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Silent Canons

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)


Every year, a small town in Northern Italy is responsible for rewriting film history. As the world’s most esteemed silent film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone contributes to the expansion, revision and evaluation of the silent film canon on a yearly basis. Since its establishment in 1982 -four years after the illustrious 1978 Brighton Conference shed new light on an immensely underrated period in film history – the Pordenone Silent Film Festival has catered to scholars, archivists, distributors, students and cinephiles alike, offering them rediscoveries, restorations, retrospectives and special events screened under the best possible circumstances. But amid the weeklong flurry of films that spectators are bombarded with every day from morn to midnight, averaging about twenty a day, where does one even begin to weed out the essentials, let alone produce a silent film canon? To give you an idea, from its inception until September 2011, the Giornate have screened a whopping 6658 silent films. So while influential magazines such as Sight and Sound poll numerous critics and industry professionals to compile a film historical best, Tom Paulus has already rightly made the point that their canon is mostly shtum on the silents, with perennial classics like Bronenosets Potyomkin (S.M. Eisenstein, 1925, USSR) and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927, USA) doggedly dwelling in the top ten for decades now, while only seven silents inhabit the entire top 50. Polls aside, large festivals, DVD distributors and scholars also function as important gatekeepers in terms of spotlighting lesser-known and heretofore unavailable classics, but it is nothing short of remarkable that in spite of the exponential surge of silent era material in the last few decades, canonical works seem to have been set in stone as far back as the 1950s. In 2009, the directive committee of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto sought to address this problem in its programming, creating “Il Canone Rivisitato/The Canon Revisited.”

“Great films, just like any great art, repay experiencing again and again. Let’s take this simple consideration a little further: when the Pordenone Silent Film Festival was established in 1982, the worldwide quest for the rediscovery of silent cinema had barely begun. […] The Giornate del Cinema Muto took justifiable pride in spearheading this long and remarkable adventure. Its initial modus operandi was based on the assumption that our knowledge of silent cinema relied upon a limited number of iconic titles whose enduring reputation had somehow cast a shadow on many other works equally worthy of our attention: Chaplin, Dreyer, Nosferatu, and The Crowd were supposedly known by many, while the Vitagraph Company, Yevgenii Bauer, and Italian slapstick had been relegated to the limbo of collective memory. Hence the Giornate’s project, resulting in over 6,000 titles rescued from oblivion in almost 30 years of annual programs and events.[…]

Parallel to our awareness of this is the fact that the overall landscape of film scholarship has changed drastically since the 1980s, and that it may be useful to reconsider the dogmas we have left behind. Now that we know so much more about the production surrounding the acclaimed milestones of silent cinema, a number of questions are rising to the surface. Why were these milestones treated as such, and how did they become what they are? Who first established their authoritative position in film history? What were the criteria underlying their establishment of the first silent pantheon of cinema? Did they make the right choices? If we think they didn’t, how do we validate our presumption that we know better? In which cultural environment were our predecessors adopting the term “masterpiece” for the films they so strongly believed in?

There are plenty of reasons for us to revisit the Canon of silent cinema. First among them is the realization that we can now afford it, with a greater degree of confidence, as we have a more comprehensive and detailed atlas of its world at our disposal. Our new multi-year series tackles the challenge with a great deal of humility, not as an act of nostalgia but as the beginning of a dialogue with the film historians and critics who discovered silent films long before we did. Each year we will select a group of “canonical” films, hailed as cornerstones by the pioneers of our field and further promoted by their successors. Not all of them are still as celebrated as they used to be, in which case we will try to follow the path of their rise, glory, and eclipse. We intend to give these films another opportunity to speak to us, in a form as close as possible to the way in which they were originally created, before they enter the digital domain once and for all. In some cases, this may be their last big celluloid chance.”

(Paolo Cherchi Usai, 2009 Giornate catalogue, p.92)

The Giornate’s outreach has thus far materialized in 27 films screened over the last three years, with only three dating from the 1910s and the majority situated in the late 1920s. From their national distribution, it is clear that the Giornate strive for a balanced program each year, but an imbalance does seem unavoidable. Germany currently leads the count with six films, trailed by France, the USSR and the USA with four out of 27 films. Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Great Britain are all good for two films and the Georgian Socialist Soviet Republic closes the national canon with one entry. Based on the current national standing, I expect to see a marked increase in Scandinavian, French and American films in the next couple of years. Regional qualifications are, of course, not the only yardstick by which the Giornate’s canon is measured. In 2010, after having received many questions pertaining to the exact criteria upon which their canon is based, film historian, archivist and cofounder of the Giornate Paolo Cherchi Usai decided to set the record straight on the festival’s canonizing criteria.

“This series is not just about the universally acclaimed “best of” silent cinema (if that were the case, the project would be over in a few years); however, it is also not the expression of subjective choices. Our festival director, David Robinson, has drafted a comparative chart of all the silent films nominated in various polls from 1930 to 2004 – including the “Top Ten” lists compiled every ten years by the British magazine Sight & Sound – coming up with a total of 193 titles, 82 of which have been screened at the Giornate since its beginnings in 1982. The checklist is a true eye-opener. Many of these titles are widely acknowledged as “canonical”, but are they the only ones? Not at all. We believe that there are at least five more types of Canon to consider:

• The “national” canon, including films recognized as classics within a specific territorial community. Ask any Italian film historian about the ten most important silents produced in Italy: Il fuoco (1915) is very likely to make it in the list.

• The “auteurist” canon, stemming from the reputation of individual directors. Their films are “canonical” by proxy, because of the names attached tothem. In this respect, any film by John Ford or Fritz Lang is the object of special attention.

• The “temporary” canon, comprised of films acclaimed in the years immediately following their release. Tom Forman’s Shadows (1922) was hailed as one of the great American films of the period. The film is apparently extant, but is now forgotten.

• The “pioneers” canon, compiled by the founding fathers of film history and criticism. Moana of the South Seas (1926) is currently not enjoying the same status accorded to Nanook of the North (1922); nevertheless, many past and present critics have singled it out as a major achievement.

• The “scholarly” canon, evolving with the most recent development in film studies. No film by Yevgenii Bauer, Franz Hofer, or Georg afKlercker was ever voted in a public referendum; however, many specialists treat their works as remarkable examples of the art of silent cinema. We may or may not embrace some of these criteria, but they represent ways in which people have treated some films as more memorable than others, thus making them “canonical” in their own chronological and cultural context.

The “Canon Revisited” series is dedicated to all of them, as well as to the 193 titles in David’s inventory. We are also not ruling out an extra category, the many cinematic works still waiting to be seen with fresh eyes: that will be our chance to expand our own horizons, and make the Canon Revisited a journey of true discovery.”

(Paolo CherchiUsai, 2010 Giornate catalogue, p.93-94) 

In 2011, the Giornate decided to add another category based on archival silent film collections, aptly naming it “the archival canon.” Checking the International Federation of Film Archives’ (FIAF) database, it turns out that there were 397 silent films being held by at least ten FIAF affiliates, resulting in a massive archival canon. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920, Germany) tops the list, since it is represented in no less than 40 FIAF archives, followed by La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928, France) in 36 archives and the very surprising third Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie (René Clair, 1928, France) in 34 archives. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927, Germany) shares a fourth place in 34 archives with Bronenosets Potyomkin (S.M. Eisenstein, 1925, USSR), Easy Street (Charles Chaplin, 1917, USA) and The Immigrant (Charles Chaplin, 1917, USA) and the most represented filmmaker in the FIAF list is, perhaps not surprisingly, Charlie Chaplin with 56 out of the 397 films being held in at least ten archives. The Giornate note that 29 percent of the archival canon concerns the “early” period (1894-1915) and that it holds just nine Italian and three British films. Though this type of canon was obviously dependent on several factors in its acquisitioned growth, it is very interesting to see how it has evolved historically and, moreover, how it will evolve and expand in the digital era. Paolo Cherchi Usai describes the achievement of such an archival canon as “a snapshot of what film curators have been thinking in their attempt to make their collections richer, broader, and more meaningful to their respective constituencies” (2011 Giornate catalogue, p.120). Up until now, the Giornate’s criteria have resulted in the following screenings, a promising list for years to come.

Die freudlose Gasse (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1925)


  • Dom Na Trubnoi (Boris Barnet, 1928, USSR)
  • Du Skal Aere Din Hustru (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1925, Denmark)
  • Der Golem, Wie Er in die Welt Kam (Paul Wegener, 1920, Germany)
  • Gunnar Hedes Saga (Mauritz Stiller, 1923, Sweden)
  • J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919, France)
  • Rotaio (Mario Camerini, 1929, Italy)
  • The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1923, USA)


  • Drifters (John Grierson, 1929, GB)
  • Il Fuoco (Giovanni Pastrone, 1915, Italy)
  • Haevnens Nat (Benjamin Christensen, 1916, Denmark)
  • Jim Shuante (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930, Georgian SSR)
  • Le Miracle des Loups (Raymond Bernard, 1924, France)
  • Moana (Robert Flaherty, 1926, USA)
  • Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Piel Jutzi, 1929, Germany)


  • Asphalt (Joe May, 1929, Germany)
  • Borderline (Kenneth Macpherson, 1930, GB)
  • The Circus (Charles Chaplin, 1928, USA)
  • El Dorado (Marcel L’Herbier, 1921, France)
  • Hintertreppe (Leopold Jessner & Paul Leni, 1921, Germany)
  • Klostreti Sendomir (Victor Sjöström, 1920, Sweden)
  • Oblomok Imperii (Fridrikh Ermler, 1929, USSR)


  • Die freudlose Gasse (G.W. Pabst, 1925, Germany)
  • Hands Up! (Clarence Badger, 1926, USA)
  • La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928, France)
  • Prostoi Sluchai (Vsevolod Pudovkin& Mikhail Doller, 1932, USSR)
  • Die Weber (Friedrich Zelnik, 1927, Germany)
  • Zvenyhora (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1927, USSR)