Film Studies and SEO

What does cinema have to do with Search Engine Optimisation?

One might say the two have nothing in common and that might very well be true.

Cinema is all about creative ideas, putting one’s visions into practice and giving shape to one’s fantasies. A filmmaker has to find the perfect way to capture his abstract thoughts and structure them in a way that can be understood by the audience. There are of course exceptions to the rule, where filmmakers deliberately choose to play with the audience, giving new and original shapes to their visions, creating new types of cinema.

But if we were to look at standard traditional cinema, it is quite similar to SEO. For someone who can understand film and has no notion of SEO whatsoever the concepts are quite similar:

  •  SEO, like films, is about getting the best out of an idea and structuring it so that it can be understood, seen and liked by as many people as possible.  Well structured movies are easy to follow and enjoyed by a wide audience. The same thing applies to the process of website optimization. 
  • Like most mainstream films, SEO focuses on sending a message. If a film tells a story, then it has a message for the audience. Doing SEO for a website is about presenting that story in a compelling way for the viewer/reader. Sending the message across and having an impact is one of the most important things to do when optimizing a website.
  • Daring filmmakers are most often hailed as geniuses. They manage to get a simple idea across in a very original, cutting edge manner. Doing good SEO for a website is about doing the same thing. Getting a website to rank high on Google search engine is about being daring and creating original content that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
  • Movie stars are the best publicity a film can get. Most people check the cast before going to the cinema. They even look for a movie starring their favorite actors. In SEO world, the “movie stars” are the keywords: before accessing a website, people look for the keywords they’re interested in. Depending on the SEO ranking, they will click on the top websites out there.
  • In order to get to the top of Google ranking, websites have to have killer content: simple, but original and straight to the point, exploiting well those keywords, using their power well on the page. Similarly, to earn that much coveted Oscar, movies have to have a brilliant script: expressive, well structured and just like website content, exploiting well those movie stars and enhancing their power on the big screen.
  • Links are very important for good website optimization. When a website is being referenced by another website, and then another, people, as well as search engines, start trusting that website as somewhat of an authority in that particular domain. At the same time it helps people gain more perspective and knowledge on the subject. Similarly, in cinema, word of mouth and critical reviews are just as important for movie promotion and box office success. When a friend recommends a movie to you, and then you read a positive review in a movie magazine, your urge is to go and watch that movie.
  • Promoting a film and a website works in strikingly similar ways. Wording is very important for both domains as movie/website titles have to be catchy, memorable and to summarize well what the movie/website is about. Good metaphors work as well, as they stimulate the audience curiosity and make them want to read the article/watch the movie. Another thing that has to do with website promotion are meta descriptions. These work like movie tag lines, offering that little extra information about the website, just enough to get the reader to click on the website.

Ultimately both cinema and SEO are all about selling a product or an idea and getting to be at the top of the box office or the Google search engine results. Both processes require practical skills, creativity, originality and structure. Essentially, the film industry can benefit a lot from SEO and online marketing, thus finding yet another way to promote their product.

Ingmar Bergman – famous works

From Jean Luc Goddard to Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Bernardo Bertolucci, Ingmar Bergman’s body of work has influenced many great directors, who have recognized and appreciated his unique style. As Bertolucci puts it in an interview shortly after Bergman’s death, he managed to capture “the depths of the human spirit, going even further into the interiors of men and women, in a black and white that turned his characters into ghosts and his ghosts into characters”. Inspiring himself mostly from his reality, learning from the pain and suffering of others, his recurrent theme in his films is death. Two of his best known films, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries have death as one of the main themes, but the way in which it is presented differs greatly from a film to the other, even though there are many similarities in style between the two.

Unique style

Thomas Elsaesser writes in his study ‘European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood’ what he finds to be the things “that make Bergman a great film director: his use of close-ups, his work on the sound track, the composition of these incredibly complex, yet fluid action spaces within the frame, in both indoor and outside scenes”. One can find all this in both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, which appear to be two very different stories when first viewed, but at a closer analysis, similarities arise from all corners, establishing Bergman’s style unique. Yet he doesn’t make a template of his work. His films remain “Bergmanesque” but they never become dull, being approached as a lesson on life.

Two journeys

Wild Strawberries is a story of an old doctor and his journey to be honored for his entire activity, while The Seventh Seal presents a knight of the Middle Ages returning home from the crusades. The journeys presented in the two films have apparently simple goals: the doctor has to go to Lund to receive an award, and the knight is coming home after ten years of crusades. Yet the style in which these two journeys are presented shows that there is much more to it than to reach the physical destination. The protagonists from both films (Isak Borg and Antonius Block) are threatened by death and haunted by questions of their own existence, life and the regrets they have. The style in which both stories are told brings them together and helps us understand one character by understanding the other.

Threat of Death

The threat of death is depicted differently in both films but there are certain elements that are central to both scenes. In Wild Strawberries Borg sees his own death in a dream. The whole dream sequence is played beautifully and most effectively, with the contrast between light and darkness, silence and sudden noise being central to the whole scene. The setting plays also an important role, as through the deserted street, where one can’t see where it starts and where it ends. It can make reference to the deserted beach in The Seventh Seal, where Antonius Block first meets with Death and they start a game of chess. In this second film, silence and sound also play an important part, as once Death has made an entrance, one can no longer hear the sound of the waves crashing to the shore. It is dead silent as well as on the empty street in Borg’s dream. The pacing is of the essence in these scenes as the slow action allows the viewer to observe all the details, which prove to be more important than the action itself, revealing key information on the characters (their fears, their questions and desires).

Godless and godly characters

Antonius Block and Isak Borg are quite similar characters portrayed in very similar manner. They both have questions about life and death, about God and his existence. Borg has acted all his life as if he was God and feels now that the day of his reckoning has come. Block has fought all his life in the name of God and finds all his struggles have been in vain. They both embark on a journey that is meant to help them find an answer to their questions; they both meet interesting people on the way, which helps them to some degree achieve their goal. The style of both films is very dark but contains many elements of humour inserted in the story telling. 

Family portraits

One of the recurrent themes of Bergman’s films is family. It is true that the ways in which family relations are looked at are very different in both films, but the central idea of redemption remains in both films and the style is quite similar. In the midst of all kinds of threats from all sides, family remains unified at the end of the film even though not much seems to be resolved. Darkness and light are intertwined in both films, suggesting the viewer an inner struggle within both characters. At the end they are both somewhat at peace with their imminent deaths, knowing that they leave a happy and united family behind, that have just escaped from death’s trap. We notice that both Mia and Jof and Marianne and Evald are threatened by the concept of death, only that in Wild Strawberries the threat comes from the inside, namely Evald’s view on life and death and his refusal to have any children.

Life changing experiences

Both films focus on issues of existence, on how fear and constant struggle can be at the same time human and grotesque, how life experiences can transform a person, turning them into outcasts in the middle of society. The difference between the two protagonists is that Block realizes how he has estranged himself from his own persona. War has changed his view on life and God, making him question everything and in the end feeling more lost than ever. Just as Borg, Block needs to solve unfinished business before he dies; both films follow the same style when it comes to fulfilling that last task by using the journey motif. Block’s journey has begun long before he is presented to us, while Borg seems to reinvent his own life by embarking on a rather unplanned journey. Borg had slipped into a state of oblivion, living in denial of his own self. It is the dream of his own death that makes him realize he’s not immortal and that he too has a task to fulfil before he dies. Death thus is a strong element in both films, but the style in which it is presented and the effect it has on the protagonists differs greatly. In The Seventh Seal death has a face and represents almost a constant threat. In Wild Strawberries, death is not seen but merely feared of and this fear acts as wake-up call on Borg’s conscience.

Bergman the auteur

The style Bergman has applied to his films, especially during the “middle period” to which the two films we’re analysing belong, is very complex in its simplicity. The dialogue is very important in helping to portrait the characters especially when it alternates with moments of complete silence which are very expressive in creating an image around the characters. It is true that one can distinguish the theatrical style in his films, but that is of secondary importance as one cannot expect much realism in a Bergman film. His reality is what we are being presented, and as theatrical as his storytelling style may be, he can’t be accused of artificiality. In both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries the problems the protagonists deal with are very personal to the filmmaker. It is his signature and his filter on life. He even stated that The Seventh Seal was “’excellent therapy’ for his morbid obsessions. He presented life as he experienced and saw it. Both Block and Borg can be seen as images of Bergman at different stages in his life, even though Borg resembles more the figure of Bergman’s father, who had a great impact on Bergman, while Block more like the filmmaker himself. The close-ups are a trademark of Ingmar Bergman’s style of filming and storytelling as with a facial expression he manages to make it easier to render feelings.

Style of narration

The narrative style is very reflective. In Wild Strawberries the protagonist narrates as a voice over what has been happening to him, reflecting on the points he considered to be flagrant: his two dreams namely the dream of his own death and the one of him failing at the most important exam of his life. They both suggest that Borg is afraid not only of his death, but also that he may have not achieved anything significant throughout his whole life. In addition to his dreams, his youth comes to haunt him as if to ask the same question. In The Seventh Seal, even though there’s no narrator, one might say that the narrative style is also reflective, as there are many scenes of monologue. Block is narrating his inner thoughts to the viewer. But instead of presenting what has been happening to him, we guess it from his revealing of his thoughts and torments (the scene at the confessional). Bergman gives an insight on Block’s mind and what he is thinking through his monologues, which is presented somehow clearer than in the case of Borg, where the 1st person narrative is used. 

Elements of humor

Humor is a very important part in the narrative as well as in helping portraying the characters. Borg and his maid have a very interesting almost comical relationship that hides a deep respect and appreciation on both sides, despite the obvious taunting. There is a comical element in The Seventh Seal as well, though the overall style is much heavier. The humour is induced by Block’s esquire who proves to be a very wise man but also a very subtly funny one, mocking those around him whenever he gets the chance (the relationship between the blacksmith and his wife for example, or the way in which he presents his marital status: “I am married but I have hope my wife will be dead by now”). In The Seventh Seal even Death has some sense of humour, especially when he chops down the tree where the coward and lustful actor Skat finds refuge. Though picking him as his victim is not completely at random. Skat represents betrayal and he is portrayed in contrast with the angelic family of Jof, Mia and Mikael.


The symbol of the wild strawberries is worth being taken into consideration as it relates to key moments in both films and also to Bergman’s style of using details as key elements in his story-telling. In The Seventh Seal, the wild strawberries represent the simplicity and innocence that is associated with Mia, Jof and Mikael. They are the only image throughout the film that comes close to holiness, bearing a striking resemblance to the Holy Family. Similarly, in Wild Strawberries, whose title couldn’t be more suggestive, the wild strawberries represent Borg’s lost love, youth and innocence, which he looks upon nostalgically. Both Borg and Block catch a glimpse of that long lost bliss in their life. As he helps himself with strawberries and milk from the bowl, Block says “I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light […] I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk. And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me”, suggesting that this was the sign from God that he had been looking for.

Bergman shows his unique craftsmanship by using almost the same style, almost the same cast to depict two stories that couldn’t be more different to each other, yet couldn’t be more similar. He has used his own life as the nucleus for most of his films on which he added more or less the same “ornaments”, using the same palette and the same range of “tools” but with such different effects. He is an auteur and he has created films that can be easily identified as his own, but he has never created a pattern in his work, which could turn him from a true artist into a second rate dull filmmaker. 



New Wave aesthetics

What is The New Wave?

The French New Wave is a very important movement in the history of European cinema. Inspired by the best exports of Hollywood cinema and the cinematic movement called Italian Neorealism that emerged there after World War II, the French New Wave was looking to revolutionize and reshape the state of cinema and to set in place new rules and new aesthetic priorities. It succeeded in doing more than that, establishing the “politique des auteurs” and offering to hundreds of young people passionate about cinema the possibility to make their first feature film, thus showing to the world that the French love good quality cinema. Certain things that one must bear in mind about this cinematic movement are the new aesthetic priorities that even today provide new filmmakers with inspiration for their own films.

Precursors of the cinematic movement

In order to establish the aesthetic priorities of the New Wave one must look back at the cinema that preceded it, draw parallels and point out the contrasts that triggered in fact the whole movement. One can notice that Francois Truffaut’s harsh manifesto against “le cinema de papa” seemed to have a quick response through the works of Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (1958) which observed a “certain tendency” to break away from the norm and show audacity by attempting to reinvent the French cinema. The French culture and tradition had been overused as themes for the cinema and therefore directors had to resort to other tricks to find inspiration. They decided to focus less on the story and more on the telling of the story and how the story is presented to the audience. 

posterAmerican Influence

Looking at the works of Jean Pierre Melville and Louis Malle, it’s impossible not to notice the American influence on the style and motifs used in Bob le Flambeur and Ascenseur pour l’echafaud respectively. These directors were big fans of the golden age of Hollywood and they were not afraid to show it and find inspiration in it. Jazz music is specific to America and its role in these films is one not to be neglected. Transforming music into an important part of the process of filmmaking is apparent even from the opening credits of Bob le Flambeur. They introduce the viewer into the atmosphere of his world, the underground life of a retired gangster. It is interesting to observe that the intentional interruption of the narrator by the non-diegetic trumpet comes right after a simple shot of a car on a road. This has nothing to do with the story but it helps create a border between real life and cinema. Thus, even though Place Pigalle and Montmartre are real places that exist outside the story, Bob the gambler appears to be a product of the jazz trumpet playing, an American song played by Melville and his crew. Yet another element worthy of analysis is Melville’s name that dominates the credits, very suggestive of the “politique des auteurs”,  theory which is closely linked with the French New Wave movement.

Miles Davis

The music that signals the American factor more and has a greater impact on the viewer is the one present in Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Just like the trumpet crying out Bob’s name in Melville’s opening credits, Miles Davis’ music is crying out the love between the two protagonists of Louis Malle’s film. It is the very definition of American jazz music, captured in an amazing score perfectly synchronized with the images onscreen. Also important to bear in mind is the fact that Miles Davis improvised on the spot the entire score for this film. Improvise is a key term and one feels impelled to explore the matter further. By associating his film with Miles Davis’ music and the art of improvising, Malle is inviting the viewer to freely interpret and judge the film itself. The free spirit of Miles Davis’ trumpet is beautifully blended into the corpus of the film, further emphasizing the free spirits of the characters on-screen, projections of the directorial vision. Very subtly and effectively, the music comes to add extra sentiment to the scenes where it’s being used, most notably in the sequences where Jeanne Moreau’s character, Florence, is wandering around Champs Elysees at night looking for her loved one. One must also add that Miles Davis’ contribution to the score of Elevator to the Gallows prompted a change in his career, improvisation playing a very important role in his subsequent albums. 

Turning Jeanne Moreau into a star

The central aspect of the sequences is of course the image of Jeanne Moreau as the confused, distressed lover searching the night for answers. The narrative is not as important as the feelings it triggers, feelings displayed in the most unusual and poetic manner. It’s not about the story it’s about how the story is told. Just like in Bob le Flambeur, the focus on the little details is of central importance, and not on the fact that this is an adaptation of a pulp novel. As Richard Neupert writes “It was fairly standard for first-time directors in France in the late 40’s early 50’s, to shoot a B-grade detective story, or polar, loosely following American noir patterns. But Malle’s adaptation varies from the model in his reworking of the crime drama, his addition of personal and art cinema traits to what would otherwise be a conventional genre film.”

vlcsnap51480511viWhat it may have not been so standard was the fact that Louis Malle used only natural light and no make-up on Jeanne Moreau for that sequence, which, rumour has it, surprised the lab technicians who didn’t want to process it. As Terrence Rafferty puts it The new wave doesn’t quite get born in Elevator to the Gallows, but it’s clearly in the late term here, more than ready to emerge. You can sense it in Decaë’s remarkably daring natural-light cinematography (which he would soon be putting to good use for Truffaut and Claude Chabrol as well) […]most of all, in the unleashing of Jeanne Moreau, who, nearing thirty, was a busy actress but never quite a star until Malle turned her loose in the nocturnal city and did justice, for the first time, to that amazing, imperious, gravelly sexy walk of hers—which would, over the next couple of decades, come to seem the defining movement of the new wave, the embodied rhythm of freedom.”1 Louis Malle sees the opportunity and takes it. Adapting the story and re-telling it his way may be seen as Francois Truffaut’s answer to his 1954 article “A certain tendency of the French cinema”. With influences from both Bresson and Hitchcock, Malle is recreating society on film: recreating the image of woman in love, introducing the image of the young rebels (via Veronique and Louis) embracing the new and innovative, but using it as a canvass for his work. The focus on the protagonists’ face and the close-up seems to have been used differently and to enormous stylistic effect in these movies. Most notable is the scenes when Jeanne Moreau’s character, Florence, has her inner monologues. The camera manages to capture the imperfection of her face as well as the perfection of her performance. It may be the opening door for other directors to focus on the feminine beauty and play with it so daringly. 


New modernized society

The image of an industrialized and “deromanticised” Paris is very well created on screen in both films by the wonderfully talented Henri Decaë, who later worked with Godard and Chabrol and most notably with Francois Truffaut in The 400 Blows. Fast cars, modern buildings, futuristic motels, electric pencil-sharpeners, are all part of the picture that represents a new France, a new society and morality. A good example for this is of course the image of the car spraying the streets with water early in the morning in Bob the Gambler. The high angle camera insists on watching the process of the streets being washed, to bring a sense of reality to the scene. It is early in the morning and the first time Bob sees Anne. It should be a more romantic environment. Instead, she is picked up by an American sailor and he watches on while the car never stops spraying the road. This is just another way to deconstruct Paris: by presenting one process that’s part of the less romantic city, that one doesn’t usually witness in a film, let alone in a scene where the protagonist sets his eyes on a beautiful woman. Another very important gadget is, besides the cars that get stolen in Ascenseur pour l’echafaud and complicate the plot even more, the minicamera that Julien forgets in his car, which he so preciously holds onto until then. The same minicamera holds the information that resolves the situation at the end of the movie, namely both the proof of the love between Florence and Julien and their doom.

New Morality

One gets a glimpse of that new France with Bob le Flambeur, which presents that same type of new morality through the character of Anne, who seems to drift through life with no clear purpose. But it’s still the father figure of Bob, who represents both the old and the new Paris dominating the narrative, whereas in Ascenseur pour l’echafaud the assumed father figure, Carala, is killed off even before the story unfolds, setting the scene for the “new love”. It is interesting to observe the interaction between old and new in these two films, which is transferred to the whole style of these cinematic works. The language used is another step bringing French cinema closer to the New Wave. For the viewer it marks a change in style, from the rigidity of the “cinema de papa” to the freedom and audacity to use expressions like “belle gueule de voyou”(nice face of a hoodlum) or “casse-toi, chien”(beat it, you dog) anticipating the language and also the attitude towards women employed later on in films such as Godard’s Breathless.

The way the camera works in these two films is of vital importance to pinpoint the advent of the revolutionary style of the New Wave films. Some good examples lie with the director’s choice to film on location, rather than in the studio, to have the camera follow the characters, as well as high angle shots of great effect, like the one where it shows Bob in his kitchen. Here the stylistic choice of the decor catches the eye and may be analysed as an extension of Bob. The way the kitchen looks reminds of the appearance of the first gambling room where Bob’s being introduced to the audience. The decor is starting to be noticed, to come to the forefront as an important piece, not of the storytelling, but of the story viewing. As mentioned before, the narrative falls second place in importance of the space in the story. The directors rediscover how to play with light, like one can notice in opening gambling scene in Bob le Flambeur, as well as in many scenes from Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, like the interrogation scene, which resembles very much with the American film noir. The characters are similarly presented and played with but it seems that there’s an innovation in the way the camera captures their struggle and depth of performance.

Roger Duchesne’s performance as Bob is almost flawless not only because he’s a great actor. One wouldn’t see as much in Bob as there is to be seen if the camera hadn’t been able to capture elements from his routine. These are not important parts of the story but they are central to the “tres curieuse histoire” (very strange story) of Bob. For example there’s no change to the story whether or not he puts his clothes carefully on the hanger, or if he chooses to drink tea instead of wine as soon as he wakes up, some time during the night. But it says a lot about himself as an individual and that is not information to be neglected. Similarly, in the case of Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, when Florence wanders through the night looking for Julien, she is seen moving her lips, but one can’t hear what she’s saying. One can guess though, as the camera captures everything her face expresses, all her hidden emotions. The voiceover also indicates to those emotions, almost standing in for the narrator in Bob le flambeur.

Maurice Ronet’s character in Ascenseur pour l’echafaud is the source of future New Wave male characters like Michel from Breathless or Pierrot le fou, who both go to extreme lengths, including breaking the law, to prove their love for a woman. His performance is very subtle and convincing as the man who’s very much in love with his boss’ wife, especially if one bears in mind the difficulty of the task, given that Julien and Florence are never seen together onscreen.

The two films analyzed above are not considered to be part of the New Wave movement for various reasons, including a certain heaviness and lack of playfulness in presenting the story onscreen. However, the elements that have created artistic cinema within the New Wave are present with both Bob le Flambeur and Ascenseur pour l’echafaud and have clearly represented an influence on future filmmakers from France and worldwide, including Hollywood.


Sound in Sunrise – a song of two humans

The most exciting moment is the moment when I add the sound… At this moment, I tremble.” (Akira Kurosawa) Sound is arguably the most important concept in cinema studies, being there ever since the beginnings. It can radically change the way a motion picture is looked at and it can render what the director may sometimes find hard to depict using only his camera. Looking upon silent cinema one discovers an era which wasn’t at all silent, but rich in sound of different forms, from the simple narration of the images shown on screen, accompanied by a piano, to the complex score later composed specifically for that film. An example of that complex score is shown in Sunrise, a film by F.W. Murnau, which lies at the border between silent cinema and sound cinema. Considered to be one of the first films with an actual score, Sunrise is a great example of the multitude of dimensions and effects sound can have.

tumblr_m6iclhK9U91qcs276o1_500Certain aspects of sound are essential in creating the right atmosphere for a film. According to Bordwell and Thomson there are fundamental perceptual properties of film sound such as loudness, pitch and timbre. When referring to loudness, the volume of a certain atmosphere can be manipulated to achieve a certain effect. Using Murnau’s Sunrise as an example, one can understand these concepts better. For instance in the scene where the husband realizes that his plan is in danger of being revealed because he’s left the bunch of bulrushes in plain sight, the music played gets suddenly louder and changes rhythm, revealing to the viewer some of the inner tormentof the character who’s burdened by guilt as he’s decided to murder his wife. Loudness comes to play a very important role as it allows the filmmaker to explore and analyze the story and characters in depth.

One can understand how using or choosing to ignore external atmospheric sounds from the environment can have a great effect on the viewer by looking at two scenes in Sunrise, which are both set on the back of the city traffic. The scene where the wife runs from her husband and finds herself in the city, crossing the roads and almost getting run over is dominated not by the sound of the traffic, but by the sound of her visible pain and suffering knowing her husband had plans of killing her. Later in the picture there is a similar scene where the characters are involved in a traffic jam, but this time the music played is a happier, more romantic one and is toned down by the sound of the actual traffic and the voices of angry drivers shouting at the happy couple, telling them to move out of the way. This second time the sound of the traffic and the people shouting is important to the story, bringing the characters back to reality from the dreamy atmosphere following their reconciliation. In this traffic scene, one can notice the loudness and also the high pitch sound of the angry drivers, car horns and startled horses, all very effectively illustrating the chaos created by the two characters.

Pitch is another very important aspect of the sound analysis. Like Bordwell and Thomson point out “pitch plays a useful role in helping us pick out distinct sounds in a film”. In Sunrise, other than the traffic scenes we’ve just mentioned, there are a few examples of high-pitch sounds, like the one when the husband returns home at dawn with the bunch of bulrushes and goes into the barn. The horse startles and scares the husband. The sound heard resembles a metallic object being hit, perhaps a bucket and it stands out to illustrate the high level of tension and guilt experienced by the character.This guilt is represented furthermore in the story by the high-pitch sound of the church bell, which tolls at key scenes in the film, particularly when the husband is about to kill his wife. In the church scene, the bell rings again, perhaps to put an end to the man’s torment and sense of guilt, since his wife has forgiven him.

0000214513Towards the end, when the boat has capsized and the man is calling out his wife, we can hear a sound like a foghorn, crying out in desperation.

Though one can identify three types of sound in cinema (speech, music and noise), in a silent film like Sunrise, there can be no speech analysis. Therefore music and noise remain the main types which the sound analysis can be based on. Music is used throughout the film to help create the right atmosphere around the characters, defining them. Since the characters have no voice of their own, the music provides the element that better defines them, thus creating a musical theme for each character. In Sunrise, when the husband returns home at dawn, while sitting on the bed, the music that plays is the same that is heard whenever the woman from the city is seen onscreen, but in a different dynamic, slower tempo, signifying his lover’s presence, but not as strong (rememorized by the man). Moments later, that same theme song is played and the shadow of the woman appears embracing the man,sunrise3

as if casting a spell on him. This theme resembles very much the Longing theme from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Another theme song is the one accompanying the image of the man tortured by guilt. The double bass and the bassoon are distinct in this theme song, producing a low pitch sound and adding dramatic tension to the scene. This particular theme is associated with the image of the man walking through the marches towards the place where he meets his lover. It is a gloomy image, dominated by fog and mud and the music played doubles the effect of the image shown.

Rhythm is, according to Bordwell and Thomson “one of the most powerful aspects of sound, for it works on our bodies at deep level. That means that the “pulse” of a particular scene, its nature, if it’s a dramatic scene, an action scene, a comical scene, is dictatedthrough rhythm. Pace or tempo is also important to deliver the desired effect for the audience. In Sunrise for example, when the man and his wife go on the boat and the dog escapes and starts swimming towards them, we can hear an alert rhythm that distinguishes itself from the slow music from before. Another moment worthy of being mentioned is the one when the wife runs from the boat through the woods, trying to escape her husband. Her pain and fear are both well-expressed in the fast-paced dramatic music dominated by violins. Also in the scene at the photograph, the rhythm is a playful one, becoming fast-paced at intervals, to create a relaxed atmosphere. In other scenes the rhythm changes suddenly from slow-paced to fast-paced to achieve almost a comical effect, such as in the pig chase scene. In silent films, dialogue represented by title cards, is replaced by music or sound in general, which would render more or less the same effect. “Sound effects are usually central to action sequences, while music can dominate dance scenes, transitional sequences, or emotion-laden moments without dialogue” (Bordwell & Thomson, 2008:269). It is well-known that Murnau hated title cards and in Sunrise one can notice that they are used very rarely and towards the end disappear almost completely. To make up for the lack of dialogue, sound is manipulated, so that sudden changes or alternations in the musical rhythm or musical theme arise. For example when the husband tells his wife to go on a trip across the water the musical theme that dominates the scene is that of the man’s guilt, which alternates briefly with a playful song when the wife says goodbye to the baby. What’s also interesting in this scene is that the guilt theme is played throughout, even when the wife runs happily to get ready for the trip.0010aecb_medium_jpeg

This causes a disparity between the sound and the image, which is most effective suggesting therefore that the feeling which dominates the scene is not that of a happy couple going for a trip across the water, but that of guilt of the man planning to kill his wife.

Sound has many achievements under its name, be it in silent films or otherwise and without the development of sound, the development of cinema would not have been possible. Sunrise encapsulates many of the technologies still used nowadays, when looking at the noise and music in a film. One can say it has opened the path for developing the use of high pitch sounds that have an enormous effect when placed in contrast with a silent scene, but filled with tension. The score was well comprised and edited accordingly. The theme songs are well-chosen and filled with subtlety, defining each character, their emotions and inner struggles. It is important to take into account the time when this piece of cinema was released and judge according to those criteria and also to note that the main aspects of sound (loudness, pitch, timbre) were well-represented and effectively played with. 

Beauty manufactured?

It is impossible to watch a silent movie and not be in awe of those silent screen actresses with perfect make-up, perfect hair and perfect attitude towards the camera. They did have faces back then, but they had something much more than that. They had everything else hidden from their audience. They were merely an apparition on the screen and one could not know what was there behind the performance of the actor.


Take Theda Bara for instance. Unfortunately most of her films have been lost, but this only adds to the mystery surrounding her persona. She was two different people: Theda Bara, born in the Sahara under strange circumstances, possessing supernatural powers, and Theodosia Burr Goodman, born in Ohio, from a Cincinnati tailor. Known as “the vamp”  for her roles as a  beautiful temptress, she was probably the first femme fatale in the history of cinema. Many say there has never been anyone like her on the silver screen and they wouldn’t be wrong; given the few films of hers remaining, it is very hard to argue with this statement.

This was a time where film viewers found it hard to distinguish between the actor and the character on screen, so Theda Bara, and many other actors at the time, was identified with the characters she was portraying. As a consequence, she was viewed as a villain and disliked, and actresses like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were seen as “America’s sweethearts”.

These were the very first movie stars and even if they may have not been much different from the ordinary people, they were hailed as gods and goddesses because their faces could bring many emotions to the audience, they could transport them outside their own world and into their make-believe one.

Old and boring? Was Hugo boring?

Edwin S. Porter - The Great Train Robbery (1903)Many of my colleagues at university were very little impressed with the early silent cinema when we started doing this degree, failing to understand that a lot that belongs to the medium of cinema is very strongly related with history. If you don’t like history, you won’t like film history and by default movie viewing and movie making is compromised.

Among the directors to whom we were introduced at the beginning of our three year learning degree we were acquainted to D.W. Griffith, E. S. Porter, Georges Méliès are just a few and among the most important pioneers of early cinema.


I am not sure if many did in fact see, or how obvious it is how much these directors brought to the evolution of cinema as all we were shown were simple minimalist stories with uncomplicated plots and very few characters. The list of course is much longer than that. Right after Porter, Griffith and Melies established the grammar of cinema, the doors were opened to many opportunities and many creative minds soon developed the medium, bringing it closer to what it is now. The German expressionists followed with F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene and others.

And let’s not forget the Russian formalists with Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov as the most famous representatives,

though Vertov can be considered part of the avant-garde current along with Fernand Léger, Cavalcanti, Abel Gance, Jean Epstein and Luis Bunuel

meliesThe evolution of early cinema is of course much more complex than that and its beauty and mystique still manage to attract new admirers. Fortunately there still are filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who make films like Hugo, which can be seen merely as a great tribute to early silent cinema and its heroes.

The relationship between American cinema and European cinema at this early stage is also very important to observe. As one can talk about an epic film, action, adventure and melodrama in American cinema, European cinema is credited with experimenting. Griffith made Birth of a Nation (1916), Intolerance (1917), Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor and others alike were starting up their own legacy as great Hollywood directors, all the while keeping an eye on the European film which was being shaped up.

Experimenting with montage, mise en scène, light, decor and anything that can be considered to make a difference for the spectator is what the European filmmakers were doing in the early 1920’s. Even though it was still seen as a pure form of entertainment, the concept of cinema as art was little by little beginning to take shape.