According to a 2013 report by the United States Library of Congress, seventy percent of all silent films have been lost. Of the films that remain, many do not have complete musical scores. While there has been considerable effort to find and remaster the remaining films, the lack of original scores and degradation of the film often leads to these masterpieces remaining inaccessible to modern audiences. Hence, it is wonderful that so many silent films were showcased at the 64th Berlinale under their Retrospective section.
I came upon the films merely by chance, having come to the screening merely because it fit into an open space in my schedule. Silent films were always a medium I found incredibly boring. Sure, like any good film enthusiast I had seen Metropolis (1927) and Nosferatu (1922) and while I could see how they were revolutionary that didn’t mean I particularly enjoyed them. I had very little hope when I sat down in the theater waiting for a bunch of abstract film shorts of the absolute film movement to begin. The difference here was that unlike the DVD’s and Youtube videos I watched in the past, the Berlinale hired pianists to play the music live, just as they were performed in the past.
Boy, what a difference a live performance made.
Despite the fact that the shorts were comprised mostly of black and white squares moving in rhythm (Rhythmus 21 , Rhythmus 23 [1923-25]) and the occasional up-skirt shot of a ballerina jumping (Entr’acte ), I was not tired by the relentlessly modern images before me. This was in no small way due to the wonderful capabilities of the talented musician Stephen Horne who performed not only on piano, but also flute and accordion. His deft performance of the modern abstract music complemented the film in such a strong way that it was almost mesmerizing.
So impressed was I by that live performance that I skipped the film I was planning on seeing next so as to see the next silent film being shown, The Mark of Zorro (1920). As the first Zorro film, the first film to be released by United Artists and a silent film with a complete original score, The Mark of Zorro is a fascinating piece of film history. With the adept playing of pianist Günter A. Buchwald, I almost forgot that I was watching a silent film, so engrossed was I in the film and its accompanying music.
Amazingly, after a few short hours I was transformed. No longer can I claim to find no charm in silent films, because within the context of a live performance they are truly something to be experienced. It is truly a lost art form that needs to be seen to be respected, and I am now quite the fan!