You have to know where to look, but the abundance of silent films available to stream online is staggering---hundreds of films from the silent era are available to watch across paid streaming platforms or on YouTube. While this is certainly a less than ideal way to watch a silent film [as opposed to a grand movie palace with live musical accompaniment, for example], you can go through an entire curriculum of important and underseen silent films online. Unfortunately, Netflix isn’t your best bet, though they have a few great picks available [including the recommendations below, as well as this week’s Related Review, Destiny]. Another streaming service, Fandor, on the other hand, has dozens and dozens of great silent films available, enough for its own subgenre section. And we can’t forget that silent films weren’t only made until the late 1920s, with major arthouse auteurs using the aesthetic in more recent years. For a very small sampling of great silent films available to stream, from the great masterpieces to underseen gems, check out these recommendations.
A Trip to the Moon [Georges Méliès, 1902]
Available on Netflix
At a time when most films were “actualities,” short depictions of everyday life, French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès wowed viewers with fantastical tricks and effects. A Trip to the Moon is his best film and one of the most immediately recognizable silent films for the strange designs and iconic man in the moon image. Méliès had a complete grasp of special effects before any other filmmaker and his double exposures, splices and pyrotechnics continue to be impressive. The hand crank camera used at the time gives the characters quick, jerky movements that add to the film’s otherworldliness. Simply put, A Trip to the Moon is one of the most iconic and genuinely entertaining films ever made---if you haven’t seen it [or are only familiar with it because of the Smashing Pumpkins music video for "Tonight, Tonight"], you couldn’t find a better way to spend 15 minutes. And Netflix currently has two versions of the film available, including the newly restored colorized version that attempts to get the film back to the hand-painted way many audiences would have seen it in 1902.
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler [Fritz Lang, 1922]
Available on Fandor
One of the few filmmakers to thrive in both the silent and sound eras, Fritz Lang thrived in weird genre films, and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is one of the weirdest of all. The title character is a professional criminal with a background in hypnotism and master of disguise looking to control the underbelly of Berlin. With his grand schemes and peculiar eccentricities, he’s not unlike a comic book supervillain. Incredibly over the top in almost every way, there is more violence and drug use than you would expect [censors weren’t quite as involved in the silent era, especially on European films, at least compared to the coming decades]. It is also a thorough detective tale, one of the first on screen; though much of the focus is on the villain, the efforts to apprehend Mabuse become more important in the film’s second half. Rudolf Klein-Rogge stars as Mabuse in one of the first great performances in cinema. The actor would go on to star in many other of Lang’s films, including two sequels. At over four hours long, it is an exhaustive crime epic, but thoroughly enjoyable.
The General [Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, 1926]
Available on Fandor
Arguably the silent era’s most important star, Buster Keaton has everything going in his masterpiece, The General. Not only does it perfectly feature his signature high risk physical comedy, The General is a fully loaded action film. Keaton gets every inch out of the train for his his crazy stunts and they meld well with the Civil War drama. Surprisingly, The General remains one of the best on-screen depictions of the Civil War; the narrative is taken quite seriously and it is easy to forget the plot’s complexity amidst the signature Keaton comedy. It all leads to one of the most insane climaxes of the silent era, perhaps in all of cinema considering the scale, where a bridge really actually collapses. Without the benefit of special effects with only one chance to get it right, the extraordinary risk and cost make the stunt all the more real and amazing. It is a fantastic culmination of all the perfectly shot and performed physical, death-defying stunts captured throughout the film. The furious debate of Keaton vs. Chaplin is a difficult [and unnecessary] one, but even the Chaplin contingent can’t deny that he never made anything on as grand a scale as The General.
Cowards Bend the Knee [Guy Maddin, 2003]
Available on Fandor
If Dr. Mabuse wasn’t weird enough for you, try out Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee. The Canadian filmmaker has made his career on blending throwback styles with surrealist comedy and this is one of his purest examples. Though it is silent and certainly inspired by silent films, it isn’t made like them---Maddin takes the editing style of the Russians and cranks it up to a blistering degree. The stylings lead to a dreamlike quality, making the strange narrative even more incomprehensible. To examine the specifics of the plot: there’s a lot of hockey, Winnipeg, a wax museum, disembodied hands, a father-son feud, and an extraordinary amount of lurid sexual content. While that’s not exactly informative of what Cowards Bend the Knee is, it gives you a pretty good idea of its off-the-wall nature. Maddin can be an acquired taste for some, and there certainly are better films to start with if you’re jumping into his filmography [The Saddest Music on Earth and My Winnipeg, for example, which are not silent films but take on characteristics], but seeing everything silent film can accomplish narratively and stylistically must include Cowards Bend the Knee.
Blancanieves [Pablo Berger, 2012]
Available on Netflix
The Artist’s Oscar success in 2010 put silent films back in the public eye. It was probably coincidental [perhaps some sort of artistic collective consciousness], but a few other interesting films inspired by silent cinema popped up over the next few years. A standout is Blancanieves, a film by Spanish director Pablo Berger that takes on the Snow White tale with its own particular wit and charm. Blancanieves beautifully transposes the magical world into the hardened realism of the Spanish bullfighting circuit. Many of the usual Snow White elements remain---evil stepmother, group of dwarves, etc---but they are set in a harsher, darker world. Of the contemporary silent films, Blancanieves is the most classic and disciplined in its aesthetic. There aren’t many visual tricks that couldn’t have played in the 1920s [at least in the hands of the more dynamic filmmakers], but the comedic sensibilities and narrative creativity are absolutely modern. And it has the greatest performance ever by a rooster, too.