Up until 1927 with the release of "The Jazz Singer", the first feature length American film with sychronised sound, all cinema was silent. So for around 30 years, since the first films in 1895, people were used to seeing cinema as silent moving images, sometimes accompanied by a live pianist who played incidental music. The early attempts were very simple but became famous, films like the Lumiere Brothers' (who invented cinema) "Train Arriving At A Station". The Lumiere Brothers shot a multitude of films around the world as they travelled with their new cinematograph invention and filmed cities and people everywhere. Audiences were amazed by seeing even the most mundane aspects of everyday life shown in a moving image. In 1897, they even came to Dublin where I live and made the short film below showing the Dublin Fire Brigade.
The Lumiere Brothers saw film as simply a scientific curiosity and had no interest in using it to create drama or fantasy but others thought differently. George Melies was the Tim Burton of his day and soon hijacked this new medium to create fantastical films of extraordinary imagination and imagery. He made hundreds of silent films, many now lost but his most famous is still "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) perhaps the first science fiction film showing a group of people taking a rocket to the moon. Film quickly became the medium of drama and comedy and it flourished in places like the East Coast of America where newly arrived immigrants could afford the modest entry fees of early cinemas and didn't need to understand English to enjoy this new medium. Film makers in England and America began experimenting with how films were shot and discovered techniques such as the close-up and editing between different viewpoints on a scene and then editing between two different places or even time periods. All of these new techniques crystallised in the work of the famous American director D. W. Griffith who combined all of these elements and created the first modern feature film as we know it with "Birth of A Nation" in 1915. The film was 3 hours long and had a sweeping narrative that depicted the American civil war, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and unfortunately the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Though it was a massive commercial success, its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and its depiction of racist stereotypes has tainted the film and it is now unacceptable to a modern audience. The Ku Klux Klan liked the film so much that they used it as a method of indoctrination for many decades later. Griffith's next film was the sprawling "Intolerance" (1916) which at three and half hours long was one of the most grandiose films every made in Hollywood. It depicted several interwoven stories from different time periods in human history from ancient Babylon to the time of Christ to contemporary America. Griffith constructed massives sets of ancient Babylon, that have since passed into Hollywood legend. However, despite is grandeur and visual sophistication, audiences found the parallel narratives hard to follow and it was not the big commercial success that Grifftith had hoped for.
In Europe, after World War 1, the Germans were doing novel things in cinema involving shadows and bizarre sets. It was a way of using the world shown on screen to reflect the inner mind of the tormented characters in their films and was known as German expressionism. Also a movement in painting, German expressionism in cinema involved stylised acting, lighting and bizarre set construction that now seems dated and just plain strange but from that movement, one film is remembered more than any other as it was the first telling of the Dracula story on screen. The German filmmaker F.W. Murnau made the vampire film "Nosferatu" in 1922 and its imagery is still haunting and unforgettable and it remains one of the most striking film interpretations of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" novel.
There are many other landmark silent films I could mention, films such as Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and Erich Von Stroheim's "Greed" but it was in Russia that silent film reached its zenith as an art form. After World War 1, the Russians began experimenting with new ways of cutting films together. Pioneers such as Lev Kuleshov found that by intercutting different shots together you could create a meaning that was not in the original images filmed. For example, you could show an image of a bowl of soup and then cut to a shot of a man looking on and you might interpret that sequence as depicting someone who was looking at the soup and was hungry though in reality the actual shots could be totally unrelated. Alfred Hitchcock gives an amusing explanation of the Kuleshov effect in the clip below.
Sergie Eisenstein was a student of Kuleshov and took his theories and expanded them to create films based on a form of editing (or montage) that cut together striking imagery to create emotionally powerful and politically loaded sequences which took the world by storm. His most famous film is "Battleship Potemkin" (1925). The scene showing the massacre of civilians on the Odessa steps is one of the most famous in cinema history and was referenced in modern films such Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables" (1987). However, for me it was the film he did after this, "Oktober" in 1927 which pushed silent film to its limits. The film depicts the events of the Russian revolution and has an intensity and speed of editing that would not be seen again until perhaps many decades later in the 1960s. It was made in 1927, the same year that "The Jazz Singer" came out and which marked the end of the silent period. So for me "Oktober" represented the pinnacle of silent cinema and was the last great silent film to be made. Here's a unforgettable sequence from "Oktober" where the city officials order the raising of the bridges to quell public rioting. Everyone remembers the white horse...