Six Stills from Six Silent Films

A few weeks ago I posted images of six films I screened in my History of Cinema class at Queens College. As part of the final exam, students were to name five of the six films and provide the country of production and, if appropriate, the avant-garde movement.

Here are the answers:

Anemic Cinema

Anemic Cinema

Celebrated artist Marcel Duchamp produced this film using a spirograph and other graphics that rotated on screen. Like much of Duchamp’s work, the film was a Dadaist work that utilized word play. In this still, the text translates to “If I give you a penny, will you give me a pair of scissors?” According to Katrina Martin, however, Duchamp is playing with colloquial French expressions and this actually translates to “If I give you a penny, I will give you a fuck.”[1]

The Man with a Movie Camera

Man with a Movie Camera

What can I say about this film? There are two items in the picture, a man and a movie camera, so I figured that would be easy. I was also looking for an image from this film that would show off two influential art movements in the Soviet Union: montage and Constructivism.

The challenge was to find a still that had montage within a single shot. Montage generally edits two shots together to create a specific and deliberate meaning, but I can’t show that in a single still. This one demonstrate the ability of montage to show “editing” within a single shot. Moreover, Constructivist integrated machinery into everyday objects, including the human form.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Not to spoil too much here, but in this still, Alan reacts to seeing Cesare in his room. He is terrified. In this shot, Cesare’s figure casts a shadow against the wall on the right side of the frame. The set of the room is highly stylized. It is not shown in classical Renaissance perspective, but instead has very sharp angles. This approach to composition was common in German Expressionism.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror


This is another German Expressionist film but from 1922 and directed by F.W. Murnau. The shadowy composition is again present here and is there to cast a sense of terror. Moreover, no one who has seen this film will forget Count Orlock’s appearance. It has to be one of the most chilling figures in cinema.

Un Chien Andalou

Un Chien Andalou

This is the seminal surrealist film, produced in France, by future film icon Luis Buñuel and celebrated painter/sculptor Salvador Dali. Early in the film is perhaps one of the most unforgettable images in cinema history: the cutting of a woman’s eye. The film rejects any narrative causality and instead follows the logic of dreams, as surrealists were wont to do.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans


Yes, it’s another film by a German filmmaker, F. W. Murnau. But this film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, was produced in the United States, not Germany, and was stylistically similar to Expressionism, although it was made well after the movement had its hey-day in Germany. This still is from the first third of the film. The man, played by George O’Brien, is about to kill his wife, played by Academy Award–winning Actress Janet Gaynor, and make it look like she accidentally drowned. You can see the compositional similarities between this image and that of the still from Caligari. Also, O’Brien’s posture is not unlike that of Orlock in Nosferatu.

Students in my class would have undoubtedly noticed that I absolutely love this film—it’s easily one of my all-time favorites—and some would remember it because I heard a few people crying at the end of the film.

As *Sunrise* is perhaps the last silent film made in Hollywood, it also might be the best.

  1. Martin, Katrina. “Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema.” Studio International 189, no. 973 (February 1975): 56.  ↩