Hong Kong Film Archive

Hong Kong Film Archive - Early Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton Retrospective

Film – 100 years ago


100 years ago films were products with temporary commercial value. Original film prints started to disintegrate as early as the 1920s and production companies did little to ensure its preservation. So most films of this time period have turned into dust. But sometimes miracles still do happen.

Why should we care about films?

For 12 decades films give us insights into diverse cultures and impressions of different ways of life. As we are bombarded by moving images today films almost lost their magic. However – the way we dress, the way we talk and act in daily life, the things we believe or doubt are still influenced by films.

By learning about the social and cultural influences on and through films we understand the societies that produced and consumed them.

Reason enough to dedicate some future blog articles to film culture and progression of visual storytelling.

Silent films of 1915

1915 was the year in which one of the most iconic screen characters emerged – Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. Charlie Chaplin brought physical comedy into films and continues to influence popular culture until today. A wonderful article on the tramp character can be found here.

The same year saw the production of the ambivalent melodrama The Birth of a Nation. Despite being highly controversial this film advanced the basic grammar of editing and further developed many cinematic innovations such as color tinting, close-ups and extensive parallel montage.

In 1915 titles such as The Whirl of Life, The Dawn of a Tomorrow and The Eternal City were also produced. They are considered to be lost until present day.

Only about 20% of all silent films have survived. However miracles continue to happen and even 100-year-old films such as Regeneration still turn up in obscure archives or private basements.

The last great silent films

1927 marked the end of the silent film era and there are two films that stand out until today – »Sunrise« and »Metropolis«.

Sunrise tells a touching universal love story and features groundbreaking cinematography. In 1929 it won an Academy Award for »Unique and Artistic Production« – an award that was never given to a film again. The original negatives of Sunrise were destroyed in a fire in 1937 but an alternate version of the film was discovered almost 70 years later in the Czech Republic.

Ever more complete versions of the German expressionist masterpiece Metropolis continue to be released. In 2008 a print of the original version was found in an archive in Buenos Aires in Argentina. Thanks to an extensive restoration process Metropolis can be enjoyed today in its almost original form of 1927.

To be continued…

Text: Jan-Christoph Daniel


Which early film left a deep impression on you?

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Charlie Chaplin – Official Website

Deutsche Kinemathek – Lost Films Portal

Silent Era Company – Presumed Lost

The Guardian – Lost scenes from Metropolis

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