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The Silent Cinema

The Lumière Brothers

Les frères Lumière

The history of cinema began with the invention of the cinematograph by Louis Lumière. Thanks to a combination of the principles of three devices – the camera, the printer and the projector -, Lumière was able to develop this new invention. The cinematograph’s patent was deposited on February 13, 1895 and the first public screening took place at the end of this same year, December 28, 1895, in the basement of a café in Paris.

Organized with his brother with whom he co-directed several films later, this screening contained  a dozen films lasting around one minute each. Screenings were then repeated and, as their popularity increased, the Lumière brothers organized more and more events and produced a large number of films to fill in the program. In 1898, they had more than 1000 films to their credit. The Lumière brothers’ films are, for the most part, documentaries.

George Méliès

Although the Lumière brothers have directed some fiction films, such as L’arroseur arrosé(1896), George Méliès is the first to really do fiction films. A Trip to the Moon (1902), his most famous film, is also the first sci-fi movie; the story taking place in the space. Nearly 500 fiction films will then follow in Méliès’ production, which departs from the representation of everyday life made by the Lumière brothers. A Trip to the Moon is also distinguished from the first films by its longer duration of 14 minutes.

Because he began his career as a magician and theater director, Méliès was also able to develop techniques that would lead to the first special effects of the history of cinema, such as editing, melting and superimposing. Thanks to these advances, he earned the title of “father of special effects”. Méliès even built a shed to realize his shoots: one of the first film studios in the world!

D. W. Griffith

The first historical film, Birth of a Nation, was written by D. W. Griffith in 1915. Based on a book by Thomas Dixon that tells the story of two American families during the American Civil War, the film is openly racist. Nevertheless, Griffith proposes some formal innovations: tracking shots, camera movements, editing procedures, etc.


Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin

The silent cinema was also the opportunity to amuse the crowds. Two figures understood it  particularly quickly: Max Linder and Charlie Chaplin.

Gabriel Leuvielle played in some comic short films before creating the character that made him famous: Max Linder. More than 100 shorts were directed thereafter starring Max, always in crazy situations: Max Linder’s Film Debut (1910), How Max Went Around the World (1910), etc.

The character had a  recognizable costume: tuxedo, hat, mustache… A costume that is the foundation for the famous Charlot, character played for many years by Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin is unquestionably the master of burlesque in the United States and has an exceptional contribution to Hollywood cinema. As in Linder’s films, his character Charlot is carried in ridiculous situations to make the viewer laugh. Starting with the short film Charlot journalist (1914), Chaplin produced numerous short films before making his first feature film, The Kid, which made him famous in 1921.

His most complex film is probably The Gold Rush (1925), in which he took inspiration from dramatic events in California’s gold mining adventure to create a burlesque comedy. The shooting of this film, however, required special means: many scenes of outdoor shooting in the mountains of Sierra Nevada, a huge number of extras and the construction of models of the mountains for studio shooting.

Moreover, the comic cinema of the 1920s would not be the same without Buster Keaton, whose movies multiply jokes and stunts, in The General (1927) for example.

Soviet masters

The October Revolution was the starting point of Russian cinema. Initially used to spread Lenin’s ideological message – trains transformed into film studios moved everywhere in Russia between 1918 and 1920 – the cinema unfolded in two different ways during the 1920s: through documentary by Dziga Vertov and through editing by Lev Kuleshov and Serguei M. Eisenstein.

The advent of the documentary occured in particular thanks to the foundation, in 1923, by Vertov, of a newspaper of cinematographic news, the KinoPravda (cinema of truth). In Man with the Camera (1929), Vertov filmed a Russian city and the daily life of its inhabitants for a day. Some formal explorations, however, were also presented in this documentary, including the famous mise en abyme where we follow the man who films.

By a cinema that claims to be the propaganda of Marxist-Leninist power, Eisenstein had also pushed cinematographic vocabulary to another level, particularly through its editing games. He developed what he called “parallel editing,” a process by which he created a symbolic connection between two images through editing. His first film, Strike (1925), in which he told about a typically Marxist subject, a workers’ revolt in a Russian factory, is a fine example of this process. At the very end, when the employees are massacred by the leaders, the scene is shown next to images of animals at the slaughterhouse. Eisenstein used cinematographic vocabulary to reinforce the discourse he proposes in his films.

German Expressionism

The cabinet of Dr Caligari

Like its pictorial counterpart, which began in 1908 and ended with the First World War, film Expressionism played on the emotions of the viewer through its tendency to create dark atmospheres, gloomy stories, and menacing sets and characters. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) launched the movement by telling the story of a monster slave of a mad doctor. Apart from the flashback, however, there is little formal and technical progress in this work.

Another director, F. W. Murnau, also marked the history of German Expressionism. By revisiting the Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in Nosferatu the Vampire (1922), he laid the foundation for vampire movies for many years. L’Aurore (1927), a film he made in the United States at the request of producer William Fox, earned him the very first Oscar for best film. Its narrative – the peaceful life of a country family disrupted by the arrival of a city-dweller who perverts the man’s beautiful values – is simple, but the film is a great example of the formal innovations happening in the film industry of this time: travellings, overprints, perspective games, intertitles, etc.

French Impressionism

This first avant-garde movement in the French Cinema is created by some directors who claimed for a new cinema, no longer simply based on stories created for theater or literature, but an autonomous art in itself. Formal innovations are therefore at the heart of the mandate given to filmmakers like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Abel Gance. The latter has also made one of the masterpieces of the movement, The Wheel, in 1923, a film whose original duration exceeded 9 hours! Beyond its scenario, it is Gance’s technical mastery that impressed.

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