In his foreword to a lavishly illustrated new book from Little, Brown, Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel, director Martin Scorsese points out that viewers of silent films today are like “time travelers.” Precious cultural evidence from before 1900 until the end of the 1930’s, Scorsese observes, was lost when 90 percent of silent films were destroyed or allowed to disintegrate. Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture reproduces posters and other items from the Library of Congress (LOC) film archive, which is energetically engaged in preserving what is left of this legacy.
The LOC’s website offers fascinating short Edison films that document urban overcrowding, whether on New York’s Lower East Side in 1903 or on Paris’s Esplanade des Invalides and Champs Elysées, both from 1900. Perhaps most fascinating of all is a 1903 San Francisco demonstration for Chinese-American rights, on the occasion of an eerily majestic funeral procession. Tom Kim Yung (1858–1903), a Chinese military Attaché, committed suicide in San Francisco after being a victim of police abuse. The procession, as captured by Edison’s cameras, shows hundreds of solemn marchers, while gawkers look on. Later artful documentaries offer fascinating details for history buffs, whether about 1929 Russia in Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera or 1928 Germany in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.
As Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture reminds us, even fictional silent films, many recently transferred to DVD, can give us a taste of bygone eras that cannot be experienced merely by reading about them. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)—despite its racist, pro-Ku Klux Klan message that makes the recent statements of scientist James Dewey Watson seem innocuous by comparison—visually echoes Civil War photos by Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Griffith’s depictions of 19th century battles are now chronologically closer to these real-life skirmishes than we are to Griffith. Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin, which dramatizes events from a 1905 anti-czarist uprising a mere twenty years after the fact, inevitably idealizes and glorifies matters propagandistically, but is a must-see for its flavor and verve. American director William Wellman (1896–1975) made Wings, a 1927 drama about World War I fighter pilots, a mere decade after he himself served in the Lafayette Escadrille during that conflict. Above and beyond the fictional plot of Wings is a recreation of the bloody 1918 Battle of Saint-Mihiel, featuring dogfights, bombardments, and crashes with an authenticity that today’s special effects technicians cannot surpass.
As DVD companies strive to outdo one another with historical material, even unexpectedly racy material has appeared, such as a collection of French silent films originally made in 1905 and after, to be shown in the waiting rooms of Paris bordellos. Nostalgically titled The Good Old Naughty Days in re-release, this compilation reminds us that some aspects of mankind’s historical behavior are still with us today.