41. Spione

March 22, 1928
Directed by Fritz Lang

Spione is effectively a Mabuse reboot for 1928. Germany has a level of social and economic stability that 1922 Germany did not. The world has gotten better in the intervening years. The currency is stable again. And so instead of a mysterious all-powerful magician who wants to rule the world simply to play with his victims out of cruelty, Spione’s mastermind is attempting to manipulate the international political situation and threat of Soviet Russia to acquire more money.

It’s a more realistic image of a supervillain that reflects that in 1928, instead of abject terror and chaos, there was a political situation where people knew what to be afraid of. While Stalin’s “communism in one country” already acknowledged that the World Revolution was not going to happen, there were still many in Europe and America who hoped or feared that it could. Germany had beaten Russia ten years ago, and now that the Reds had won their civil war and were rapidly modernizing, they might be harboring some thoughts of revenge.

Lang’s filmmaking has grown more sophisticated, but this movie is missing something crucial that Mabuse had. Maybe it’s that after seeing Murnau’s astonishing growth in the last six years, from Nosferatu to Letzte Mann to Faust to Sunrise, a Mabuse reboot that does little more than clean up the details and slightly update the story isn’t enough. It could also be that Mabuse’s power was mysterious and supernatural, as if the world was so confusing and inexplicable that it must be controlled by a superhuman magician. Haghi is a mundane villain – he’s merely rich and has a capable staff.

You didn’t need to be a magician to see that the Silent Age was coming to an end. Metropolis had almost bankrupted UFA and so Lang was not able to develop on that movie’s wonders. If it had been a success, he may have been able to make another masterpiece of that scale. But there’s little in this movie that hadn’t been done already by Lang or someone else. Spione is a tactical retreat into safe territory.


40. Oktyabr


March 14, 1928
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov

As a socialist who loves silent movies, I really want to like this movie more. After all, this is the one where we win. What happened in October 1917 was the unthinkable – a rupture in history that the ruling class never got over. Even after 1990, it’s still embarrassing for them to acknowledge.

Yet I find this one the most difficult to sit through of the first three Eisenstein features. Strike is a story of workers banding together. Potemkin is a story of men recognizing each other as brothers. October is the story of the founding myth of the young nation, but this historical event is too complex to be portrayed in a way that could satisfy all of the demands made on this movie at this time.

It was commissioned to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the great feat, but it’s too didactic to be entertaining and too avant garde to stir the hearts of the proletarians and peasants. His style is too abstract to feel a melodramatic rush of victory at the end, while the climactic scene of Potemkin, where the sailors recognize each other as brothers, is a wonder.

The most striking moment is the scene of the July Days. The protest is suppressed and the people defeated, and a dead horse is caught on the drawbridge as it raises, cutting off the center of Petrograd and temporarily extinguishing the hopes for revolution. It’s easier for Eisenstein to move me with tragedy than with triumph.

And there was little for international communists in 1928 to feel triumph about. People were losing hope of a permanent revolution that would spread eastward to the major economies of Europe. Leon Trotsky was removed from the government and the party in 1927 and in January 1928 was exiled to the Kazakh Republic. Agriculture production had recovered from the civil war, but growth had now stalled. The New Economic Policy, which had been passed as a truce with the rural peasants, was ended. Congress now implemented extraordinary measures to seize grain from the countryside.

Joseph Stalin introduced his five-year plan to rapidly collectivize and industrialize. Stalinism was now in full effect. Eisenstein would soon find himself in self-exile, to wander the world in search of a new direction for his art.

39. The Crowd

The Crowd
March 3, 1928
Directed by King Vidor

Everyone wants to be special. In our modern age, we spend most of our time surrounded by media, and everyone we see is special. We are so saturated with media, so used to watching and listening to special people, that we believe that to really exist, we must be one of these special people. From childhood, many of us cannot envision a mode of living not based in being special. But the most extraordinary achievement is to learn how to be ordinary. To reach the point where the desire to be special can be dropped completely.

The endemic need to be special was already firmly in place by the time of The Crowd. As a child, our hero has no plan for his life other than that he wants to be special (“I’m going to be somebody big!”). He goes to New York to join the crowd, but this crowd exists only something for him to distinguish himself from, and be noticed by. In 1928 there were still fortunes to be won. This obsession continually trips him up, to the point where it’s embarrassing to watch him next to his patient and doting wife Mary.

Suddenly, he finds himself of step with the crowd. He only achieves his happy ending with the realization that he is already one with everyone else. The crowd means our fellow humans, who we commune with, to soothe bad times and celebrate good ones, and this connection of love and humanity than any degree of “specialness” one could measure. At the beginning, he points and laughs at the poor man on the street. At the end he is the poor man, but he’s still laughing.

The discovery of how to be ordinary was not one that came naturally to cinema, and it’s only now in 1928 that the task is taken up. In order for Hollywood to learn how to portray the ordinary, it had to go to New York. To the crowd. The only city bigger and newer than Berlin.

This mode of realism is most striking in the scenes in their humble New York apartment. Filmed in New York, in a real apartment, with a real bathroom, and a real toilet, and a real El train speeding by. For the first time in cinema’s history, we see the real problems of regular people. Just like us, they are trying to be special, and sometimes, a truly special person can learn the greatest secret of all: how to be ordinary.


38. The Circus


January 6, 1928
United Artists
Directed by Charles Chaplin

If The Circus isn’t remembered as well as his other movies, it’s largely because Chaplin himself ignored it during the post-war silent film revival. This has less to do with the quality of the movie than with the cloud of personal disaster that surrounded it. Chaplin had by this time conquered the world and was at the top of his game. The first Academy Awards in 1928 had to exempt him from nomination to prevent him from utterly dominating the show. But his success meant that the sordid details of his personal life were on full display. His marriage to Lita Grey, who he had wed in a panic after getting her pregnant at 16, was falling apart, and the divorce proceedings were full of scandalous details of him pressuring her into getting abortions and giving him blowjobs.

What else to do but throw himself as far as he could into the thing that got him all this attention – making people laugh. And so The Circus becomes a meditation on performing comedy. Comedy is not an art that one can work on in private, as one can with music, writing, or painting. Comedy is necessarily social – you can only find out what’s funny by doing something goofy, and then seeing if anyone responds. He gives everything of himself as he struggles to land upon the happy accident that will make everyone feel joy, even though these accidents inevitably cause him pain.

At the beginning, the tramp survives by not being seen. He evades the cops by running through a fun house mirror maze and hiding among a multitude of reflections. In the end, he is a tightrope walker, the entire crowd with their eyes fixed on him, their hands over their breathless mouths, as he executes a perfect performance. The slightest misstep means a public death, even as a team of monkeys crawls over his body and strip him of his clothes, exposing more and more of himself. That is the Faustian bargain of Hollywood. You can be the center of attention, but you have to give your audience everything, fully exposed, always risking a humiliating demise.

37. Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt

September 23, 1927
Directed by Walter Ruttmann

A movie just like Sunrise, premiering the same night, on the other side of the world, but without the love story – the husband and wife, individuals and their rural landscape, so that the only character is the city itself. Berlin. A world unimaginable thirty years earlier, unlike any place that had ever existed, except for New York. The German super-state that Frederick the Great envisioned has finally arrived, destined to conquer the world.

A matrix of concrete, glass, and iron, full of images provoking desires, kept alive by networks of electricity, fed by railroad cars racing along tracks at unimaginable speed, full of supplies, chased by masses of people pushing each other from building to building.

Primacy is to the machines. We always see machines in operation first, and the people come later, racing to keep pace. Hurrying to their jobs, where they clean and feed the machines with their human energy, making the circle spin faster and faster, until the entire city is locked together in one massive circle spinning at blurring speed, presented as a spectacle for our amusement.

This day in the life of a city could only be a Friday. Night falls, the neon lights up, and that mass of energy redirects from the exercise of work to the consumption of pleasure – human bodies on the stage, turning themselves in unison – the pleasure machine spins its limbs of exposed flesh. The pleasure, too, is meant to service the spinning machine. In our work, our domestic chores, and our amusements, we are always components turning like gears.

The pleasure of the movie is in the beauty of chaos contained, like the spinning circle fixed behind the shop window. 1927 was the third year of relative stability, thanks to the money flowing in from American business, but everyone knew that no matter how well the machine was polished and stoked, at any moment it could all come flying apart.


36. Sunrise


September 23, 1927
Directed by F. W. Murnau

Sunrise is a misleading name. This movie is about the moon. The glowing silver orb appears again and again. On both sides of the sky, so that we can’t tell which way is which. Glowing bulbs light up the paths of streets through the city. Car headlights appear out of nowhere, swerving in cacophonies of alarm.

The moon creates no light of its own but through its reflection we make out shadowy forms in the darkness. Moonlight is the allegory of the cinema. We leave our houses to sit in darkened rooms and watch an artificial light show us the truth about ourselves.

Murnau knew he was the foremost auteur of this new art. When William Fox saw Der Letzte Mann, he jumped at the chance to hire him and give him a Hollywood budget, which Murnau did not waste a penny of. He and his Fox colleague Frank Borzage worked closely together, sharing sets, ideas, and the brilliant new star Janet Gaynor.

Their twin achievements are the two ultimate poles of silent cinema. The feminine Seventh Heaven reaches into the deep level of sorrow and despair that an unloved woman can experience, this love is depicted with a soft and friendly warmth. The sun never fails to shine, and our couple are always reunited at 11:00 am. Fox decided to release that one first, so that audiences would fall in love with Gaynor (and it’s impossible not to), before seeing what Murnau would do to her.

Because Sunrise is both a story of darkness and a story of masculinity. Gaynor is a perfect wife from the first frame, and we don’t need any closeups of her to know that. The tension of this movie lies entirely in the soul of George O’Brien’s husband, the man who sets out to murder his wife.

He doesn’t look like he even wants to kill her. He feels he must. It’s a dark unconscious compulsion that he must he venture into the moonlight to confront. For the couple to express their true love, to know themselves as lovers, as husband and wife, they must confront the dark side. She must know that he could kill her whenever he wants, and he must know that his power to kill her is the same power that will protect her from all harm. When she forgives him, he undergoes a second redemption, taking the oath of marriage along with the couple that they both watch, as if spectators watching a performance on the screen.

The superior man loves everyone, but this love must find its root in the love of his chosen woman. They wander the night in the artificial light of the Luna carnival and delight in each other. But the struggle is not yet over. There is an even greater challenge that O’Brien must confront – the darkness of that vast unknowable feminine of nature.

Most men can comfort themselves in the feeling that killing your wife is something only movie villains do, but the truth is that every time a man turns his heart away from his woman, in every moment he closes himself off because he cannot handle the power of her anger or despair, in each of those moments he is killing her. In every moment he must choose, whether to persevere in conquer the feminine and allow it to open into light.

After confronting his murderous desire and deciding once and for all that he must protect, honor, and serve his chosen woman, his masculine strength is put to a final test. He must reckon with Nature herself, the pure primordial feminine force, who has the power to take any of us at any time. A man must dedicate his life to his woman, knowing full well that she will one day die. And there he is – alone in his house, facing the empty bed, with the result he once desired. The moonlight boxes him in as he slumps before the broken rectangles of moonlight on the covers.

The happy ending does arrive shortly, as the bulrushes the man had planned to use to escape his wife end up saving her, but the brutal truth of the empty bed remains for me the true “end” shot. This movie is a celebration of life through the confronting of death. We all must die. You and everyone else. Yet in each moment of our life we have the opportunity to conquer nature, open the world, and allow light to shine.


35. 7th Heaven

7 heaven

May 6, 1927
Directed by Frank Borzage

Bob Smith, my first film history professor, told me that if you’ve never been in love, watch 7th Heaven, and you will know what it feels like.

I was seventeen and hadn’t been in love yet. It was a month before my best friend confessed her love for me, and three months before we started dating. Seventeen years later, we have now been married for twelve, and she remains the only woman I’ve loved.

The last three years have been the most difficult of our marriage. She graduated from college, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, tried several jobs but quit all of them in despair. Every job she takes makes her life so miserable that she would rather be dead than work. She is depressed and scared all the time, and our financial situation has deteriorated so that we are in six figures of debt and facing bankruptcy. If I only knew how to make enough money to take care of both of us, I would do it without question.

For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights – from the sewer to the stars – the ladder of Courage.

There’s no need for a modernist or psychoanalytic critique of a movie like this, which is simply and profoundly a love story. Love is the ultimate feminine goal, and this is a feminine film. A movie about love made for women, or for men who wish to understand the feminine.

Every man has trouble with his chosen woman, but where most women are able reduce their man to a quivering mess with their anger, it’s my wife’s sadness that collapses me. But each time I am overpowered, I am again challenged to be a more courageous man. To have the courage to face the world, make money, take care of my family, and have an open heart.

I recognize that same sadness in Janet Gaynor’s face.

Gaynor, who had mostly appeared in extra roles before this, delivers an extraordinary natural performance as Diane. Her face reveals the heart of the feminine, in the depths of despair, the heights of hope, and the fullness of love.

Chico saves Diane from her cruel older sister, but is unable to face her despair. As Chico rambles on about his dissatisfaction with life as a sewer rat, Diane lies in a heap of misery on the street. It is only when she attempts to kill herself with his knife that he sees her, grabs it from her, and tries to talk her out of being sad.

Yeah, that doesn’t work. But pity moves him to take her home to his seventh-floor apartment, complete with a huge window open to the Parisian night. Heaven.

Chico fearlessly crosses a plank stretched high above the streets to get some linens and a nightgown for Diane. Never look down. Always look up.

While he is out, we see Diane afraid once again, not of her sister or the police, but of the open bed she she sees in front of her. Hidden from the view of the window, Diane undresses in front of the camera, revealing her bare legs to the audience.

7th heaven

This is an obvious chance to talk about the male gaze – our budding starlet is undressing for the camera in a tight, furtive frame. But I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s an obvious truth that movies are made under the implicit assumption of a male viewer, a male audience, male characters, and that all representation of women is reduced to that of a passive object.

Her legs are lovely, but this movie was not made for male lust. Janet Gaynor is not a passive object that arrests the movement of the story. This is a movie about love and the feminine and Gaynor is the story. By contrast, the scenes with Chico and his male friends are always ridiculous, even those of the war.

The real narrative lies in the progression of close-ups of Gaynor, from despair to hope and now to a fear of being forced to give her body too soon to the first person she could trust. It’s this body she reveals to us, before hurrying into the bed and drawing the covers up to her chin.

When Chico returns, we watch him undress and Diane, from under her covers, watches along with us with fascination. Chico approaches the bed only to grab a pillow for himself and head into the other room. Diane (now clothed) sneaks over to see that he has made his own bed at a respectful distance, and she can barely contain her ebullience.

As the scene fades to black, we know their love is secure. In the second half of the movie, it only remains to face death, that all-consuming impersonal force that conspires to drive everyone apart. But Diane has already learned always to look up.

Things are darker than they’ve ever been, and I have no choice but to keep looking up. To find the courage not only to face the world in all its danger but to face the no less intimidating psyche of my woman, whose suffering I can only imagine, and make a place for us. A place that’s heaven.