Silent film just won’t lay down and die – Midnight Sun Film Festival has just shown us why

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Silent films, old and new (yes, they exist!), mesmerised audiences at this year’s Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF). What is the secret of their abiding appeal? Two very different features from Sodankylä, William A. Wellman’s Beggars of Life, from 1928, and Aki Kaurismäki’s homage to the pre-talkie golden age, Juha, from 1999, provide some clues.

Interestingly they both realise the potential of what silent film has to offer without being wholly silent. As such they are both connected to the twilight of the old ways of movie-making, when sound first emerged as a technical possibility. They each draw on the conventions and vision of a mature if limited medium, and, in their own very different ways, deliver remarkable pieces of work. Otherwise the films’ similarities are few. Is there nevertheless something these relative success-stories share that can help us understand the inherent potential and abiding appeal of the silent form?

Beggars of Life entailed some of the film industry’s earliest experiments with the incorporation of sound – though these were scarcely in evidence in the screening at MSFF. Juha, on the other hand, seems to introduce sound-effects almost at random in order to disturb and make fun of our expectations as a self-conscious, latter-day silent-film audience. Such details were immaterial to these screenings as ‘mixed media’ performances, however. Audiences experienced the synergy of sound and vision, which, in both cases, was simultaneously old and new but, above all, a simmering live-culture petri-dish of cinematic rapture. The performative chemistry on display was unmistakable but how is it to be understood?

One thing is clear: filmgoers are not simply responding to novelty, graciously indulging an incomplete and inferior product. On the contrary, they’re responding to cinema at its best or (dare we say it?) cinema as art. Another possibility is thus raised, that the curious appeal of silent film may tell us something about the conditions of great cinema per se, and, in particular, why truly great movies are so much easier to recognise than they are to create.

«Beggars of Life» (1928), directed by William A. Wellman.
«Beggars of Life» (1928), directed by William A. Wellman.

Every one of us, that is, the artist who resides, albeit more or less hidden, within every one of us, longs to create something extraordinary. Who wouldn’t wish to make something beautiful, something that could even forge a magical bond between us, splice us together through a kind of short in the cosmic grid, a warp-drive shortcut, person-to-person, soul-to-soul, in a union so miraculous as to assume the mantle of holiness? In the words of Loew and Lerner from their song of the same name, and immortalised by Gene Kelly in Vincente Minnelli’s musical fantasy-romance, Brigadoon, from 1952, «It’s almost like being in love!» True art unites us as true love promises to do. Yet most art, even much of the best on offer, still ultimately misfires – and don’t get me started on love!

Such efforts are the also-rans, the stumblers in the dark. We feel for them. We know they are there but we cannot really connect. We will never touch or be touched. We will never be as one. Their words reach our ears but it’s only a sort of chatter, well meaning, witty, urbane – well-informed even – but ultimately, as the noble Bard put it best in the Scottish play, «it is no more than ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.»

Then again, in the words of Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, put into the mouth of Rutger Hauer in Ridley Scott’s iconic Blade Runner, from 1982, «If only you could see what I’ve seen!» Is that too much to ask? Perhaps! We are imprisoned in our corporeal shells, peering at the peculiar slant of light illuminating this one, unique and cruelly fleeting existence that no-one else will ever know as we have known it. If this isn’t bad enough, the only traces of all you’ve been, the interminable sparks and codes of mortal memory scored across your neural pathways, before long these too will be wiped from the plane of existence, and disappear forever – as though you had never walked the Earth. And yet…

And yet it is possible that we really meet, that is, in a way that somehow defies the constrictions of physical isolation, and thereby pass something immortal through the circuitry of collective consciousness. For this to happen, however, we must first lose ourselves to a degree. Then we might see what binds us together: the ineffable aesthetic, the synthetic truth, the wonder that is as hard to find as it is easy to share. But be warned! Before any of this can happen, the chatter must cease.

«Juha» (1999) directed by Aki Kaurismäki.
«Juha» (1999) directed by Aki Kaurismäki.

Enter moving pictures, stage left – more than a century ago. Such novelties are associated with huge upsurges of creativity, veritable tidal waves of human self-expression. Just consider the timeless appeal of some of the earliest works, in all their variety, from the very beginnings of the Lumière brothers’ Sortie de l’Usine Lumière de Lyon in 1895, through the best of Chaplin and Keaton, to Dziga Vertov’s classic tour de force, Man with a Movie Camera, in 1929.

Pick a form! Remember the early days of the synthesizer? Remember Kraftwerk or, if you’re lucky, and didn’t overlook them, the strangely neglected Cabaret Voltaire? Later efforts had their moments of course – from Citizen Kane to Prodigy – but they rarely recalled the exuberance of those early days. Why is that? Why should the lustre of new modes of expression so quickly fade?

New technology is crude, a rough and ready sketch of its ultimate iteration, its immanent perfection, and yet as it approaches this ideal state, this natural fulfilment as a medium, its uses, ironically enough, degenerate into the tired and the tawdry, into all that is mediocre and banal. This is the paradox at the heart and in the essence of new media.

Of course, part of the explanation lies in the exhilaration and inspiration of novelty per se. The fully formed medium has lost its freshness, the ephemeral charm of the new and different. This is by no means the key factor, however. There is something much more important at work here, something that illuminates the universal essence and nature of human self-expression.

It is the rough and incomplete character of new media that prevents our most self-conscious self-expressions from obliterating what lies a little deeper within us and resonates, like the purest of notes, with the universe, which surrounds us. A more refined medium gives us too much control. The flaws of the half-formed are the raw material of the key mechanism of art, which is not design or artifice but recognition of what is already there. The genius of the true artist lies in recognising and selecting what truly touches her and, in so doing, may equally touch us all.

Neil Brand (Photo: Juho Luikkonen).
Neil Brand (Photo: Juho Luikkonen).

Here lies an irreducible mystery, however. Can we, the artist included, ever fully comprehend or rationalise the visual draw of the golden proportion, for example? Hence striking beauty or touching sentiments are qualities we are destined to stumble over, almost by accident. This is why some of the best filmmaking has been defined by what it leaves out. The omissions are a randomiser, and hence a kind of fisherman’s net for gathering up the beauty, the mysterious physical-emotional meanings woven into the fabric of the universe. All kinds of rubbish will be collected too, of course. The genius of the artist lies in her ability to sort through her ‘catch’ and find its genuine treasures.

The extraordinarily creative Dogma 95 movement, initiated by Danish director Lars von Trier for example, limited and disciplined the artifice of filmmakers through a series of prohibitions. So it was out with violations of real or natural time; out with black and white film-stock. An innovator like Michael Haneke, on the other hand, creates some of his most powerful cinematic moments by placing what frightens or upsets us just off screen. Examples are equally rife beyond the world of film. Returning to popular music, in the late 1970s punk and new wave provided their own prohibitions. The one against the conventional, blues-scale-rooted guitar-solo is perhaps the most notable and disdainful.

The ease with which modern visual media combine sound and moving images was scarcely conceivable to the filmmakers of the early 20th Century. Yet what the recent renaissance of silent film has demonstrated is the paradoxical richness of sound-vision combinations and synergies opened up by its very limitations. Two great illustrations were in evidence at MSFF.

One was William A. Wellmans Beggars of Life. It’s a taut narrative, rich in irony and human drama, told through some dynamic camera-work, with its striking contrasts and emotionally charged close-ups. The acting performances build upon but are not restricted by the melodramatic conventions of early silent cinema. It all adds up to a major work of cinematic fiction. Beggars of Life in Sodankylä in June was nevertheless even more than this, as the brilliant pianist Neil Brand collaborated with skiffle specialists The Dodge Brothers to add their unique soundscape to the mix.

Photo: Juho Luikkonen

It’s a deceptively simple story of a couple on the run. They don’t begin as a couple, mind you! It is their fugitive existence that draws them ever closer together. Hence there is both a narrative and emotional progression, where tension, danger and humour (often deliciously dark) combine to almost epic effect. Many subsequent ‘road movies’ have echoed these essential elements or proto-conventions, but few have executed them so exquisitely.

The power of the work lies partly in its evocation of time and place, a bleak ‘wild west’ landscape on the eve of the Great Depression. Such a powerful backdrop is nevertheless only the foil for some extraordinarily vivid storytelling. It’s an affecting tale told in image, movement and text – and the latter delivered with the greatest economy. The overall impression is striking but the inspired mock-courtroom scene really stands out in the sheer genius of its conception and execution.

A gang of train-jumping drifters and vagabonds institute the proceedings in the humblest of locales: a railroad freight-car as – we can easily imagine – it continues to rattle along the tracks. The episode is not soon forgotten. The humour is dark, as proceedings unfold in a derisive parody of the law which oppresses them all. Moreover, this kangaroo court is the ironic vehicle of an ominous purpose: to separate the girl from her protector. We laugh, but partly out of anxiety for the fate of our heroine whose only defence against the male hoard is the defendant himself. The visual wit is razor sharp, as the self-appointed judge dons his improvised sack-cloth robes, and declares the court in session. Surprisingly enough the wit is textual as well as visual. The captions inform us there will be a ‘Persecuting Attorney’ to assist the judge in ‘dispensing with justice.’

Meanwhile, the musicians have sought communion with this place so starkly visualised, and found a musical idiom that both complements and intensifies its aura and atmosphere. They play a kind of Western blues that seems to emanate from the dusty plains themselves. By some sleight of hand, we all find ourselves ‘in the same boat,’ as we flee from haystack to freight-car and beyond, across the great, wide American landscape. Cinematic mission accomplished!

Photo: Juho Luikkonen
Neil Brand (Photo: Juho Luikkonen).

Aki Kaurismäkis Juha, on the other hand, takes us on its own kind of journey in ironical homage to the best of silent film. If its conventions constitute Kaurismäki’s raw material, his art lies in a series of ironical departures. In setting his story around 1970 he seems to cite the freezing of the silent catalogue in the mode and style of its time, and impose a temporal stasis of his own. This is a move not inspired by silent film per se but by the experience of silent film from a certain perspective in time and space, one that most filmgoers will recognise and appreciate.

Then, in a further ironical move, he adds texture to that perspective by intensifying the impression of 1970 in a growing tension with that of 1920. Hence the conventions and tones of two distinct eras seem to bleed into one another. The best way of putting this is to say that in the course of an ironically harrowing tale of treachery and corruption, the early 20th-century melodrama morphs into the mid-20th-century B-movie.

We can perhaps understand what’s going on here by way of analogy. The wood-carver cannot ignore the wood. She takes her tools in hand to shape that material within the limits of their capacities and her skill in harnessing them. The wood itself is part of the equation. It necessarily plays a role. The artist will need to respond to how the wood yields, bends and springs to her touch. Some balance must be struck, an accommodation made, between the artist and her material. This compares with how punk musicians rebalanced the relationship between players, their tools and their medium, that is, sound, with lasting positive effects on popular music. The guitar is such a tool.

The punk guitarist’s skill was invariably less developed, allowing the guitar itself to shape sound in ways that a more accomplished musician could never achieve (or tolerate). It could be argued that this is simply her choice, that she prefers not to endure such unusual or even unpleasant noises. If this is a decision at all then it is certainly unconscious. She is inclined to conform to the conventions of normal, technically proficient guitar-craft more or less without question. Avenues of expression employing qualities innate to sound but considered unrefined or simply dysfunctional, such as feedback, might thus be cut off as a matter of course, without any need for conscious reflection.

A master of the likes of Hendrix brought something new to the table in a different way, through his ability to push the physical boundaries of technical possibility. A more typical pattern is nevertheless that of the middling technician able to rehearse received figures, who brings virtually nothing new, nothing extraordinary, nothing emotionally affecting into the world. Wed this journeyman to the finest tools – the most flawless instrument, the most refined guitar-effects – and you will almost certainly find yourself in a creative dead end.

Kaurismäki shows how silent film in the hands of a gifted filmmaker, like a battered old Rickenbacker in the hands of a creative and inspired musician, can open up new avenues of expression, and pull off an unlikely feat. This is to create something at once fresh and timeless, to summon up a unique and yet universal moment of shared experience and realisation. What Beggars of Life and Juha in Sodankylä had in common, apart from sharing the same damp and draughty tent, was the thrill of something so very shiny and new – and a joy that is forever.

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