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. 

34. Napoléon

April 7, 1927
Directed by Abel Gance

No, that’s not a picture of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. Let me explain.

This movie, running five hours long, relying heavily on French patriotism, and playing loose with history, was not easy to watch. Even without considering the triple-screen climax, Napoleon is not a movie that translates well to video. But just after the intermission, there is a fascinating moment of enunciation worth discussing.

The term “enunciation” refers to the moment in a narrative when the author of the work steps in and makes his presence known. This can be either through a stylistic device, signifying mark, or in a film, by the literal presence of the director on the screen.

Sometimes the enunciating act will simply remind the viewer that the film is not simply the product of her own dreaming libido,  but is actually a product of someone else’s imagination. Another effect can be to privilege one particular point of view within the story by identifying it with the point of view of the author.

Now remember that by “author”, I do not necessarily mean the literal person of the usually male director, who is in this case Abel Gance. A director himself has limited control over a million-dollar film-making enterprise, but neverless the concept of “author” is constructed for the viewer. This “author” is understood in the moment of enunciation when the idea is put into the viewer’s mind that she is watching a tale told by a distinct voice, by a creator who acts like a character both in and outside his own movie.

In this film, director Abel Gance takes the form of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, who is the youngest, most radical revolutionary in France. He originally fancied himself an author, but after his first book failed to have any literary impact, he decided to be the author of a nation instead. Now at the beginning of the second half of the movie, Maximilien Robespierre has taken control of the Committee of Public Safety and with that, the entire Republic. He accomplished this by executing the rival Hebertists, and Saint-Just has played the role of executioner.

We zip through the Terror and arrive at the final day before the Thermidorian Reaction: July 27, 1794. Instead of focusing on Robespierre’s last stand, which would be expected in a movie about the Revolution, we instead hear Saint-Just’s final impassioned speech, where he defends the Terror as the next necessary step in the Revolution and denounces anyone who would stand in the way of revolutionary progress.

By delivering Saint-Just’s speech, Gance makes himself the great villain who has thrown the Revolution into a chaos. Napoleon will need to swoop in and restore order without losing what has been gained by removing the monarch and creating a Republic. He enters his narrative to personally set up his main character with a conflict to solve.

But Gance’s speech is also directed to the viewer, for Gance is himself an artistic Saint-Just. For him cinema is the revolution of art which promises to change the way people saw, felt, and lived. As in 1794, the Revolution had only gotten started but was already facing  ruin. In early 1927 the Age of Sound was making its inexorable march toward the border. Gance gave his epic Napoleon everything he had, as he watched his ability to fulfill the promise of artistic genius sliced by the guillotine of commerce. In his Thermidor speech, he makes his defense of the Revolution directly to his audience, knowing it is his final chance. Because though Gance would continue to make movies for forty more years, and even complete one more segment of the Napoleon story, 1959’s Austerlitz, none of these movies would make good on the avant-garde promise of La Roue or Napoléon. The vision would remain unfulfilled, because the Revolution was over.


33. Metropolis

MetropolisJanuary 10, 1927
Directed by Fritz Lang

By 1926 there was only film industry that could pose a remote challenge to Hollywood, and that was Germany’s UFA. But even they could no longer keep up. They decided to throw in all of their chips on one big production. The next Fritz Lang/Thea von Harbou film was to be an American-size spectacle with the sophistication of European culture. For most of a year, an enormous crew labored under excruciating conditions and spent over 1,000,000 of the stable new Marks.

The result was a complete failure. The movie was too long, the characters’ motives were incoherent, and for an audience that had so recently been stirred by Bronenosets Potyomkin, the politics were laughable. UFA would not be given a second chance. They went into receivership and had to accept humiliating terms of defeat that meant they would never challenge American hegemony again.

By the time Siegfried Kracauer wrote his bold history of Weimar cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, Metropolis was assigned to the second tier of German movies. Metropolis made its great comeback in a drastically cut version circulated in the Video Age of the 1970s and 1980s.

The 2010 restoration presents a more coherent story, but this hardly matters, because Metropolis is so overwhelming in its diversity of images that the events of the story come at us like a dream. Each scene is so startling that we barely remember the previous one: the city with its tramlines crossing the spaces between skyscrapers; the gardens crowded by beautiful women in diaphanous gowns; the terrible power plant itself (das Kraftwerk) with its transformation into the all-devouring mouth of Moloch (the image that filled Allen Ginsberg with prophetic horror); the office (those suits!); and most of all, the laboratory.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Rotwang in his laboratory. Dr. Faustus had a study filled with books, a feudal laboratory, and stage adaptations of Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jeckyll explored the physical possibilities of a wealthy disturbed genius given a room of his own. But Rotwang is the first example of the modern archetype of the mad scientist, living in a feudal-style hut between the high-rises, that leads into a a vast multi-room chamber filled with scientific equipment.

This is the first science fiction film in the story since #1, and we will not see another one for the rest of the Silent Age. In 1927 science fiction was a marginal genre. Many dreams of the future have been published, but only in the past year has Amazing Stories began  publishing monthly issues of technological fantasies.  This may be hard to imagine now, thirty years after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg revealed science fiction as the essential genre of cinema, and perhaps the essential genre of modern storytelling. To ask a young person today to describe science fiction is to ask a fish to describe water.

Metropolis, with its visions of that medium revealing its essence. For the first time, a director with enough genius and tyranny has combined forces with a crew with enough talent and willingness to work and been given a budget colossal enough to make the project possible. But here it is. For the first time in the modern world, where man must learn to share the world with machines, the story has been told. The fish learn about water.

32. The General

The GeneralDecember 22, 1926
United Artists
Directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

In Seven Chances he was a man who couldn’t stop running. At first no one would talk to him, but as soon as he figured out what to do, no one would leave him alone. They were all after him. Every woman in the town, along with rocks of every size. The mechanisms of the entire world, animate and inanimate, all on his tail, and all he wanted was to find his place.

Well actually, he already has his little place, what he wants is more than that. Unlike Chaplin’s tramp, Keaton plays characters who have a place in society, but are determined to move up. Ascend the social hierarchy. Work the system. But working the social system is always more complicated than it looks, as more and more elements are drawn into the struggle, until our aspiring hero must contend with mastering the physical world itself.

In the General, where his beloved woman, played by Marion Mack, is kidnapped by a band of enemy soldiers hijacking his beloved steam locomotive engine, the mastery needed is speed. He must chase down, overtake, and win back his own engine (and lady). Though many of the death-courting stunts Buster plays on the tracks were thought of on the fly, the movie is perfectly symmetrical. He makes a series of mishaps while chasing the General north (to the left of the screen), and then perfectly executes the same actions escaping south (to the right). At the top and center of this cannonball arc is the moment when he must break his woman free from the Union headquarters. At this single moment of rest, he observes the woman through the cigarhole of the tablecloth. It’s a clear allusion to a camera’s aperture that simulates the cinematic gaze. Through the tablecloth hole, she is all he can can see, and he sees her while remaining unobserved. In this moment, her worth is made so clear and powerful that he can do nothing else but make every effort possible to get her back.

He does, and his daring success wins him the love of his woman and an army commission. He has found his place as a soldier, which is to say his function. For in the Newtonian world of mechanics that provides the ontological mythology of Capitalism, it is not what a something is that matters, only what it does. A man is the sum of his actions. This question of the value of man is the principal difference between Chaplin and Keaton. Charlie’s ethical position is rooted in the Catholic belief in the inherent value of a human despite his deplorable condition. His successes result from accidents and dei ex machinis. Buster is never given that grace. He must always remain industrious, propel himself forward, never at rest.

And it goes for his woman as well. For there was more than physical beauty in that image he stole from under the dining room table. Once rescued, it is she that removes the pin allowing the engine to detach from the train and escape the camp, and she who sets a rope trap that delays the pursuing train for a few seconds. And because it’s comedy, he takes it too far. Tasked with stoking the furnace, she rejects the ugly log with a hole in it and replaces it with dainty sliver. Buster throttles her for a second before remembering himself, and gives her a kiss instead. Their domestic harmony is assured.

31. Faust

Faust final

October 14, 1926
Directed by F.W. Murnau

Dr. Faustus was a real person who lived in the early 16th century, and he really did study the occult. In the decades after his death, in a climate of widespread witch-hunts and Lutheran terror, tales about his magical powers and associations with the Devil became legend. Christopher Marlowe’s play was the principal literary source for Goethe, who infused his 1808 play Faust, eine Tragödie with profound philosophical investigations. Goethe’s Faust turns to magic because he has spent his life in a quest for knowledge that has brought him nothing but alienation.

While there’s not a lot of philosophical conversation in the movie, there are plenty of cues to philosophical reflection in the viewer. Created as an expensive prestige picture, the movie is very slow, and you really need to relax and let it unfold at its own pace for it to be watchable. But as long as you don’t lose the story, there are spaces in the luminous sequences to get lost in contemplation of your own life. The themes are all heavy. Death. Aging. The religious path versus the world. The worth of knowledge, of beauty, of sex.

One of the joys of this film is its earthy depiction of a pre-industrial village culture, which here express the full joy and sorrow of being alive. The Easter Parade mirrored by a Burning at the Stake. A visit to the hedge-witch and then a visit to the ale-house. And most of all, the thrall of children’s play that mirrors the adult chase of courtship. Watching adults and children chase each other around, we are reminded of Alan Watts’ comment that Hide and Seek is the proper model for understanding reality. Hide and Seek is the fundamental human activity – it’s a game played in every culture, and infants begin to understand the world through games of peekaboo.

And this movie, this life, is one game of hide and seek. We chase each other, the devil chases us, and we chase him back. We chase after God. We chase after ourselves. The holy spirit is everywhere, but has hidden itself. Because we can’t see it, we pretend it’s not really there. We pretend that we’re not one with God, that isolation and damnation are possible, that we have ruined the lives that were given to us and that we are lost souls. We make believe that we are damned. And we’ve been doing this for so long that we’ve gotten quite good at it. For a hundred lives we seek. And when we find ourselves, when we find God, what is there to do but allow him to hide himself once more, and begin the search again.

Each time you close your eyes for longer, and he hides further away. And you look and look, and think, well maybe this time he did it. He really went away for good. It’s been so long since he was last here. Did it really happen? Am I inventing the memory? I’m alone here, and I always will be, and my body is failing me and I am rapidly approaching death. Forget these foolish notions of God and universal connection. Surely the Earth and power over it is the only thing. After all, you’re on your own, aren’t you? Better make a decision while you still can.

30. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed

Abenteuer.pngJuly 1926
Directed by Lotte Reiniger

According to Andre Bazin in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, photography is a medium whose magic is conjured by the camera’s ability to turn an object of our affection into an image by a mechanical process, as if the very hand of God has saved our beloved from annihilation by capturing her in permanent and holy form. What the Egyptians did with mummies in tombs, the photographer does with photosensitive film.

The cinema director takes these holy images and sets them into motion.

But now we have arrived at a movie that does not conform to this holy Bazinian sense. While this movie is a set of moving photographs, these are photographs of drawings – objects fashioned by a human hand that represent imagined things.

If we don’t think about the fundamental shift here, it’s because animation has now come to define the essential features of cinema today.  In its most immediate form, the cinema exists today as Netflix, a continuous stream of moving images which are for the most part not depictions of real events from the past, but pictures painted on to the screen. Computer-generated imagery has replaced Bazinian photography.

By 1926, animation had been used not just for making primitive cartoons, but also for making avant-garde films, shown in the context of modern art exhibitions. In the days when it wasn’t obvious that cinema would be used to make narratives out of moving photographs, these were both significant genres. Avant-garde cinema, one could say, was the expression of the various paths abandoned when cinema chose the Birth of a Nation as its model.

To my eyes, the most fascinating avant-garde filmmaker of the 1920’s is Walter Ruttmann, who composed a series of Lichtspiel films, where tinted shapes and pattern wash over the screen in dynamic movements of color and energy. The pleasure of these movies is in seeing the actual film – the actual colored light, as if watching an abstract painting where the colors can’t stop swirling and jutting about. As the Lichtspiel series progresses, the shading becomes more sophisticated – the colors gradually change, and the colors begin to flash in visual rhythms. The shapes that form now develop a symbolic power in addition to their rhythmic geometry. There is no human narrative for the brain to interpret, the movie is strictly for the eye to experience the pleasure of looking. To watch the Lichtspiel is to relearn how to look.

Ruttman was Lotte Reiniger’s principal collaborator on Achmed, and while he’s responsible for some of the most alluring visual effects – the hypnotic backgrounds – this is Reiniger’s film. I’ve written before on how women’s role in film history has not just been forgotten but deliberately erased. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed has found a strange space in the intersection of children’s culture, folk culture, and avant-garde culture where a woman can direct a masterpiece, a film that depicts events that are not really happening, yet are still real images that we can see. The film made at this crossroads was so undeniably great that it could no longer be forgotten or written off, although it has been watched and discussed less than most of the neighboring movies of this story. Achmed does not fit easily into any category we could attempt to assign to it. Many of her innovations were lately credited to the cultural glutton Walt Disney, whose movies as of 1926 are not even worth talking about here. The glowing print that we have today seems to have been saved, not by happy accident, but by a magical charm of protection. It would be quite appropriate if after a calamitous 21st century sends us into a dark age, this were the only silent film to survive.