Silent movies are a tough sell for most people—and not entirely without reason. They’re harder to watch, even for people who’ve spent a lot of time immersing themselves in cinema history. You can’t sit down with a silent film, however great, and enjoy it in the same easy, uncomplicated way that you can groove to, say, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, or even to a subtitled foreign classic like Grand Illusion or Rashômon. It took me a long time to realize why that’s so. I’d assumed that the primary issue with silent movies is that they’re, you know, silent. No talky-talky. The more I see folks editing their favorite films and TV shows into elaborate musical montages on YouTube, however, the less I buy that apparently self-evident premise. In fact, I suspect that if James Cameron felt like challenging himself by making a fully silent epic, complete with intertitles, he‘d achieve the same record-breaking grosses he always does.
No, what throws us, I think, is that era’s wildly overemphatic acting style, in which every dramatic emotion is communicated via gestural bullhorn. There are magnificent silent performances, of course: Lillian Gish in The Wind, Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh, Buster Keaton in anything. But even these fall within a very narrow register—one that seems predicated on the assumption that people in the front row of the moviehouse are seated a mile from the stage, peering with binoculars, unable to parse anything unless it’s magnified 20 times. (Even Keaton is emphatic in being utterly unemphatic, hence “The Great Stone Face.”) And that radical disconnect from the more naturalistic acting styles that have been developed and refined over the last century (even as Nicolas Cage has occasionally overturned them) often proves a huge distraction, even in films renowned for their purely visual splendor. Take a look at this classic scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and you’ll see what I mean.
As I’ve noted several times before, my favorite aspect of writing this column is the way that it forces me to really look hard at an isolated bit of movie history, even if I’ve seen it many times before. When I decided to write about this scene, I had no intention whatsoever of addressing Gustav Fröhlich’s performance as Freder, the film’s rather dorky hero, who here wanders into his magnate father’s enormous factory for the first time, and is horrified by what he discovers. To be honest, I didn’t even remember that Freder is in the scene. My intention was to wow y’all with one of the silent era’s most unforgettable setpieces—and we’re still going to talk about how remarkable this sequence looks, even from a distance of over 80 years. But as I rewatched it in preparation for the piece, looking intently, all I could think a lot of the time was “Who the hell is that flailing, hyperactive yutz who keeps getting in the way of the damn set design?”
Still, awesomeness first. Metropolis was one of the most expensive pictures of its day, and the money is certainly on the screen. (Back then, of course, they actually constructed gigantic sets rather than relying wholly on matte paintings or CGI.) What I find remarkable is that the most impressive set—the one we see first, with the spinning Art Deco cylinders supported by girders that resemble the ballpoint pens banks have jutting from holders at an angle—is barely even seen, either here or later in the movie. (Nearly half an hour of Metropolis’ original footage, once thought lost forever, was recently rediscovered, but from the description, it doesn’t seem as if any of that footage involves this particular set.) Freder wanders through it for a few seconds, and then it isn’t seen again until the movie’s climax, when a frenzied mob runs through it for an additional few seconds. That’s a whole lot of effort just to establish the sense of an endless labyrinth of gargantuan machines, but it more than pays off in awestruck wonder.
And then there’s the M-Machine itself—M for Moloch, one presumes. (For those rusty on their ancient theology, Moloch was a Middle Eastern god associated with ritual sacrifice by fire.) One curious aspect of this startling metamorphosis is that Lang chooses to present it in discrete stages: monstrous head first, then paws, then paws removed—holding for some time on the composite image of monster and machine as the second wave of victims voluntarily ascends the stairs—then head removed. Clearly, Lang could have dissolved directly from one to the other had he wished to; the amalgam is meant to suggest the same unsettling in-between zone as the syncopated movements of the workers, who for the duration of their 10-hour shift occupy a position that’s halfway between mechanical and human. (See also the robot Maria, the film’s dominant promotional image.) Actually, it’s the workers’ carefully choreographed yet herky-jerk rhythm that always haunts me between viewings. It’s the original clockwork orange.
All the same, it would be a bit easier to mourn the potential loss of humanity if Freder, who’s meant to be a perfectly ordinary young man (today, he’d be played by Ryan Reynolds), didn’t come across like a spastic orangutan. It’s not as if great demands are being placed on Fröhlich in this scene—he just needs to look stunned, then aghast. But the dramatic conventions of the time dictated that you convey “stunned” by taking two steps backward (OMG!), and “aghast” by popping your eyeballs out of their sockets and cringing with both hands thrown protectively over your face. Fröhlich doesn’t ruin the scene or anything—Lang doesn’t cut to his reaction frequently enough for that, thankfully—but his every appearance breaks the spell, in much the same way that a musical score underlining every emotion can become so overbearing that you start to rebel. And it made me realize that my slight lingering aversion to silent film in general—sitting down to watch one still feels a bit like homework, even though there are many that I treasure, including Metropolis—stems from that demonstrative bombast. It’s an adjustment I’ve never quite been able to fully make, and I suspect I’m not alone.
At the same time, though, Nicolas Cage was my favorite actor for most of the ’80s and ’90s, in large part because of his reverence for silent-film-era acting, and his goofy attempts to perform the modern equivalent in movies like Moonstruck and Vampire’s Kiss. Even in Metropolis, I get a huge kick out of Brigitte Helm, who plays the robot Maria with a panoply of oversized leers, smirks, and physical tics, often imitating the quick staccato movements of an insect. I can appreciate a terrific ham in the right context; it’s just that in silent cinema, ham is pretty much the only menu item. This is a fantastic, unforgettable scene from one of the medium’s all-time classics, but I still wonder how much more affecting it might have been had the actor playing Freder simply stood there, expression frozen, allowing us to project our own growing sense of horror onto his largely opaque features. And then I dream of a decade or so in which filmmakers would be required to do the silent era over again, just to see what would happen if modern acting styles were deprived of the crutch of dialogue.