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
The 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.