Part 1: How Silent Film Changed Hollywood

To appreciate how films are made in the present, we sometimes have to look to the past so that our films can improve in the future.

Modern editing techniques owe a great deal to the techniques of the silent era of movies. Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin, and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise are arguably the most influential films of their time.

It would be very ignorant for contemporary audiences to simply dismiss these films as  outdated and irrelevant. Today’s aspiring directors are no doubt watching Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarrantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese (and maybe Kevin Costner … maybe). Where do you think they got their ideas from?

The best directors of our time have been directly inspired by specific images from movies. The newest innovation at the time was ‘Montage’. This is the use of editing two independent shots and merging them together to create a more powerful idea.

Sergei Eisenstein

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Sergei Eisenstein: “I seem to be having some trouble …” (This image belongs to Fabula.org)

Eisenstein’s most striking use of montage is with the conclusion of Strike and the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potempkin.

In Strike, a bull is killed at an abattoir at the same time the strikers are shot by the military. This is important as the bull is a symbol of strength and determination and is swiftly cut down. The shot of the field filled with dead bodies following this creates a disturbing and effectively memorable sequence.

(Warning: Do not watch this video if you are eating beef)

This video belongs to urssaX. All rights reserved.

In the Odessa steps, a similar effect is used when a child in a carriage falls down the steps and is rapidly inter-cut to a woman shot through her right eye.

This video belongs to Thibault Cabanas. All rights reserved

If the scene looks somewhat familiar, it is because American filmmakers have replicated it time and time again. The most famous example would be Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables.

This video belongs to Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

F.W Murnau

F.W Murnau: “Do you like my hat?” (Image belongs to Open Culture.)

Use of montage is also used in German filmmaker F.W Murnau’s Sunrise. The glitz of the city is superimposed on the image of a marshy landscape, which greatly contrasts simple country life and the hectic urban.

This is seen through the innovative tracking shot as the husband travels through the foggy marshes to meet the woman from the city.

This video belongs to 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Due to improvement in equipment, the camera was given a greater amount of freedom for tracking shots, exposing as much as what the director will allow. No frame is wasted, and this practice still continues today.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

“I don’t think I’m the director …” (This image belongs to Wikipedia)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the first cinematic horror movies.

The most striking thing about Dr Caligari is its visuals. Hermann Warm, one of the designers of The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari settings, claimed that “films must be drawings brought to life”. This idea gives Dr. Caligari a very surreal look. It is full of bizarre, two dimensional shapes where everything is unnaturally sharp or diagonal.

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Dr Caligari: “A place where happiness is perpendicular to wonderment.” (This image belongs to ScreenPrism)

The film sets complement the use of Dutch angles, in which Caligari was a pioneer. All this gives the film a sense of disorientation and menace. Everything seems to be on the brink of breaking down, physically and mentally.

The storyline originated the Plot Twist. Francis is revealed to be an inmate at the asylum and that Caligari is actually his doctor. This has inspired many notable examples, such as Shutter Island.

This video belongs to Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Dr Caligari made popular the use of unreliable narration and distortion of events within the story, leaving a very dreamlike quality.

More than just the plot twist, Caligari also had a large role in creating conventions of the horror genre in Hollywood cinema.

Universal Studio’s Frankenstein Monster owes a lot of his appearance to the Somnambulist, Cesare, in Caligari. The dishevelled, pale and deathly look and clothing seems to be, at least in some part, an influence in the makeup of the first Frankenstein Monster played by Boris Karloff.

This video belongs to Decla-Bioscop. All rights reserved.

In  Conclusion …

These film techniques were revolutionary coming into the sound era, creating a film language that inspired the golden age of cinema. Montage and tracking were greatly utilised and developed. Depth of field became the modern montage and allowed films to be witnessed in a whole new way, with a prime example being Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.

This video belongs to OscarCreativeGroup. All rights reserved.

The classics should never be forgotten. Modern films could never exist without the passion of these pioneers of a craft that was originally disregarded.

Silent film’s contributions to cinema have helped give it the reputation as a legitimate and respected form of art.

These are just five examples of thousands. What films from the past were a major influence on you, silent or otherwise? Let me know in the comments below.

Also, be sure to check out the other articles in our five part series on filmmaking:

Part 2 — Storytelling: Twisting the Plot

Part 3 — The Voice: The Voice and Narration

Part 4 — The Music: Using Licenced or Orchestrated Music

Part 5 — The Camera: The Camera as a Character

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