Now that’s what I call silent! Why silent film still matters

It was a Wednesday afternoon in a cinema in the South West. Outside it was dank and windy. People on the street scowled and cowered from the battering January storm.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in a cinema in the South West. Outside it was dank and windy. People on the street scowled and cowered from the battering January storm. Inside the screen, however, was a very different story. The audience were warm and dry, tucked up in the (mock) velvet chairs which now seemed like a veritable haven in comparison to outside.

Over the next 100 minutes, they laughed, gasped, cried, laughed some more and were thoroughly entertained by the relatable characters on screen. But what did that character just say? Oh right, nothing. This was a silent film, the multi-award winning The Artist which has been screening around the country since early January. In a cinematic world which prides itself on being thoroughly modern, innovative and progressive, then, why has a film which harks back to a time believed to be wholly outdated become such a success? 

Of course, the cinema which claims to be ‘cutting edge’ (we’re talking Hollywood blockbusters here) in fact often relies on past – and, crucially – failed models of the ‘cinematic experience’ such as 3D. This is not about 3D, but for the record let me just state: 3D was never cutting edge. 3D was always doomed to fail in a blur of nausea, dimmed images and headaches. 

Silent films have been given a recent revival, with much of the footage painstakingly restored and given brand-new musical scores. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc are three silent films that have undergone such visual and aural renovations. Despite these ‘revamps’, however, the films remain fundamentally the same as they were when released in the early 20th Century. What have allowed these so-called ‘out-dated’ films to endure are not the technological innovations they may employ, not the fandangled ‘new’ scores complete with synthesizers (you know them, kids!) but rather, the fact that they all contain recognisable humanity; a feat many modern films cannot claim to. 

Expert on silent film, Bryony Dixon, states that one of the major factors why we can still relate to silent films is due to the fact that we cannot look away; to do so would be to potentially miss important information and thus misunderstand the narrative. In observing the image so intently, then, we are able to connect with the film on a deeper level, and in doing so are more greatly affected by it. No checking your phone in the middle of the film, then. To take Dixon’s point further, it would also be worth considering the fact that the actors cannot use dialogue to communicate their situation to the audience.

In understanding the narrative, the audience must predominantly rely on the facial expressions of the characters (save some inter-titles lovingly shoved between frames). The best example of this is, of course, The Passion of Joan of Arc (which, if you have not seen, do so now). The film itself is remarkably pared-down; Dreyer relies on close up shots of the character’s faces rather than elaborate set pieces. The effect is astonishing; I implore anyone not to cry as Joan goes through the undeniable torture of having to prove herself to the ecclesiastical figures who really should know better. Joan is one of the only characters to whom I have felt genuine sympathy and who still haunts me to this day. Who needs dialogue?

Of course, unlike the French Middle Ages, it’s not all fun and games. There have been reports of customers storming out of recent screenings of The Artist and demanding a refund as they ‘didn’t realise it was a silent film’. Indeed, in some areas the response has been so bad that the cinemas have to ‘warn’ customers that they were in fact paying for a silent film, and is this ok with them?

The fact that audiences will arrive in droves to see major Hollywood flops such as Sex and the City 2 (which was racially insulting and lacked any form of humanity) but some cannot stomach a film without dialogue seems ludicrous but oh-so telling of our modern ‘culture’. However, in light of the recent Golden Globe Awards and the upcoming Academy Awards I would say silent film has had the last laugh, but we just can’t hear it.