The 1920s witnessed the aftereffects of The Spanish Flu and the start of The Great Depression. It’s an age that’s all too familiar to us in the 2020s as we continue to persevere in the middle of a pandemic.
The Roaring 20s was an age of invention, from the automobile to the electric razor, but it was also a cultural battlefield, as issues concerning race, alcohol, gender, and sexual morality were called into question.
The silent film era provided both an escape and a safe space to explore questions. Here are three silent films from the 20s to watch in 2022, for free:
The silhouette of Count Orlok, the unsettling lead character, is an unmistakable one that is based more in Eastern European vampire lore than on Bram Stoker’s vampire. He resembles a rodent, appropriate for a vampire making a transatlantic voyage on a ship with plague-carrying rats. Now a classic cult horror, its storyline and symbolism are just as powerful 100 years later. “Nosferatu” wonderfully juxtaposes reality (plague) with superstition (vampires) against the nature of fear.
Plot: Mysterious Count Orlok summons Thomas Hutter to his remote Transylvanian castle in the mountains, to assist him with purchasing the vacant house opposite of Hutter’s own. Orlok’s interest is piqued when he sees a photo of Hutter’s innocent and beautiful wife. Meanwhile, Hutter begins to suspect that Orlok is a vampire. Hutter attempts to escape while Orlok sets sail to his new home and Ellen. Who will make it to Ellen first? As Ellen uncovers the truth and the plague worsens in town, she finds the answer to save them all. Free on YouTube.
“Metropolis” (1927) is a German expressionist science-fiction drama, considered to be a pioneer in the genre. The film draws on Bauhaus, Cubist, and Futurist design, with a dash of Gothic. However, H.G. Wells called the film “silly.”
Plot: The futuristic city is both a cultured and gorgeous utopia, but underneath, a bleaker reality resides. When Freder, the wealthy city master’s son, discovers the grim dystopia under the city, he and rebellious teacher Maria are intent on helping the mistreated workers and restoring equality. Ultimately, this pits him against his authoritative father and the world he thought he knew. Free on YouTube.
“The General” (1926)
Are you a comedy and action fan? “The General” is considered to be one of the original action movies and is inspired by the Great Locomotive Chase, a true historical event that occurred during the American Civil War. It was later made into another film in 1956.
Much of the 1926 film is a sustained chase scene, sometimes introducing humor. Such plot devices are present in film today, such as “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015).
Plot: Southern railroad engineer Johnny must rescue the love of his life and his beloved train from Union spies who steal both from him in the middle of the American Civil War. Free on YouTube.
A Brief History of Silent Films
The silent film era spanned from 1894 to 1929, but the Roaring 20s were the highlight of the era, as studios focused more on feature-length films. Instrumental music accompanied the scenes to match the dramatic emotions and facial features and set the mood. In later years, inter-titles shared dialogue and narration with the audience, whereas live narration was more common in earlier years. Interestingly, earlier silent films incorporated some tinted color and (mismatched) sound.