When movies began over a century ago, they started out as silent films, audiences watching in amazement at the soundless images flashing up there on the screen. It was short-lived, lasting only about 25 years, but in that span of time, viewers began their love affair with film. And now, sadly, we know how much of that history is gone: In 2013, the Library of Congress released a report indicating that approximately 70 percent of the silent films that were produced in the U.S. are gone, meaning that about 7,700 silents will never be recovered. (In that same study, it was estimated that only about 11 percent of American silent films are available in their complete and original form.)
Why should you care? Because generations later, some of the greatest movies ever are still silent movies. Despite all the technological advancements that film has gone through over several lifetimes, they can’t always top these original pioneers, which were basically inventing a medium on the fly.
But maybe you’re a newbie when it comes to silent films. No problem: I’ve put together a handy starter kit for that bygone era, selecting 10 essential silent movies to begin your education. I didn’t necessarily pick the all-time best silents, instead offering you a healthy cross-section of what’s out there, from comedies to romances to sci-fi epics to horror movies to family films. I also only went with one movie per director or star, which is really challenging in the case of someone like Charlie Chaplin. (In those instances, though, I singled out some additional movies worth exploring.)
Some of these silents you can find free on YouTube, or are included with a membership to Amazon Prime, but all of them are rentable on the major digital streaming services. So, happy exploring: It’s a good bet that your favorite movies were inspired by the movies on this list.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Why’s It So Great? Tim Burton owes his entire spooky-shtick aesthetic to this dazzling psychological horror movie. But don’t hold that against The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a visually astounding film that mirrors its lead character’s cracked psyche through canted camera angles and jagged, surreal production design. German director Robert Wiene basically created the cinematic language for what “disturbed” looks like on film, and subsequent movies have copied Cabinet’s bad-dream vibe, although never as vividly. If anything, the fact that the film is silent only adds to its nightmarish quality — it doesn’t feel like it exists in our reality.
Safety Last! (1923)
What’s It About? A young man (Harold Lloyd) moves to the big city, hoping to make his name, but ends up lying to his girlfriend back home (Mildred Davis) that he’s landed a cushy job at a fancy department store.
Why’s It So Great? Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are 1A and 1B in the rankings for Best Silent-Movie Comedian — we’ll get to both of them in a bit — but if those are the only two names you know, Lloyd will be a happy discovery. Safety Last! can’t compete with those other two filmmakers’ finest works — Chaplin and Keaton were more auteurs, while Lloyd was merely a brilliantly gifted comic — but it’s immensely funny and clever. And it culminates with Lloyd’s infamous climb up the side of a building, hanging precariously from a large clock with the street so far below him. Few Hollywood stunts have been as nerve-racking since.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
What’s It About? A charming thief named Ahmed (Douglas Fairbanks) will stop at nothing to win the heart of a beautiful princess (Julanne Johnston), completing different quests to prove his worthiness.
Why’s It So Great? Fairbanks is remembered as the era’s greatest action star thanks to films like this and Robin Hood, and his movies’ giddy, swashbuckling energy still plays well for the whole family. Granted, The Thief of Bagdad is more than a little problematic — start with the fact that a white dude from Colorado is playing a Middle Eastern character — but if you can forgive the fact that the movie was made during a much different time, this is a high-spirited, good-hearted adventure yarn that’s positively vibrating with enthusiasm. And you can understand why: The Thief of Bagdad helped shape this brand of spectacle-driven entertainment, and the film’s mixture of effects and acrobatic stunts possess so much swagger. (The whole film seems to be excitedly shouting, “Holy cow, look what you can do with a movie!”) Everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains in its debt.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
What’s It About? In 1905, the crew of a Russian battleship mutiny because of terrible work conditions.
Why’s It So Great? Director Sergei Eisenstein made films that championed ordinary people, and his masterpiece turns its conflict between lowly sailors and cruel officers into a stark battle between good and evil — ultimately resulting in an uprising in nearby Odessa. (That sequence, known as “The Odessa Steps,” is Battleship Potemkin’s centerpiece, memorably referenced in The Untouchables during its balletic train-station shootout.)
Where other filmmakers were trying to see how this burgeoning medium could be used to entertain, Eisenstein was interested in advocacy and propaganda, pushing a populist agenda that believed that movies could influence hearts and minds. Battleship Potemkin illustrated how intellectually influential film could be — you can definitely feel its muckraking spirit in the work of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee.
The General (1926)
What’s It About? During the Civil War, a train engineer named Johnnie (co-director Buster Keaton) must rescue his stolen train from Union soldiers — and try to win back his beloved ex-fiancée Annabelle (Marion Mack), who’s being held hostage onboard.
Why’s It So Great? It’s a reductive debate, but for decades cineastes have waged a “Buster Keaton v. Charlie Chaplin” battle, with Keaton being praised as the brilliant comedic technician and Chaplin lauded as the great humanist. I say they’re both fantastic, but The General really does make the case for why Keaton is revered. He never pulled the heartstrings the way Chaplin did, but this is a stunningly choreographed piece of action cinema — and at the same time, incredibly funny. When people laud Jackie Chan or Tom Cruise for doing their own high-octane stunts, point them toward The General, where Keaton risked his life to pull off some of these incredible sequences.
What’s It About? In a dystopian, high-tech future in which human workers are almost literally cogs in a machine, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the pampered son of the city’s maniacal leader, falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), a beautiful commoner.
Why’s It So Great? Fritz Lang’s visionary sci-fi epic pioneered the way that we think about what “the future” will look like on film. Unfeeling robots here to replace us? That’s in Metropolis. Massive, impersonal urban hellscapes filled with unhappy humans? That’s in Metropolis. Income inequality? Tension between the haves and have-nots? Science fiction commenting on social ills? Lang’s film has got you covered. Just as impressive, the special effects — cutting-edge for their time — are still pretty astounding. The movie hasn’t just been hugely influential to future filmmakers — musicians like Madonna and St. Vincent have included Metropolis homages in their videos for years.
Why’s It So Great? To explain the range that German filmmaker F.W. Murnau possessed, five years earlier he had directed Nosferatu, one of the all-time best vampire movies — and a favorite of Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro. With Sunrise (which is subtitled “A Song of Two Humans”), he gave us one of the great romantic melodramas — although my plot description might make it sound like a Hitchcockian thriller. Instead, it’s a story of forgiveness as this farmer and his wife renew their bond after his brief dalliance, leading to a journey into the city that’s both magical and bursting with emotion.
And yet, despite how beautiful Sunrise is, it’s simultaneously about the darkness that exists in everyone — how a man who seemingly loves his wife could be coaxed into considering murdering her. As Roger Ebert once put it, “Because the characters are simple, they take on a kind of moral clarity, and their choices are magnified into fundamental decisions of life and death. … The more you consider Sunrise the deeper it becomes — not because the story grows any more subtle, but because you realize the real subject is the horror beneath the surface.” Even when telling a love story, Nosferatu’s director understood how to terrify us.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
What’s It About? In the 15th century, valiant French warrior Joan (Renée Jeanne Falconetti) is captured by the English, who put her on trial.
Why’s It So Great? Who needs sound when you have images this stark and powerful? Director and co-writer Carl Theodor Dreyer ambitiously focused on Falconetti’s face, letting her pained, beatific expressions convey a person stripped of everything as she awaits her fate. (Spoiler alert: Things do not end happily for Joan.) Raw and spare, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a spectacularly elemental experience, depicting the essence of faith and human suffering in a series of wrenching close-ups. You’d be hard-pressed to name a performance more intense and moving than this one — plus, Falconetti never appeared in another movie, making this one of cinema’s greatest acting swan songs to boot.
City Lights (1931)
Why’s It So Great? It’s difficult to choose just one Chaplin film. If you’re looking for comedy and commentary, you should try Modern Times. If you want sentimental, ugly-cry perfection, then The Kid will do the trick. The Gold Rush might be his best pure slapstick effort. But City Lights is my pick because it’s the most indicative of what set him apart from his fellow silent-era comics. Directed, scripted and produced by Chaplin — he also wrote the music — the film is often very funny, but it also manages to take a clichéd setup and turn it into a crushingly romantic portrait of true love. This blind young lady and this poor young man are both outcasts in the mean ol’ big city, but if they can find one another, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us. Yes, City Lights really is that corny — you’ll grab a hankie anyway.
The Tribe (2014)
What’s It About? A teenager (Grigoriy Fesenko) enrolls at a school for the deaf, unaware that a clique of students is part of a dangerous criminal ring that includes prostitution.
Why’s It So Great? Talkies ended the reign of silent pictures, but occasionally an enterprising director will pay homage to that long-departed era by doing a faux-silent movie. (I’m thinking Silent Movie or The Artist.) But The Tribe transforms the idea of silence by presenting us with a collection of characters who speak only in sign language. Adding to the degree of difficulty, writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy doesn’t provide any subtitles or even music. As a result, this dark thriller requires your total concentration, but what’s amazing is how quickly you’re able to figure out exactly what’s happening.
Strictly speaking, The Tribe isn’t actually a “silent movie” — we hear incidental sounds throughout — but it does provide another way of thinking about how a movie can convey information purely visually. Sometimes, words just get in the way.