprobate redeemed in the manner of Ebenezer Scrooge by ghostly visions, and so cannot judge whether it exerts as powerful an effect as Sjöström’s 1921 film version, which the Criterion Collection has just issued in a Blu-Ray edition. But whatever the suggestiveness of the fable, the film works on us with the bare palpability of its elements—even of its visual tricks.

An excerpt from The Phantom Carriage

The carriage of the title, sent to collect the souls of the dead and driven by the last soul to die on New Year’s Eve, is a superimposed image gliding over natural scenes. The dead souls, once extracted from their corpses, are likewise superimpositions wandering through otherwise solid settings. The transparent carriage pauses to collect a vagrant dead of exposure in a marsh. It moves over a rocky coastline to retrieve drowned bodies from a boat half sunk beneath the waves. A simpler trick is unimaginable.

Yet these forlorn images are made even more so by the very impossibility of those transparent forms, as if we were being given a demonstration of what is humanly unattainable. In counterpoint to these supernatural scenes there is the film’s other kind of special effect: the human face exposed by lighting designed to bring out expressions of fear, anguish, malicious anger, resigned devotion. Faces look at faces, or toward the empty space that is the audience. Sjöström, playing the abusive protagonist in what may, according to an accompanying essay by Paul Mayersberg, be an imitation of his own brutal father, turns himself into the most indelible of visual devices by capturing the demonic glint in his own eyes.

That glint carries across time in the most unnerving way. But it had to be captured in the first place. The authentic artists of silent cinema—and the list gets longer as more films are retrieved—touch us by the deliberateness with which they directed our eyes toward what was there, or rather to what still is there in their work. Such viewing can easily create odd moments of temporal displacement. If 1912 can become the present, 2012 can just as easily become the remote past. Watching the recent and disastrously received Disney release John Carter, with its digitized frames densely packed with thousands of battling Martians and swirling airships, I found myself looking at it as if it were the artifact of a long-vanished era that devoted itself to such curious spectacles. The people of that time, it seemed, had sought to make images that mutated so rapidly that no single image could be looked at long enough to become fixed in the mind. If they had been looked at that long, it would have become too obvious that there was nothing there to see.

A movie like The Phantom Carriage, by contrast, was made to be peered into with unwavering attention. Shots were prolonged so that nothing of importance would be lost. Dying faces were photographed as if to bridge the gap between life and death. Silent cinema had perhaps the advantage that the spectator cannot look away. The rapt gaze is the only suitable mode for watching it at all.

  1. 2

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Journals, 1841–1877 (Library of America, 2010), p. 688. 

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