The birth of cinema coincided with a period of huge technological advances, followed by radical social upheaval. The era of the silent film, roughly 1895–1930, saw the electrification of the world, the birth of aviation, the conveyor belt industry, radio and electrical home appliances. It was partly an era of great economic growth and optimism. It also saw the birth of modern warfare, weapons of mass destruction, rising exploitation of workers living in growing slums due to rapid urbanisation, the first inklings of German fascism and the US stock market crash. Seldom has mankind looked with such eagerness and at the same time trepidation toward the future. No surprise, then, that the silent era was a golden age for futuristic movies. Here we have gathered the ten best of the lot. Perhaps surprisingly, the list lacks any American films. This should not be taken as a sign of any dislike on our part for the US movies of the time, it simply illustrates that science fiction films were an almost exclusively European affair during the silent era.
10. Police in the Year 2000
We start off our list with the first of four French films featured in this article, which only goes to show the French dominance of the movie industry in the silent era, especially before WWI. Police en l’an 2000 is a 1910 five-minute short from the Gaumont studio. The police force of the year 2000 patrol the streets of the city in an dirigible with a propeller and a rudder. The laughing, good-natured police officers swoop down on thieves and trouble-makers, using long wooden poles with giant clamps on one end to capture the perpetrators and hoist them aboard the airship. The film shows the officers picking up purse-snatchers, cat burglars, and for good measure a stray dog munching on a length of sausage outside a butcher’s shop. All are taken to the police station, where they are dumped in a funnel on the roof, sliding down a tube to officers waiting to take them into custody.
The film is a humorous postcard from the future, inspired by the artwork by illustrator Jean-Marc Côté, distributed with cigarette and cigar boxes leading up to the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, depicting life in the city in 100 years time. Read the full review here.
9. Charleston Parade
A bonkers short subject by French innovator Jean Renoir from 1927 shows an African explorer in a spacecraft discovering a white native woman in a post-apocalyptic Paris, and they dance the Charleston for ten minutes. Considering his experimental streak, it’s odd that Renoir didn’t lend his talents to science fiction more often. The 17 minutes long experimental film Sur un air de Charleston is his only entry into the genre. The apocalyptic scenes of Paris and the highly evolved African seem to envision a future where Western ”civilisation” has been brought to its natural conclusion, but Renoir also turns the looking glass on our ”exotic” view of the savage African and their “uncivilised” continent – portraying the white savage girl and her tribal dance in much the same way as Africans and other non-white people where portrayed in Western films and culture. But the film is also a declaration of love to movement and the beauty of the human body – and few bodies are more apt for this purpose than actress Catherine Hessling’s. The wordless dance routine becomes a bridge between cultures and people, connecting the two alienated individuals from two different words. The African explorer was portrayed by Johnny Hudgins, a well-known US dancer, comedian and pantomime, known in the States as “The Wah Wah Man”, and hailed in France as “the black Charlie Chaplin”. Read the full review here.
8. The Pirates of 1920
Pirates of the air get more than they bargained for when they kidnap a resourceful damsel in this well-made British short feature film from 1911, inspired partly by Jules Verne’s novels Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World, and partly by Walter R. Booth’s clunky 1910 movie The Aerial Submarine. Theres was a widespread notion in the British film industry that the narrative films turned out in the UK were sub-par. UK studios had neither the facilities, resources or personnel to compete with foreign imports, which were longer and better produced. Producers George Howard Cricks and John Howard Martin, whose Croydon studio boasted the largest film crew in Britain, answered the call for longer and better movies with the 17-minute production The Pirates of 1920. Directors David Aylott and A.E. Coleby created what became one of the key films in Britain in 1911, and while still not nearly on par with the international top films of the day, the proto-steampunk design of the airship, the extensive locations shots and the impressive stunts give it an eighth spot on our list. Read the full review here.
As an interesting aside: In 1947 David Aylott, who also worked as a makeup artist, founded Eylure, the world’s leading manufacturer of eyelash extensions in the fifties. The brand still exists, and have recently promoted signature lashes from stars like Katy Perry and Jordyn Woods.
Number seven is the first, but certainly not the last German production on our list. One of the lesser known Expressionist silents, Algol is a sci-fi-inspired melodrama with political undercurrents from 1920. The look of the film is inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released earlier the same year, and the visuals of Algol in turn went on to inspire the creators of Metropolis. The story follows mining engineer Robert Herne (Emil Jannings), who is visited by an alien from the star Algol, which also happens to be his name. Algol gives Herne the secret of how to build a machine that can harness the energy from the star, which Herne uses to build an industrial empire. Before long Herne is master of the world, but as Herne’s power stations conquer the world, coal miners and oil drillers become unemployed, others are forced to work in appalling conditions in Herne’s new electrically powered factories. All the while, the ageing tyrant becomes a paranoid reclusive, estranged from his playboy son and his former girlfriend, who becomes the leader of the newly created underclass – the people still working off the land. This being the twenties, the film naturally works its way toward the inevitable class war.
Algol, directed by Hans Werckmeister is no Meisterwerk, and suffers from a patchy script and a somewhat off pacing. But despite its flaws Algol is not to be overlooked by by friends of German Expressionism or indeed science fiction movies as a wild visual ride on a Wagnerian scale. Look out for the cameo by gay icon and dancer Sebastian Droste! Read the full review here.
6. High Treason
It’s the Brits again at spot number six! Generally dismissed a “curio”, this British 1929 production deserves greater recognition, not only because it has clear artistic merits, but because it’s one of the few pre-1950s SF productions that were made on a substantial budget. Furthermore, it’s one of the very earliest sound films made in Britain. The film was made made in two versions, one with sound and another silent version, which is why it qualifies for this list. The silent version is generally considered the better one. High Treason, from distinguished director Maurice Elvey, was Britain’s attempt to create its own Metropolis. The stunning art deco visuals are counteracted by a clumsy and overtly naive script by L’Estrange Fawcett, adapted from a stage play by right-wing maverick Noel Pemberton Billing.
The highly futuristic world of the 1940’s is divided between the “Empire of the Atlantic States” and the “United States of Europe”. A booze smuggling incident at the border, manufactured by a group of shady arms merchants, trigger the beginning of a second world war. Caught in the middle are our heroes — air force commander Michael, son of the war-mongering president of Europe, and his girlfriend Evelyn, daughter of the chairman of the pacifist Peace League. The highly illogical script and paper-thin characters dampen our enthusiasm for this movie, but Elvey’s direction is fluid and competent, the sets and design impressive and the imagined future sometimes surprisingly accurate. Read the full review here.
5. The Inhuman Woman
A hallucinatory explosion of art deco and visual experimentation, French Impressionist Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 film L’Inhumaine has divided critics and audiences for decades. Its bold design and innovative editing inspired a generation of directors, but many find its script thin and its characters one-dimensional and uninspiring. L’Herbier set out to test the boundaries between the narrative film and the art exhibition in order to expand on the idea of what film could be. His dream was to make film a smörgåsbord of all art forms — design, visual art, music, sound, dance. Instead L’Inhumaine became both the crowning achievement and the beginning of the end of the movement of French impressionism in cinema.
In short, the script follows the young Swedish inventor Einar, who falls madly in love with an icy and abusive opera diva, in the guise of the movie’s star and financer, opera diva Georgette Leblanc. A series of incidents lead to a romantic rival murdering the lady, who is brought back to life with the aid of Einar’s Frankenstein machine and a visual frenzy of impressionist editing. The film’s mysterious and surreal atmosphere helps overcome its narrative flaws. Anyone who wants to study some of the earliest trendsetters in science fiction films should put this on their watchlist. Read the full review here.
4. The Electric Hotel
Stop-motion animation with live actors has probably never been done as well as in Segundo de Chomon’s 1908 short film Hôtel électrique. Thus the number four spot on the list goes to a French production by Catalan director Chomon, probably the greatest special effects director of the first decade of the 20th century, Georges Méliès excluded. The film shows a couple arriving at a futuristic hotel, where electrical currents makes everything automatic. Luggage seems to unpack itself, the woman’s hair is braided by invisible electrical hands, and the man gets a magnetically controlled shave and boot polish, it’s the epitome of leisure – until the engineer in charge of the machinery gets drunk and the whole room goes haywire.
The technique used by Chomon is a combination of traditional stop-motion animation, in which a prop is painstakingly animated one frame at a time, and something called pixilation, which is the same thing, except that instead of inanimate props, live actors are used. The six minute short never exceeds the novelty of the trick filming, but it’s done with such mastery that even a modern viewer is forced to collect their jaw from the floor. Read the full review here.
3. The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola
A milestone between two cinematic eras, Marcel Perez’ Italian 1913 adventure epic is a loving pastiche on Jules Verne and George Méliès. Based on Albert Robida’s novel, it anticipates the retro-futuristic work of Karel Zeman and Terry Gilliam. The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola is a Rudyard Kipling/Jules Verne adventure tale as re-imagined in the style of Baron Münchhausen. Co-directed by Spanish lead actor and comedy star Marcel Perez, the film follows the life and adventures of Saturnino Farandola, who is shipwrecked as an infant and brought up by apes on a tropical island, becomes captain of a trading vessel and goes on great adventures with his wife, fighting pirates, giant whales who eat his wife and evil marine biologists who capture said whale with said wife inside, evil Siamese soldiers, African cannibals and finally get dragged into the American civil war. Here the resourceful Farandola creates super-weapons for the South States in order to beat the Northeners’ commander, none other than Phileas Fogg himself, and a final battle is waged in airships armed with cannons.
The film is a slightly odd mix between ambitious outdoor filming with live elephants and tigers, and obvious indoor sets, puppets and props, sometimes reminding of Méliès’ theatrical féerie style. However, the charming fairy-tale quality of the film makes you accept this strange mix of reality and theatricality and just enjoy the ride, a ride that carries the Italians all the way to spot number three on the list. Read the full review here.
2. Our Heavenly Bodies
Nearing the top! Number two on our list is a forgotten German educational film with strong SF elements. Wunder der Schöpfung takes us on a ride in a spaceship to visit the planets and the stars. Director Hanns Walter Kornblum worked with nine animators and six cinematographers to create astounding special effects that hold up to any other masterpiece made in the twenties. In essence, it is Carl Sagan’s TV show Cosmos, only condensed into an hour and a half, and released in 1925. This epic documentary takes the viewer all the way from the history and fundamentals of astronomy and explains things like the tides, night and day, the changing of the seasons, etc. The movie gives an explanation on how life started and evolved on Earth, and then takes the viewer on a sprawling tour of the solar system in a spaceship, visiting not only the moon and all the planets, but also different stars. Finally the film speculates on the destiny of Earth as the sun cools and dies.
About two thirds of the movie consists of special effects work, for the most part created with stop-motion animation, but pretty much every trick available at the time was used, such as claymation, replacement shots, double exposure shots, rod puppets, stop-trick photography, traditional animation and forced perspective photography. There’s also a number of impressive miniature shot and live-action special effects. The last segment of the movie rivals any disaster film from the era. Several parts of the film influenced the visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Read the full review here.
You didn’t think we would leave this one out, did you? The thematic and visual influence of Austrian director Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis is rivalled by few in science fiction and in film in general. Not only is this dystopian sci-fi classic with political and religious undertones one of the most influential sci-fi films of all time. It is also one of the films that has had the biggest influence, not only on the movies, but on art and even architecture and design, in history. Wedged in between two world wars, a raging class struggle that led to a communist revolution in Russia and foreshadowed the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the film’s main plot thread follows the proverbial crown prince of the upper class of Metropolis as he realises that his father’s empire is built on the ruthless exploitation of the working class, enslaved in underground factories. But it’s also a religious parable, juxtaposing the 19-year old actress Brigitte Helm in the double role as the saintly virgin Maria, caring for her flock in the catacombs of the city, and as the robot creation of the mad scientist Rotwang, Maschinenmensch. .
Metropolis was the most expensive film ever made in Germany, and perhaps in the world. And the budget shows — from the gigantic sets to the elaborate miniatures and the ground-breaking special effects. The design of the film’s robot has since become iconic, as has its vision of the future megapolis, inspiring films from the British High Treason in 1929 to Blade Runner in 1982 and the recent Netflix series Altered Carbon. The look of science fiction wouldn’t have been the same without Metropolis. The political message at the end of the film is admittedly naive to the extreme, and the original screenplay was understandably a bit hard to follow at the time, especially for an audience who weren’t used to seeing films over two hours long. And while both audiences and critics hailed its visuals, they found the plot confusing, and the film failed to cover its costs. After several different re-edits, cuts and the ravages of WWII, the original film was lost over time. After decades of restoration attempts a complete version of the original film was finally unearthed in 2008, and in 2010 a restored version of Fritz Lang’s original vision could finally be released to a modern audience, who could but conclude that he was ahead of his time, making Metropolis the greatest futuristic film of the silent era. Read the full review here.
DISCLAIMER: Some of the films appear lower or higher on this list than the star rating I have given them in my original reviews would suggest. That’s because I normally grade films according to the technology and conventions existing at the time they were made — in a sense I’m trying to view them as if I would have seen them at the time they were made. However, in respect to these lists, I’m also taking into account what the films seem like to a modern viewer, so it’s a bit of a trade-off. This is mostly an issue with short films made during first decade of cinema.