The Art of Silent Film

This Newberry Library seminar is now concluded. It was held in the spring of 2016.

This seminar invites you to watch and discuss twelve international masterpieces of the silent film era, all while exploring the proposition that silent movies are much more than simply “movies without sound”—they comprise instead a distinct art form. By exploring examples of comedy, drama, suspense, and expressionism, and through lively readings of early film criticism, we will develop new ways of seeing the moving image and appreciate just how these silent movies stand as fully formed achievements of art. Six sessions.

– Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art. Berkeley: U California P, 1957. ISBN: 978-0-520-24837-3
– The films: All of the films listed are available in DVD and/or Blu-Ray format. Many are also available online as well. Portions of all the films will be shown during the seminar sessions.
– Other materials will be made available online and brought to the seminar sessions.

No advance readings are necessary for the first week.

Silent movies are becoming easier to access and watch. Long gone are the days of watching scratched and jumpy versions of Chaplin’s comedies and the early masterpieces of suspense on television or in art houses. DVD transfers and online streaming technologies are increasingly offering movie-watchers the kind of high-quality, properly paced, and beautifully photographed films that their original audiences—and creators—saw.

This seminar makes use of these new technologies to encourage an older aesthetic experience—the experience of silent movies before the advent of synchronized sound and dialogue. Participants will study twelve masterpieces of the silent era, paired in the weekly sessions according to genre and style. Each week’s films, including examples comedy, drama, horror, science fiction, expressionism, and soviet realism, will be supplemented with lecture and discussion of historical and technological matters. Among these will be discussions of Charlie Chaplin’s work at Essanay Studios in Chicago, as well as the work of Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht, whose manuscripts are held by the Newberry Library.

In addition to introducing participants to some remarkable silent films, this seminar will also explore the distinct aesthetic nature of silent film as an art form. For this, we will rely primarily on Film as Art, by the art and film theorist Rudolf Arnheim. Written in the 1930s, Arnheim’s essays reflect an energetic and inviting prose style that readers of film theory today should find very refreshing. Arnheim’s explanations of the effects of montage, visual space, perspective, and other specific aspects of film are grounded in a view of the medium as a medium, not simply as a means for reproducing reality. In short, seminar, participants will find themselves developing new ways of seeing and appreciating film.


March 3
Lumière: Selected early shorts (1895-96, 9 mins.)
A Trip to the Moon (Méliès, 1902, with original color, 15 mins.)
The House with Closed Shutters (Griffith, 1910, 16 mins.)
Suspense (Weber, 1913, 10 mins.)

March 10
The General (Keaton, 1926, 67 mins.)
City Lights (Chaplin, 1931, 87 mins.)
Arnheim: 1-29

March 17
Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel & Dali, 1929, 17 mins.)
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925, 69 mins. Preferred version: Kino restoration)
Arnheim: 30-65

March 24
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1920, 77 mins. Preferred version: Kino restoration)
Metropolis (Lang, 1927, 153 mins. Preferred version: Kino “Complete Metropolis” edition)
Arnheim: 65-91

March 31
Underworld (von Sternberg, 1927, 80 mins. Preferred version: Criterion Collection)
Diary of a Lost Girl (Pabst, 1929, 79 mins. Preferred version: Kino)
Arheim: 98-127, 154-60

April 7
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928, 114 mins. Preferred version: Criterion Collection)
Sunrise (Murnau, 1927, 94 mins.)
Arnheim: 161-230

IMAGE: Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook in a still from Underworld (dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1927).