The Five Greatest Directors of the Silent Era

Great Silent Directors F.W. Murnau

Back when cinema was still in its infancy, these five filmmakers were shaping its future.

Great Silent Directors DW Griffith

D.W. Griffith (1875-1948)
Quote: “A film without a message is just a waste of time.”

Known as: America’s first great filmmaker and innovator. He pioneered numerous cinematic elements that we now take for granted, including close-ups, pans, and cross-cutting between separate events. Though his epic Birth of a Nation is rightly excoriated for its racist content, it is nevertheless an essential work in the development of a filmic language.

Debut: The Adventures of Dollie (1908)
Breakthrough: Enoch Arden (1911)
Masterpieces: Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916)
Biggest Failure: Intolerance (1916)
Overlooked Gem: Broken Blossoms (1919)

Influences: Edwin S. Porter, Billy Bitzer
Disciples: Everyone who came after him, whether they know it or not

Great Silent Directors Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948)
Quote: “Art is always conflict, according to its methodology.”

Known as: The Master of Montage. During the heady years following the Russian Revolution, he created some of the greatest works of Soviet cinema, before ultimately falling out of favor with the Stalinist regime. The most important film theorist of his time (and arguably of the 20th century), he advanced the idea that meaning could be derived through editing.

Debut: Strike (1925)
Breakthrough: Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Masterpieces: Battleship Potemkin (1923); October (1927); Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Biggest Failure: Que Viva Mexico
Overlooked Gem: The General Line (1929)

Influences: D.W. Griffith, Lev Kuleshov
Disciples: Everyone who came after him

Great Silent Directors F.W. Murnau

F.W. Murnau (1889-1931)
Quote: “The camera is the director’s pencil. It should have the greatest possible mobility in order to record the most fleeting harmony of atmosphere. It is important that the mechanical factor should not stand between the spectator and the film.”

Known as: Cinema’s original master of the moving camera. While most of his contemporaries were content to keep the camera stationary, he (aided by his brilliant cinematographer Karl Freund) insisted on letting it roam. First in his native Germany and then in the U.S., he created some of silent cinema’s most lyrical and visually intriguing classics. His 1924 film The Last Laugh is so masterful that it tells its story without the title cards that are the staple of silent films.

Debut: Der Knabe in Blau (1919)
Breakthrough: Nosferatu (1922)
Masterpieces: The Last Laugh (1924); Sunrise (1968)
Biggest Failure: Tabu (1931)
Overlooked Gem: Faust (1926)

Influences: Max Reinhardt
Disciples: Karl Freund, Max Ophuls

Great Silent Directors Erich von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957)
Quote: On the studio-authorized mutilation of his masterpiece, Greed : “It was cut by a hack cutter who had nothing on his mind but his hat.”

Known as: “The Man You Love to Hate” (for his early screen portrayals of villains). Von Stroheim was a notorious perfectionist, which often resulted in films of epic lengths and massive budgets. This reputation has tended to overshadow the fact that he was a brilliant filmmaker, whose movies were incredibly sophisticated and daring for their time. After numerous battles with studio bosses, including the famed desecration of Greed, he was essentially blackballed as a director, and is remembered by most people for his performance in Sunset Boulevard.

Debut: Blind Husbands (1919)
Breakthrough: Blind Husbands (1919)
Masterpieces: Foolish Wives (1922); Greed (1924)
Biggest Failure: Greed (1924)
Overlooked Gem: The Wedding March (1928)

Influences: D.W. Griffith
Disciples: Jean Renoir, Orson Welles

Great Silent Directors Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton (1895-1966)
Quote: “How can a man in slap shoes and a flat hat be considered a genius?”

Known as: “The Great Stoneface.” An actor, director, and stuntman, he created some of the funniest and most astonishing visual gags in movie history. As a filmmaker he was far ahead of his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, continually testing and exploring the limits of the cinematic frame.

Debut: One Week (1920)
Breakthrough: The Three Ages (1923)
Masterpieces: Our Hospitality (1923); The General (1927)
Biggest Failure: The General (1927)
Overlooked Gem: Spite Marriage (1929)

Influences: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry Houdini
Disciples: Samuel Beckett, Jackie Chan, Mel Brooks

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