Silent film

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Filming in the Edison Studios in New York, around 1908

Since the spread of the sound film in the 1920s, a film without a technically and mechanically prepared sound accompaniment has been referred to as silent film . The performance of such films was contemporary, almost without exception, at least musically accompanied. Silent films originated in Western Europe and the United States of America towards the end of the 19th century. The basis for the production and reproduction of the first silent films were inventions in the field of technology and photography (see the article on film history ).

In the early days of cinema , there was still no satisfactory way of recording and playing back sound and image in sync. The films were shown in front of an audience by orchestra, piano or pianola , gramophone and the like, depending on the location . a. accompanied or photo players were used. These were self-playing pianos with additional sound effects that could be triggered by hand.

Silent films were also told with inserted texts, the subtitles . Often a film counter or explainer accompanied the performance. Nevertheless, the majority of the plot and feelings had to be conveyed through the film images. For this reason, the acting of the actors in early films was mostly very physical. Actors' gestures and facial expressions, especially in dramas, often seem exaggerated from today's point of view. One advantage of the silent film is that it is universally understandable. The language of the actors does not matter, as it cannot be heard and subtitles can be translated into other languages ​​with little effort.


From the first film screenings to the first crisis (until 1908)

First film screenings

A pioneer of the moving image was the Chrono photographer Eadweard Muybridge . His series pictures The Horse in Motion from 1878 showed the exact sequence of movements of a galloping horse.

The first internationally known screening of a short film shot was the presentation of the Roundhay Garden Scene by Louis Le Prince , founder of the Leeds Technical School of Arts . The sequence of images of 2.11 seconds, presumably produced by himself on October 14, 1888, depicted four people walking - in the garden of his in-laws in Roundhay, a suburb of Leeds . Le Prince received a patent for his single-lens camera in 1888. He had developed them from 1886 in experiments that were inspired by his friend Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre .

On 20 May 1891, the inventor found Thomas Edison in the National Federation of Women's Club a Kinetographen ago. The first public demonstration took place on May 9, 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences .

The first cinema-like film screenings, i.e. film projections for a paying audience, took place in 1895: from May 20 in New York by the Latham family (father Woodville Latham and sons Otway and Gray), from November 1 in the Berlin "Wintergarten" as the final number one Variety program by the Skladanowsky brothers and - with the greatest influence on cinema history - from December 28th in Paris by the Lumière brothers .

The invented by the brothers Lumiere Cinématographe was simultaneously in the film by means of a recording, copying and playback perforation on gripping teeth before the lens is guided along. The first presentation of film equipment and material did not take place in public: On March 22, 1895 , the Lumière brothers showed their film Workers Leave the Lumière Works to a select audience from the upper classes of society. France's first public commercial presentation followed on December 28, 1895: the Lumières screened ten of their short films in the Paris “Grand Café”.

The films that were shown in the early days of silent film were mostly only a few seconds long and showed unspectacular scenes from everyday life, but sometimes also played joke scenes. At first they were fascinating because of their sheer technical feasibility. The interest in more extensive staging grew only years later.

The first years

In the early years of the film, the short strips were shown as part of revues in variety theaters and were primarily reserved for the middle class. The Lumière brothers did big business lending their cinematographers to showmen around the world. When they could no longer meet the increasing demand for film projectors, they sold the patent for device manufacturing to the Pathé Frères company in 1905. This resulted in the Pathé industriel professional camera , which came out in 1908.

Since the Lumière brothers saw film only as a supplement to photography - they spoke of “living photography” - they limited their work to documenting real events . In these films, the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II was documented as well as the feeding of a baby ( baby breakfast ) or the arrival of a train ( L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat ) . An exception is their humorous film L'arroseur arrosé , in which they filmed a recreated scene for the first time.

The French illusionist and theater owner Georges Méliès was the first to recognize the narrative potential of the young medium and to shoot exclusively staged films. Méliès found film tricks to implement his largely fantastic subjects and scenes, e. B. the stop trick that is still used today. With The Journey to the Moon , Méliès succeeded in an early masterpiece in 1902, which was made entirely with special effects. This film is often referred to as the first significant example of the science fiction film genre .

But Méliès felt strongly committed to the rules of the theater, and so his cinematic visual vocabulary remained largely on one setting, the long shot. This corresponds to the scene field that a theater audience sees from the stage. Méliès made this “style” a common practice with the help of its immense film output and worldwide marketing.

The first known film to break this rule ( The Little Doctor , 1902, by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper ) came into circulation by the British George Albert Smith . For the first time you saw a close-up of a cat, which laid the foundation for cinematic storytelling. With a change of perspective, variation of the image size and the montage that brings this change into a rhythm, a film language developed in the following years .

The 12-minute film The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter is viewed as groundbreaking for the narrative film . In this first western , a train robbery is described from the execution to the escape to the showdown.

Interest in the new medium of film increased immensely, so that a new market idea arose: the establishment of stationary cinemas. The falling prices for demonstration equipment also tempted entrepreneurs to open cinemas - so-called Kintöppe (Germany) and Nickelodeons (USA). With the establishment of the first permanent cinemas, the demand for new film recordings also increased. Up until now, the recordings of the various showmen and film entrepreneurs were rarely changed, as new, astonished audiences could be found in every city, innovation was in demand with the first cinemas. The films received action. The mostly comical skits or one-act plays grew in the 1900s to a length of up to fifteen minutes, which corresponded to the maximum length of a film role ( one-reeler ).

The film production company Biograph Company was founded in the USA as early as 1895 . It was there that DW Griffith made his directorial debut on The Adventures of Dollie . The leading film production companies, however, were the French Pathé Frères and Gaumont , who discovered the economic possibilities of film before the turn of the century and supplied the whole world with new short films. From around 1900, however, the first film companies were established in several other countries - the international exchange of films began to flourish and the first film distributors were set up in order to be able to supply the rapidly growing number of cinemas with films at affordable prices. Cinema thus became a popular amusement for the broad masses. In the US, the entrance fee was initially only five cents (one nickel , hence the term Nickelodeon). You sat together in the dark and finally got a glimpse into the world of the rich and beautiful, from which you had previously been excluded.

First crisis and its consequences for film art

In 1907/1908 there was a crisis in the film business for the first time. The number of visitors fell because the often less imaginative and short productions lost their attractiveness. For the first time one dealt with film theory and film language. France responded to this by orienting itself towards contemporary literary models. The productions became longer and now dealt with more complex stories. This French innovation was called " Film d'Art " and was copied in many countries around the world. In German-speaking countries, German-language literature was used as a guide - especially folk plays . Formally, the theater was oriented towards the theater so that the specific strengths of the film medium did not come into play. Artistically it was a dead end, but it was possible to expand the audience by hiring well-known authors. The Viennese art film industry already made reference to such films in its company name. From now on, amateur actors and acquaintances of the film producers were replaced by professional actors, who often came from the theater and earned an additional income as film actors. At first hardly anyone was able to finance a life from film acting alone. One of the first to be able to do this, however, was the Danish actress Asta Nielsen , who gained fame with the Danish films that were widely circulated around the world at the time and who became probably the first female film star. Until 1914, large theaters in German-speaking countries forbade their actors to participate in films, as the cinema represented competition for the theater. The actors Paul Wegener ( The Student of Prague ) and Albert Bassermann ( The Other ) as well as the director Max Reinhardt ( The Island of the Blessed ) were among the first theater personalities to break this spell with artistically ambitious film productions in 1912/1913 .

In Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries as well as France, film was already a recognized art form at that time. This was different in the German-speaking area. The educated bourgeoisie was hostile to the cinema. On the one hand, the new medium questioned traditional notions of art (idealism); on the other hand, it was tailored to the needs of the proletariat and sub-proletariat. The early cinema was a lower-class pleasure with latently anarchist-subversive features. Because the films openly showed the break with moral and moral conventions, the critics feared an "overstimulation of the soul" in the proletariat, which could lead to an uprising against the state and authorities. This line of argument lived on for a long time in the German cinema reform movement and was resumed slightly changed by media education after the Second World War .

It was not until the mid-1920s that other sections of the population gave up their reservations about the cinema, now mainly employees were to be found in the cinema audience. In addition, the state censorship agencies often had socially critical or "disreputable" scenes cut out. The German-language film got its decisive impulses in its early phase from comedic traveling troupes, the cabaret, the boulevard and smear theater . Here they knew how to work out pieces and create tension. The first film amusements were influenced by Schwank and operettas. Henny Porten became the first German film star . In Austria it was Liane Haid .

In the years that followed, filmmakers gradually explored the possibilities of film. Backdrops and decorations became more elaborate, the actions more complex, and the technical demands increased, especially with regard to the lighting. This made filmmaking more expensive, and only very few could afford expensive technical equipment. Private filmmakers therefore had fewer and fewer opportunities on the film market, and the director no longer had sole responsibility for the films.

Between the first crisis and the first world war (1908 to 1918)

Emergence of the US film industry

In the United States, the film industry exploded as moviegoers hunger for new films was insatiable. In 1909, film was already "big business"; in the USA the industry was expanding by 25 million dollars a year. Due to huge demand, the largest film distributor founded under the leadership of Thomas Alva Edison , the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), in order to keep their market shares. They assumed that the technical equipment was the ground on which the film business was built. Together they held 16 patents on recording and demonstration devices. At the same time they signed an exclusive contract with Eastman Kodak , then practically the only supplier of film material. In addition, they used a special licensing system to put pressure on cinema operators to only show films from their production if possible. The MPPC consciously wanted to establish a monopoly.

To build this monopoly, the MPPC sabotaged independent film productions in the United States through organized gangs supported by police and sheriffs. Cinemas have been demolished, actors beaten up and equipment confiscated. The independent producers under the leadership of Carl Laemmle nevertheless tried to realize their projects. The shooting was protected by gunmen. Sometimes the entire set was shot at a different location every day. Most of the American film industry at the time was based in New York , where the scenes described above also took place. In the following years the power of the MPPC began to crumble and independent producers were also able to operate successfully, until finally the Supreme Court of the United States took action against the monopoly of the MPPC and dissolved it.

From 1910 onwards, various filmmakers settled in Hollywood , including Carl Laemmle, William Fox , Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor , and laid the foundation for what would later become the dream factory. Laemmle, the leader of the independent film producers, founded the first major film studio in Hollywood: Universal Pictures . The reason for choosing California was, on the one hand, the great distance from the industry's turf wars on the east coast, and on the other hand, the sunny weather: Due to the relatively light-insensitive film material and the state of the art of lighting technology at the time, daylight was the most important source of lighting during the shoot. Only a few months after Universal Studios was founded, Keystone Studios was launched under the leadership of slapstick specialist Mack Sennett , followed by a number of other film companies.

First monumental films

The "art of storytelling" was perfected outside of the United States in the 1910s. In Italy, from 1912 onwards, new standards were set in terms of production costs. A number of film adaptations of classics from literary history were made, such as The Fall of Troy , The Three Musketeers , Faust , The Sack of Rome , Macbeth , Cabiria (1914) and Quo Vadis? (1913), in which elaborate sets and costumes as well as crowd scenes with thousands of extras were used. The most successful of these films was Quo Vadis? , which before the First World War was “considered the greatest masterpiece in the world; Introduced to England and America in 1913, it brought huge profits to everyone involved ”. After no one had previously dared to produce such productions, which were complex in every respect, the success of Italian production has now spurred other countries to produce such monumental productions. The USA was the most successful, where DW Griffith made films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), which are considered milestones in film history, during the First World War .

In the first World War

During the First World War , the Central Powers , above all Germany and Austria, largely isolated themselves from film imports from the now partly hostile film nations, above all France. As a result, the domestic film industry experienced a strong upswing, at least in the domestic market, which could also be carried over into the economically difficult post-war period. The linking of the film scenes of the neighboring countries Austria and Germany, allied in the war, also began here. The strengthened German film industry around its capital Berlin became the workplace of numerous Austrian filmmakers after the World War. But also German actors and directors often worked in film studios in the Austrian capital Vienna over the next two or three decades.

With the First World War, the film also had a further function: that of propaganda . As early as September 1914, the Viennese art film industry reported enthusiastically about events at the front in its war journal . In 1915 a film exposition was set up in the kuk war press quarter , the management of which was taken over by the most important Austrian producer of those years, Sascha Kolowrat-Krakowsky . More embellished war newsreels and numerous propaganda films such as Mit Herz und Hand fürs Vaterland with the star of Austrian films, Liane Haid, were made . In Germany one also soon recognized the war-enhancing possibilities of film. The Deulig , founded at the end of 1916, was intended to arouse sympathy for Germany abroad, and with the Image and Film Office (BUFA), a central body for controlling propaganda film production was also created here in early 1917. This was followed by the centralization of German film production, for the purpose of which the UFA was founded towards the end of the war . After the war it developed into one of the world's most important film production facilities in the 1920s. But Germany's opponents also knew how to use the film as a propaganda tool. In the United States, for example, The Battle Cry of Peace (1915) promoted entry into the war.

After the First World War until the Second Crisis (1918 to 1926)

America's rise to become the world's greatest film nation

Before the First World War , France was the most important film producer in the world, because until 1914 more films were made there than in the USA. French companies had focused on expansion right from the start and had sales offices and cinemas across Europe. The war isolated the film industries of the two alliance systems from each other and claimed raw materials that were also necessary for film production, which meant a severe setback for the internationally oriented and productive France. For other countries, such as Austria or Germany, the First World War meant getting rid of the previously strong foreign competition. Domestic film producers literally flourished. The quality of the productions did not increase in the same proportion as the number of productions. In the early 1920s this turned out to be fatal, as the rapidly expanding US film industry, which was economically much better organized than European companies, now posed threatening competition for European film.

Slapstick comedies were very popular with audiences right from the start, the most famous representative of which, Charlie Chaplin, had great success with short skits as early as the 1910s. With The Kid (1921) he made his first full-length film, which was followed by a number of masterpieces in the 1920s ( e.g. Gold Rush ). Also Buster Keaton was a star of slapstick and famous for its motionless facial expressions. His most important works include Der General (1926) and Steamboat Bill junior (1928).

In order to enable filmmakers to participate more in the economic success of their films, the United Artists of Charlie Chaplin , Mary Pickford , Douglas Fairbanks senior, initially only active as a distribution company, but later also as a production company . and DW Griffith founded.

Avant-garde filmmaking

In Europe there was a special interest in artful film from the 1910s. From this, the silent film avant-garde developed step by step . Some particularly distinctive styles are described below.

In France, the film experienced a heyday with artistic approaches that were initially based on impressionism , but later tended more towards surrealism . Artists such as Luis Buñuel or Jean Cocteau shaped this style with films such as An Andalusian Dog (1929).

The Russian avant-garde counts artists like Sergej Eisenstein in their ranks, who had a decisive influence on the film montage . His most famous film Battleship Potemkin (1925) tells of an uprising on the ship of the same name and the confrontation of the mutineers with the Russian army in Odessa. Some scenes from the film, including the staircase scene in Odessa, are among the most cited in film history.

The Russian Dsiga Wertow, on the other hand, was a representative of the so-called absolute film , through which a universal film language without linguistic barriers was propagated. His most famous work is The Man with the Camera (1929), a multi-layered image of a Russian city through the eye of a cameraman.

The expressionist film

The German and Austrian film of this time developed a special aesthetic that was based on expressionist painting . As the first expressionist film applies The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene , whose elements of expressionist film aesthetics range from the somnambulistic characters and shadow paintings to the acute-angled distorted backdrops. Further representatives of this style are the horror film Nosferatu, a symphony of horror (1922) by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924) by Paul Leni . Important expressionist works also came from Austria, where research into silent film heritage began late, which is why many areas of film studies could not be adequately processed. Reliable evidence for the integration of expressionist style elements in Austrian films is Robert Wiene's Orlac's hands (1924) and Hans Karl Breslauer's Die Stadt ohne Juden (1924). The epoch culminated in the film Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang , which was also one of the first groundbreaking science fiction films .

European film crisis caused by the emerging US film industry

European silent film experienced its worst crisis in the mid-1920s. The consequences can still be felt today: the dependence of European film producers on film funding and the almost global dominance of the US film industry. The cause of this development was primarily the First World War, which withdrew capital from Europe and directed it to the USA, which had a corresponding effect on the financial strength of film producers. However, the American film industry would not have become the world's dominant film nation if it had not built up film as a highly economic branch of industry from the start. The European film landscape remained small, not least due to the reluctance of the financiers. Apart from Universum Film (UFA) in Germany, there were no large, vertically integrated film groups that could have been compared to the American ones. The resulting financial weakness prevented the continuous production of lavish, first-class, star-studded films at competitive prices. The fact that this was possible for the American film companies was due to the fact that they were able to bring in the production costs of their films, which were tailored to the mass taste, thanks to enormous advertising and the use of all known marketing instruments in the USA. Few independent producers like Charlie Chaplin dared to make films that would meet their own artistic standards. In order to be successful, however, they too had to seek the taste of the masses.

Since the US film industry was already able to show an annual output of 800 or more films by the mid-1920s, which represented almost 90 percent of global film production and significantly exceeded the total annual film demand of most European countries, this not only meant an increasing displacement of European productions from the European, but also from the world market. This in turn resulted in the decline of numerous European film producers. The British , French and Italian film industries were the first to nearly grind to a halt. In Great Britain the low point was reached in “black November” 1924, when not a single film was in production. Other large film producers at the time, such as Austria and Denmark , were hit particularly hard - their film industry never again achieved as great international importance as before. Germany, on the other hand, was largely able to prevent this crisis, as the large UFA group had been created by the state in 1917 and the German contingent law had severely restricted the import of foreign films since the early 1920s , so that around 50 percent of all films shown in Germany came from Germany. Japan successfully protected its film industry with a similar quota law, and many other countries introduced film quotas as well .

To consolidate their supremacy, the US film producers and distributors also used business practices that went beyond the limits of legality, such as the “ block system ” that was supposed to force cinema owners to buy all of the company's films. If a cinema owner refused to “blindly book” an entire annual program, he was also not allowed to play the “ blockbusters ” of the respective film company, which of course would have been an enormous competitive disadvantage, since such films attracted the most audiences. This business practice was only gradually banned by the European states: in Germany at the same time with the contingent law in the early 1920s, in England only in 1927 with the introduction of the Quotabill . Every cinema owner now had the right to see every film in advance before buying it.

Almost all over Europe, filmmakers and filmmakers called for political intervention. In most countries there were laws by 1926 and 1927 that restricted the importation of American productions, or foreign productions in general: import restrictions, tariffs or subsidies for domestic producers.

The crisis in the European film industry prompted the British film producer and publicist L'Estrange Fawcett to focus on the Hollywood film industry in his film-theoretical work “The World of Films”, first published in 1927, in order to “pound the European film production, which the American film trusts had pushed into a difficult struggle for existence to draw attention to the advantages and shortcomings of those great undertakings so that they can draw inspiration and benefit from them in building up the domestic industry. The peculiar structure of the American film industry will offer us welcome lessons right now, at a time when many countries in Europe are beginning to revive their film industries, which have been displaced in recent years by overly strong competitors, with state or legislative aid. ”He also mentioned he on the reasons why American film was able to plunge European film into crisis: “In Europe film has always been treated as a business of inferior quality; Some of them earned money in the process, most of them lost it, and if you come to a European capitalist with a film project today, he is suspicious from the start. From the very beginning, however, Americans have seen film as 'big business' that needs to be monitored and managed as thoroughly as any other business in Wall Street. Hence the exploitation of all possibilities, the unification of production and sales in one hand, the enormous increase in cinema operations. "

Transition from silent films to talkies (1927 to 1936)

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, silent film was replaced by sound film - also known as "talkie" or "speaking film". The optical sound method prevailed, in which the sound track was also on the film tape. The transition period lasted around ten years worldwide. In China in particular, the films that are now considered the country's silent film classics were made in the 1930s. One of the last American silent film productions was the two-color technicolor film Legong: Dance of the Virgins, shot in Bali in 1935 . From an artistic point of view, the silent film had reached its peak from the mid-1920s. Since then, Hollywood has been the magnet for international specialists, and since there were no language barriers in silent film, a very fruitful interaction between individual creativity and technical know-how could develop. Directors such as Victor Sjöström , Mauritz Stiller , Jacques Feyder , Ernst Lubitsch , Paul Leni , Josef von Sternberg , Erich von Stroheim , Harrie d'Abbadie d'Arrast and Maurice Tourneur achieved successful careers. The same was true of the actors who worked in Hollywood. Sufficient examples are: Vilma Bánky from Hungary, Greta Garbo , Lars Hanson and Nils Asther from Sweden, Camilla Horn and Emil Jannings from Germany, Pola Negri from Poland, Alla Nazimova from Russia and Ramón Novarro from Mexico. There were so many foreign stars at the time that the national film press in the US was already publishing xenophobic articles warning of foreign industry infiltration.

Films such as Hotel Imperial by Mauritz Stiller from 1927 or Es geht something in Hollywood , a comedy with Marion Davies from 1928, impressed with a high level of dramaturgical density and sophisticated presentation technology that the sound film could only achieve many years later. Interestingly, the silent film adaptations of popular operettas were box office magnets in those years, starting with The Merry Widow , directed by Erich von Stroheim, through to The Student Prince by Ernst Lubitsch. Apparently the audience didn't particularly miss the dialogue. The reasons for the introduction of the sound were therefore mainly of an economic nature. The number of viewers has stagnated with around 55 million viewers weekly since 1926 at a medium level. Radio, where very popular shows, radio plays and sports reports attracted an audience of millions, increasingly became the greatest competition.

The Warner Brothers studio had been producing sound-assisted films together with the Western Electric company under the name "Vitaphone" since the mid-1920s. The film Don Juan , which premiered on August 6, 1926, starring the very popular Broadway actor John Barrymore , was a great success. In these early works, the sound track ran in parallel on a different medium, often on record-like matrices - the so-called needle - tone process . Encouraged by the successes, Warner Brothers brought more sound films to theaters. The innovation was the integral importance of the dialogue for the plot. Whereas in the previous works mostly only monologues could be heard, the audience could now follow real conversations between the actors. The official start of the sound film era is October 6, 1927, when The Jazzsinger premiered. However, the spoken parts only make up a quarter of the total running time of the film.

The audience was very impressed by the innovation, and the Warner brothers used the curiosity to produce more dialogue-supported films. Thanks to the strong audience, the studio became the most profitable company in the film industry for a while and in mid-1928 produced Lights of New York, the first film to be made entirely of dialogues. Warner Brothers quickly faced competition from William Fox , the most powerful man in the film business at the time. He was about to take over the newly formed MGM film company and recognized the potential that lay in the innovation of the sound film. Fox relied on a more promising sound system than Warner. It synchronized the sound track with the film track in a complicated process - the optical sound system , developed by a group around Hans Vogt , whose patents William Fox bought. Some of the other studios hesitated for a long time before they also dared to invest in the necessary technical equipment. Irving Thalberg , head of production at MGM, was particularly skeptical about the future of the innovation. It was not until mid-1928, when the New York financiers of the major studios had decided to use sound films, that MGM also began producing sound films. It was the sound engineer Douglas Shearer , brother of Hollywood star Norma Shearer , who perfected the optical sound process in which the sound track is copied onto the film track. With the slogan All Talking, All Dancing, All Singing The Broadway Melody was advertised in 1929 , which presented the new method for the first time. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year as the second film and established the leading actress Bessie Love as the first singing star of the new era.

For a while, so-called “hybrid films” existed that only featured dialogue passages or sound effects. The studios occasionally re-released established strips that were provided with additional sound effects. Some of the better-known examples include Luck in the Attic , The Patriot, and The Wedding March . In addition, a silent version of the film was produced for the cinemas that had not yet been converted to sound films. The first film for which this was no longer made was Wise Girls from 1929. After MGM had also opted for the sound film, the last pure silent film from American production was made in late 1929 with The Kiss there. The primitive recording technology made it necessary for the actors to stand completely still during their dialogues and to speak into the mostly roughly concealed microphone - the microphones were hidden in or behind all kinds of decorative objects. Therefore, most of the early sound films appear extremely static and the actors strained and immobile. It was not until 1929 that the sound film could begin to approach the high artistic level that the silent film had achieved in recent years. Important innovations on the way to a new, integrative treatment of tone for the drama of the plot were works such as Applause by Rouben Mamoulian , Liebesparade and Monte Carlo by Ernst Lubitsch and In Old Arizona by Irving Cummings , the first large-scale production outside the studio, so to speak was produced outdoors.

The sound film gave Hollywood a dramatic increase in viewership from 55 million weekly in 1927 to 155 million weekly in 1930, and studio profits increased accordingly. In 1930, when talkie craze , the audience's run on dialogue films, peaked, Paramount made over 18 million, the highest profit a studio had ever made. MGM was able to generate over 16 million in profit. It was only in 1946/1947 that comparable figures could be achieved again. The innovation naturally also brought new genres with it. Court dramas, crime stories and salon comedies full of dialogues were particularly popular in the beginning. The musical was also able to develop from the first revue films - in Europe the operetta films were made in parallel, which, in connection with the historical ambience of Vienna during the imperial era, resulted in an even more specialized genre: the Viennese film .

The transition to the new medium caused great difficulties for some artists in the USA. Foreign stars in particular, some of whom spoke with a heavy accent or spoke no English at all, had problems maintaining their status. Some of the better known victims included:

  • Pola Negri , whose career had steadily declined since 1925. In 1932 she attempted a sound film comeback with the flick A Woman Commands , but the audience did not accept her accent, which the studio euphemistically described as "piquant".
  • Vilma Bánky , a very popular Hungarian, whose pronunciation one critic described as "a strange mix of Budapest and Chicago".
  • Emil Jannings , who won the first Oscar for best actor, but surrendered to the challenge of the talkie and went back to Germany.
  • Norma Talmadge proved that a heavy Brooklyn accent could be a hindrance. Her sister Constance Talmadge stopped making sound films at all.

No rule without exception: Greta Garbo experienced an increase in popularity thanks to the sound film. She only used the studio in early 1930 as a Swede in Anna Christie and at the same time advertised with the slogan "Garbo talks!". Also Ramon Novarro and Dolores del Rio managed the successful change to the new profession.

A number of stars who were already popular in the days of the silent film were able to assert themselves at least until the middle of the decade. So Joan Crawford , Gary Cooper , Wallace Beery , Marie Dressler , Janet Gaynor , Bebe Daniels and Norma Shearer became even more popular. Some actors became popular precisely because of their accent. Maurice Chevalier rose to become Paramount's biggest star in 1929 after making a number of successful musicals. A year later, Marlene Dietrich proved that the ability to speak English was only one aspect of professional success. However, the winners of the sound film were primarily actors who had a certain stage and speaking experience. George Arliss , John Barrymore and Ronald Colman were already popular in the silent film era and were able to convince with their clear diction. In addition, there was a whole caravan of Broadway mimes who moved west from 1929 and became very popular there: Ruth Chatterton , Fredric March , Nancy Carroll , Ann Harding , Barbara Stanwyck , Tallulah Bankhead , to name just a few.

Many careers ended slowly, as the switch to sound film also resulted in new preferences in the public's taste. William Haines , Mary Pickford , Corinne Griffith , Gloria Swanson , Lila Lee , Laura La Plante , John Gilbert , Marion Davies , Betty Compson , Richard Dix, and Clara Bow were some names that, while clearing the microphone hurdle well, were gradually gaining in attraction lost at the box office. This becomes particularly clear in the example of Colleen Moore , who created the image of the flapper girl with the film Flaming Youth in 1923 and produced one of the biggest hits of the year in 1928 with the strip Lilac Times . She had a pleasant voice, could dance reasonably well and shot a few musicals in 1929, but the tastes of the audience had already changed to their disadvantage. Flappers were a thing of the past and Miss Moore temporarily withdrew into private life in 1930. Some actors made their sound film debuts very late. Lon Chaney only made his first and last film in 1930. Lillian Gish also premiered in 1930 in speaking films. Charles Chaplin even waited until 1940.

Hollywood presented the silent film era as early as 1939 in the film Hollywood Cavalcade with Don Ameche and Alice Faye as a bygone era that could at best be used as a background for comedies. A particularly funny parody of the panic that hit Hollywood at the time is the film Singin 'in the Rain from 1952. Especially the role of Jean Hagen as a spirited star is strongly based on the character of Norma Talmadge .


The first female feature film director in film history was the Frenchwoman Alice Guy-Blaché , who shot La Fée aux Choux in 1896 .

The most influential and successful American silent film director was DW Griffith . His most important works are Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation , the latter being controversial because of its relatively uncritical glorification of the Ku Klux Klan . From a technical and stylistic point of view, however, his films are considered early masterpieces of cinema. In 1919 Griffith was one of the founders of the United Artists . The best-known silent films for the US film distribution were Far in the East and Two Orphans in the Storm .

In Europe, the Russian director Sergej Eisenstein was very influential and well-known, especially for his silent film Battleship Potemkin . He caused a stir with his new editing technique and has shaped the language of film to this day. The so-called Odessa sequence in particular is legendary and has been quoted and parodied many times. Eisenstein coined the film aesthetic term “montage”. The two German directors Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau ( Sunrise - a song by two people , Faust - a German folk tale ) and Fritz Lang ( Metropolis , Dr. Mabuse ) set their sights on expressionism, camera work ( The Last Man ) and the play with light and shadow ( Nosferatu - A Symphony of Horror ) Standards.

Alfred Hitchcock began his career in London as a draftsman for subtitles and assistant director. Between 1925 and 1929 he made nine of his own silent films as a director, including the most famous The Tenant .

Important film companies of the silent film era

In the years after the First World War, the global film market increasingly came under American dominance. Even then, the large American film companies mostly had their own distribution systems and entire cinema chains.

The biggest film producers towards the end of the silent film era were:

  1. Paramount Famous-Lasky , USA: around 80 films annually, own distribution through more than 200 branches worldwide, 500 own cinemas
  2. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer , USA: own sales, around 400 own cinemas
  3. United Artists , USA: originally purely selling productions of its members, also a film producer, owns numerous cinemas
  4. First National , USA: also emerged from the sales organization, connection with the Stanley cinema group (300 cinemas)
  5. Universal Pictures Corporation , USA: own sales, 200 own cinemas, production branch in Berlin
  6. Fox , USA: own distribution, 356 own cinemas, connection with Finkelstein-Rubin-Gruppe (150 cinemas)

Other major film producers were:

Sound in the silent movie era

The first experimental sound film was made in 1894 or 1895 by William KL Dickson , a technician from Thomas Alva Edison . If there was a need to explain actions, film explanations were used unsystematically until 1908, after which mostly text panels with explanatory subtitles . In Japanese cinemas from around 1908 there were one or more benshi who explained the films and spoke all the roles live during the screening. Music was played with all silent films , either in the form of a score written for the film or as improvisation by a musician. Mostly the piano was played. Piano players in the cinemas were also called tappeurs . The scope and quality of the musical accompaniment depended on the cinema. For gala events and premieres of large, lavish films, which were gradually made from the mid-1910s, entire orchestras were sometimes hired to accompany them. Some cinemas had specially constructed cinema organs that also enabled sound effects. As Germany's most tester silent film pianist applies Willy Sommerfeld , in Austria's Gerhard Gruber the most important silent film accompanist at the piano.

From the very beginning of film projection, there was a desire to equip the silent films with sound. Newspaper reviews of the first film screenings clearly expressed the lack of silent images, despite all the admiration for the “living photography”. For the first film screenings z. B. in East Friesland , the traveling cinema pioneer played military music as background music using the phonograph . From 1904 onwards, the traveling cinemas performed the so-called “sound images” at the annual fairs using the needle-tone process , with records specially produced for the films . These sound images were able to remain in the program of every cinema until the early days of the first shop cinemas. The quality was poor and the records almost never ran in sync with the images; for the longer films that were customary from around 1915 on, the records of that time also had a running time that was far too short, so that the “sound images” soon disappeared again.

"Modern silent films"

Even after the introduction of the sound film, films were made whose plot is conveyed in whole or in part without a spoken word. These films are not actually silent films. Unlike real silent films, this is not the consequence of the lack of a soundtrack (a technical aspect), but the artistic means of using secondary features typical of silent films such as black and white films , subtitles and pantomime elements .

Charles Chaplin was one of the first artists who continued to rely on silent film as a means of artistic expression, even after the introduction of talkies. This is how films such as City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) were made. In the 1970s , Mel Brooks staged the film Silent Movie, a homage to silent films. More recently, some filmmakers have returned to using silent film as a means of artistic expression. In 1995 the film Die Gebrüder Skladanowsky by Wim Wenders, conceived as a homage , and in 1999 the film Juha by Aki Kaurismäki were made . In the 21st century, The Call of Cthulhu (2005) by Andrew Leman , Franka Potente's film Digging Up the Belladonna from 2006 and The Artist (2011) by Michel Hazanavicius will follow . In 2012 Jonas Grosch used the silent film for the first time for a documentary film with A Silent Rockumentary . What these films have in common is their specific reference to the transition phase from silent film to sound film, in addition to the use of some stylistic devices of the silent film.

Research into silent film

Experts estimate that 80 to 90 percent of all silent films are irretrievably lost. This is mainly due to the film material cellulose nitrate used at the time , which tends to decompose and ignite after long storage.

In the 1920s, nitrate films were systematically destroyed in the USA in order to extract silver. In addition, there was decades of disinterest in productions before the First World War. The early films were considered "primitive". Only with a meeting of the FIFG in 1978 did a rethink slowly begin.

The search for lost films is very difficult. For decades, film historians searched for a copy of the long-lost Greta Garbo film The Divine Woman . In the end, a ten-minute fragment was found in the Moscow archives, which was shown again in the New York Film Institute.

Conservation and availability

The vast majority of silent films produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are considered lost ; According to a report by the United States Library of Congress , in September 2013 this was around 70 percent of all American films produced between 1912 and 1929.

Numerous silent films have been made available on DVD in recent years . The original film music (if there was a separate composition for the film) was often re-recorded by well-known contemporary artists; films without their own music often made use of contemporary reports on the music played for a performance. A problem for the transfer on DVD, however, is the fact that many silent films were not yet designed for the current playback speed of 24 frames per second, but instead used fewer images. Since these lower speeds are not provided for in the DVD standard, such films have to be extrapolated to the higher image speed, which is expensive and with loss of quality.

In addition to the silent film offer in cinemas are also the silent film dedicated film festivals and events such as CineFest - International Festival of German Film Heritage , Hamburg - Berlin - Vienna - Zurich, organized by CineGraph and Federal Film Archives , the International Silent Film Festival in Bonn, the StummFilmMusikTage Erlangen or the Kino Kabaret , which shows historical and contemporary silent films in traditional performances with musicians. The internationally most important silent film festival is Le Giornate del Cinema Muto , which is held every year in Pordenone .



  • Herbert Birett : The range of films in Germany 1895–1911 . Filmbuchverlag Winterberg, Munich 1991, ISBN 3-921612-10-1 .
  • Herbert Birett : Light plays. The cinema in Germany until 1914 . Q-Verlag, Munich 1994.
  • Kevin Brownlow : pioneers of film. From silent films to Hollywood (OT: The Parade's Gone By ... ). Series of publications by the German Film Museum in Frankfurt am Main. Stroemfeld, Basel / Frankfurt am Main 1997, ISBN 3-87877-386-2 .
  • Kevin Brownlow: Behind the mask of innocence. Sex, violence, prejudice, crime; films of social conscience in the silent era. Knopf, New York 1990, ISBN 0-394-57747-7 .
  • Hans-Michael Bock , Michael Töteberg (Ed. In collaboration with CineGraph ): The Ufa book. Art and crises, stars and directors, business and politics. Zweiausendeins, Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-86150-065-5 .
  • Ilona Brennicke, Joe Hembus : Classics of the German silent film. 1910-1930 . Citadel movie books . Goldmann, Munich 1983, ISBN 3-442-10212-X .
  • Rainer Fabich : Music for the silent film . Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1993, ISBN 3-631-45391-4 .
  • Heinz-B. Heller: Literary Intelligence and Film. On the changes in aesthetic theory and practice under the impression of the film 1910–1930 in Germany. Tübingen 1985, ISBN 3-484-34015-0 .
  • Detlef Hoffmann , Jens Thiele: Light images, light plays. Beginnings of photography and cinema in East Frisia. Jonas-Verlag, Marburg 1989, ISBN 3-922561-84-5 .
  • Gabriele Jatho, Rainer Rother (Ed.): City Girls. Images of women in silent films. Bertz + Fischer, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-86505-177-6 .
  • Walter Kerr: The Silent Clowns . Knopf, New York 1979, ISBN 0-394-73450-5 .
  • Thorsten Lorenz: Knowledge is a medium. The philosophy of cinema. Fink, Munich 1988, ISBN 3-7705-2400-4 . (Dissertation 1985, University of Freiburg / B.)
  • Heide Schlüpmann: the uncanny look. The drama of early German cinema. Stroemfeld / Roter Stern, Frankfurt am Main 1990, ISBN 3-87877-373-0 .
  • Claudia Preschl: Laughing bodies. Comedians in the cinema of the 1910s , FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen Volume 6, Vienna 2008, ISBN 978-3-901644-27-6 .


Web links

Wiktionary: Silent film  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Silent Movies  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Publications of the Library of the US Congress
  2. Martin Loiperdinger: Film & Schokolade - Stollwerck's Business with Living Pictures, Stroemfeld Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Basel 1999, p. 97
  3. L'Estrange Fawcett: The World of Film. Amalthea-Verlag, Zurich, Leipzig, Vienna 1928, p. 18 (translated by C. Zell, supplemented by S. Walter Fischer).
  4. Thomas Ballhausen and Günter Krenn in: Medienimpulse, Issue No. 57, September 2006, pp. 35–39 ( PDF )
  5. ^ Fawcett, p. 22.
  6. ^ Fawcett, p. 21.
  7. ^ Fawcett, p. 119.
  8. ^ Fawcett, p. 136.
  9. ^ Fawcett, p. 137.
  10. ^ Fawcett, p. 9.
  11. ^ Fawcett, p. 50.
  12. Fawcett, pp. 27-28.
  13. ^ William KL Dickson experimental sound film
  14. ^ Lutz Granert: The modern silent film. To classify a style family of cinema. VDM, Saarbrücken 2009, ISBN 978-3-639-22223-4 , pp. 107-109.
  15. ^ Library Reports on America's Endangered Silent-Film Heritage. Retrieved September 20, 2020 .