Silent Movies: Get Ready for Some Rambling

Every day in my office, I treat myself to a TV show at lunch—usually The Daily Show on Hulu, but also frequently The A-Team, or Dead Like Me, or Cowboy Bebop, and so on. Last Friday I splurged and gave myself 70 minutes instead of 40 because I wanted to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920 German film generally considered to be the first horror movie ever made. It was awesome.

Despite being ancient and silent and German, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is pretty well known; if you haven’t seen any direct clips of it, you may have at least seen one of its myriad imitations and homages. Even Rob Zombie recreated it, surprisingly faithfully, in his video for Living Dead Girl (warning: link contains high amounts of awesome). The movie is most famous for its sets, which were deliberately, intensely fake, full of jagged edges and pointed corners and unsettling angles. The town hall is a narrow canyon where clerks perch imperiously on chairs taller than a man; the carnival is a mad labyrinth of spikes and slopes and chaos; the countryside is mountainous and deadly, with serrated grass that reach toward the characters like hungry daggers. One of the most striking scenes takes place in a madhouse, where a cell door the size of a wall swings slowly closed, framing the hallway (and the main character) in a dizzying swirl of darkness and colorless paint. This visual style is based firmly in German Expressionism, and creates a look and feel that perfectly matches the dark, disturbing story.

The plot is fairly simple, as silent movie plots usually were. A “doctor” comes to town with a freak to display at the carnival: a somnambulist named Cesare, who has spent his entire life asleep since birth, but who can be stirred to a kind of waking dream state in which he can allegedly tell the future. Almost as soon as he arrives, however, people start dying, killed in their beds at night. This clip includes one of the most famous sequences, in which the hero sneaks out to spy on the doctor and Cesare and watches them suspiciously for hours, while at the same time, impossibly, Cesare is on the other side of town sneaking into the heroine’s bedroom. The chase that follows, and the revelations about Cesare and the doctor, are a marvel of visual storytelling.

There are more surprises, and some incredibly wonderful shots and scenes (my favorite makes use of the title animations in a delightfully twisted way), but I won’t spoil any of them here. The entire movie is currently available for free streaming on Netflix, and I encourage you to watch it, but be forewarned that the early scenes are fairly slow for modern sensibilities, and the story doesn’t really pick up until about twenty minutes in.

What really struck me watching the movie, however, and the reason I wanted to write this blog post, was the nature of it as a silent movie, and the realization that movie storytelling—from the 1920s right up through today—doesn’t really require nearly as much dialogue as we think. The clip I linked to above is almost ten minutes long, and contains only a scattered handful of words, and yet we can follow the story perfectly. Each scene has one or two major points that need to come across, and once we get those (“Cesare attacked me!” “It couldn’t have been Cesare, I was watching him all night!”) everything else can be communicated perfectly through the action. We don’t need the hero to tell us he’s going to sneak out and observe Caligari, because we see him doing it and we know what’s going on. We don’t need to hear the hero talking to the police about the murder because we already know exactly what he’s saying (“Something weird is going on with Dr. Caligari and Cesare, and we need to get over there right now and figure it out” or something very similar). A silent movie gives us just enough dialogue to get us started, and then trusts us to pay attention and follow along and fill in the blanks.

Compare this to any modern action or horror movie; for the sake of argument, let’s say Transformers. We get a scene where the kid gives a report in class, filled with dialogue, but all we really need to know could fit on a single title card: “My great grandfather was an arctic explorer. I’m selling his antiques so I can buy a car.” Everything else in the scene—the jock making fun of him, the teacher growing impatient, the way the hero keeps looking at the cute girl—is all there in the visuals, and the extra dialogue is almost numbingly redundant: “I’m trying to sell all this stuff. See? Still trying to sell it. Selling stuff.” “I am teasing you. Ha ha!” “He is teasing me.” “I am teasing you!” The scene communicates its one or two major points, and then re-communicates them, and then drives them home a little more, and it’s completely unnecessary. The action scenes are arguably worse, punctuated with the same kind of pointless narration that plagues most action movies: “Shoot it!” “It’s going to blow!” “I’m not leaving you!” With just one or two title cards per scene you could watch the entire movie with the sound off. If I had the time and the tools I’d make a silent version of Transformers, with title cards and everything, just to show how well it would work.

Obviously there are plenty of movies that wouldn’t work without sound; I’d hate to watch a Woody Allen with the dialogue turned off, for example, and a silent Pride and Prejudice would feel hollow without the clever wordplay. But for the most part, as silly as it sounds, I think the soundtrack in most movies is just thrown in so we have something to listen to while we watch the images. It doesn’t add anything, it just holds our attention.

So I started by talking about how awesome this silent movie was, and then ended by kind of using “it could be a silent movie” as an insult, which wasn’t really my point. I think if you turned off the sound in Transformers, for example, you’d find that despite being able to follow the story it would be far more boring than something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—they use the same visual language of film, but Caligari uses it so much better. I think we have a tendency to use sound effects and dialogue as a crutch, thrown in to make things easy for both the audience and the creator; they allow us to tell the audience what’s happening when really we would almost always be better served by showing.

9 Responses to “Silent Movies: Get Ready for Some Rambling”

  1. Bryce says:

    The thing is that for me, sound effects and dialogue shouldn’t be crutches–if you can have them removed, and you lose nothing, then you weren’t using them right. Transformers is an awful example to use (but you knew that already). Pretty much any Michael Bay movie could have the dialogue removed and still make sense. But that’s not an argument to do away with dialogue–it’s an argument to do away with Michael Bay (or at least have the man start using some better scripts). With silent movies, they did so much with what they had available to them. That’s not to say that they couldn’t have done more if they had more available. I’m not sure what would have happened in that case. Sort of like how a person robbed of one of their senses makes the other senses do more than most people have them do.

    It’s early–I’m tired. Maybe this isn’t making sense. I liked your blog post, though–and it got me thinking . . .

  2. admin says:

    I agree; my point wasn’t to say that dialogue should be done away with, but to point out that silent movies aren’t as weird and unwatchable as people think, because most of the movies we watch today are just silent movies with dialogue.

    I like silent movies, though, and I think that silence can be used on purpose, even today, in the same way that black & white is sometimes used as a stylistic choice even though color is so prevalent.

  3. Steve D says:

    As I said on Saturday when we were discussing this, Transformers would actually improve with no sound. Just hold up a scene-card saying, “Boom!” and we get the whole plot of a Michael Bay movie.

    I would actually like to see Christopher Nolan make a silent film. Half of what makes his films great are the expressive emotion shown by the characters. Think of The Prestige. I can imagine it as a silent film. I love the dialogue in it, but it would be a cool experiment to see it with no sound.

  4. Chris Willott says:

    “silence can be used on purpose… as a stylistic choice”

    For proof of this, you have to look no further than Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Hush” episode (Season 4, episode 10). It is thoroughly entertaining, appropriately scary, and in the absence of words, the characters communicate more with one another than when they have their voices intact.

  5. Arlene says:

    Schindler’s List.

  6. jabbering jake says:

    good points. i think dialog is one of the places where star wars is sometimes weak. But if watch it with just the soundtrack, it is even more powerful.

  7. Sean - Texas says:

    Dan, so this is off topic, but I was wondering if you had a mirror set up for livejournal.com. I follow Brandon Sanderson’s blog that way, and it would be nice to follow you too. Please let me know.

  8. admin says:

    Sean:

    I haven’t ventured into livejournal yet, but people keep telling me I should. I will look into it.

  9. Alex B says:

    Dan,
    You make a very good point. I think one of the more recent movies that exemplifies this would be I Am Legend. Although the film is far from perfect, I was impressed that Will Smith could carry it (especially in its most dramatic moments) with little to no dialogue. Saying nothing was much more effective than conjuring up needless words.

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