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Culture

Silent Movies Still Have a Voice

Bonn is currently playing host to the quietest film festival in Europe. For 11 days, silent movies dance and flicker across an open-air screen as curious cinema-goers flock to watch.

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Silent movie-goers not only enjoy the peace and quiet, but fresh air as well

Big-budget Hollywood blockbuster films may dominate popular culture, but the silent movies of yesteryear continue to work their quiet magic on surprisingly large audiences. The International Silent Movie Festival is part of an annual event called "Summer Cinema," which has been taking place in the former West German capital of Bonn for the past 20 years.

Although organizer Stefan Drössler didn't set out with the express purpose of creating a forum for silent films, his program now attracts tens of thousands of viewers.

"My intention was to show films that no one would be likely to know, films which are not shown in normal cinemas," Drössler told Deutsche Welle. "And there are a lot of unknown silent movies."

Aesthetic diversity

Drössler tries to keep the program as varied as possible in a conscious effort to dispel the notion among viewers that all silent movies belong to the same genre and were made in the same style. He wants his program to reflect the "incredible expanse and diversity of means of expression" that he said existed in the golden era of silent movies in just the same way as it does today. And to illustrate his point, he has created an event that packs avant-garde short films, animation and major-league features into an 11-day program.

The Bonn festival has become so well known that it has now inspired film historians from around the world to restore old film material for showcase at the event. Many silent movies have to be reconstructed and copied from their original nitrate film base to modern tape without losing color or depth of focus before they can be shown.

"Our aim is to always show the best copy of every film, rather than bad, wobbly images," Drössler explained, "because that is also one of the clichés which is associated with old films."

Too subtle?

Klavierkonzert im Vorprogramm

Live piano accompanies the movies

But just how timeless are silent movies? Do today's modern audiences pick up the unspoken nuances? "I think the films are generally comprehensible. The later silent movies in particular perfected the art of telling their stories in a purely visual way. In fact, the introduction of audio was a step back aesthetically speaking. The camera wasn't free to move about so much because the story was no longer only told through images, but through the dialogue," Drössler said.

Silent movie actors speak through subheadings which are faded in and out, but moreover through live music that often accompanies the films when they are screened today. The music determines their characters and the strength of what they are saying. Pianist Aljoscha Zimmermann believes that good music leads viewers to forget about the absence of dialogue.

"We have a famous expression for silent movies: When the words finish, the music begins," Zimmermann said .

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