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  The Kinetics of Silent Film
The Relationship between Film and Movement in the Early Twentieth Century

Part 1

John J. Cook

This is the first in a series of articles which will investigate the relationship between visual representations of the human form and the performing body. I begin with two of the youngest genres Silent Film and Modern Dance. Both genres first appeared, in a significant manner, at the end of the nineteenth century in Paris. Each playing an important role in the 1900 exposition in the French capital ushering in new visual and kinesthetic languages for the 20th century. And it is towards these new languages I wish to draw our attention in my forthcoming articles.

The Media in Flux

We can never truly know what early modern dance looked like, or more importantly, felt like. We may have a better sense of the early cinema since many films are still available in their "original" form. However, we are only seeing these films in an altered state. As any re-representation of dance is mediated by either another media, (photography, film, video, text, etc.) or through a historically displaced body, early cinema too poses problems in reconstructing; as the films have often been transferred to more stable film stock or onto video/DVD. Quite often the films we watch now are shown at an incorrect speed with a loss of their true color (a silver tinting was applied to films giving the images a greater depth of environment). Nor do we experience the sound of the live music except on special occasions. Our contemporary perspective is quite skewed due to the transformation of visual culture during the past century for both dance and film.

The Language of Motion

Two new forms of performance/entertainment/art emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and North America. Both forms would challenge the world's perception of the "moving image." The emergence of a new dance form and vocabulary in 1890s Paris threatened the 300 year old tradition of concert dance in Western Europe. In the same decade an even more devastating assertion of modern image making and moving, film or moving pictures, threatened the traditional languages of art and performance. It was not by coincidence that these forms develop at the same time and place.

Modern Dance develop as a reaction to the elitist and misogynist world of ballet in the 1890s by two powerful and articulate women from America. Their tenatious perservearence and daring won them a place in modern history. Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan arrived in Europe from America with the goal to transform bodies and movement into a new art. At roughly the same time the Lumiere Brothers were transforming still images into moving images and models into actors. Not surprisingly, modern dance and silent film tread a common ground. Both forms brought a new performativity and physical expressivity to audiences. Both invented a new vocabulary to reach a new society.

In early Modern dance, the danced movement replaces spoken or mimed language with kineticism. We can also see a direct correlation between the kinesthetic performativity of silent screen actors and the silent film's narrative content. However, in the end it is not dance that shares a common kinetic language with film, but avant-garde theatre. An observation of the highly physical articulation of characters and the discernible movement motifs in silent film could lead one to believe that these qualities are indicative of its debt (silent film) to the new choreographic and kinesthetic developments of modern dance/dance modernism. Especially considering that many choreographers and dancers (Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn for example) worked for and with film in the early years. It should be noted that there is a difference between films which employ movement narratives and dance movement from films which document dance performances.

The American dance and cultural historian Elizabeth Kendell argues for such a direct influence of modern dance on the development of silent film. In her book, Where She Danced, Kendell sees a common heritage for the new kineticism of film acting and modern dance which evolved into a common kinetic language. "Dance, a new art in this country (USA), accomplished the same things as movies: it fused inherited theatrical gestures plus other kinds of behavior into a new, wordless, plastic language."

I agree with Kendell's implied relativeness between dance and film performance, but I disagree with her concept of "wordless" language for film acting. Indeed they share a common kinesthetic and performative heritage, Delsartism and Symbolist Theatre, but they are not of the same structural composition or intention.
While it is clear that similarities abound between dance and silent film, and that dancer's regularly crossed over into the medium of film, they are not structurally or semiotically the same. The abstract movements of dance and the method for organizing these movements into phrases differs strongly from the stylized movements accompany the silenced voice.

The movement employed by actors of the silent screen in a technical manner for dramatic expression served not to replace language, as it does in dance, but to augment the implied text of the screen play.

The gestural language coexisting with the spoken, but not heard text, of the silent actor is not a dance. This gestural language of kinesthetic dynamics interplays with the characters in the film or with the architectonic structure of the film to support the unheard voice, but it does not supersede or replace the voice as it does in dance. This does not mean that similarities between the kinesthetic of dance and silent film acting do not exist or can not be read in conjunction to one another, but it does mean that they are not the same, nor does a silent film taken as a whole equate a dance piece as Kendell eludes to.

The acting styles employed in the silent films bare a strong resemblance, visually and kinesthetically not only to early modern dance forms as already mentioned but also to puppet theatre and physical theatre as developed in Russia/Soviet Union by Vesvolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) and Nikolai Foregger (1892-1939) and German expressionist drama with its associative dance forms. Meyerhold developed a system of expressive movement serving both as exercises to prepare the body for performing and as performative physical language to aid in the dramatic staged text.

Foregger created mechanical dances embracing the new technology of mechanized Industry. The dancers formed human machine imitating the structure and functions of the mechanized utopia professed by the recently founded Soviet Union.

These movement techniques allowed for a greater expressivity of the body, which developed in the case of physical theatre following the Symbolist influence into a mechanistic imitation, or reciprocity in more delicate hands, best defined in the Russian Futurist / Constructivist theatre, allowing for a conception of expression of the new society / modern society. In the case of modern dance it developed into an acrobatic biomechanics of abstracted movement phrases or, in expressionist dance, into a somatic organic exposition of the unconscious or inner self.

To illustrate my point I have chosen to discuss two films Metropolis (1926) by German director Fritz Lang and Aelita (1924) by Soviet director Yakov Protazanov, with an eye towards where modern dance or physical movement techniques (such as Biomechanics) have had a semiotic function and can be read with a kinesthetic understanding as a sub-text.

In Metropolis and Aelita the use of dance/physical theatre plays an integral role in the construction of these films. Again it does not overtake the voiceless acting, but the stylized gestures and defined movement qualities are very important in defining kinesthetically the socio-political and cultural parameters of these films.


Metropolis opens with scenes of a futuristic society. A high rising city dominates the modern landscape where an elevated rail, cars, and planes replace birds and four legged animals and glass, steel and concrete replaces trees, grass and rivers. Next a montage with a spinning kaleidoscope of machinery visually and kinetically akin to a futurist painting such as a work by Giaccomo Balla draws the viewer into the hectic urban society of Modernism

In sharp contrast the next scene moves us underground to the world of the workers. Here a space of faceless apartment buildings surrounding a cold concrete plaza mimic the expressionless masses of workers who toil under the rigid confines of their subterranean world providing energy for the expansive city above. The workers form a solid mass moving in unison to the massive elevators which carry them to and from the machines at which they labor. The all male movement chorus (referring to Laban's movement choruses) sway to a noticeably different tempo depending on whether they are coming from or going to work. This swaying rhythm continues wherever we see the workers; either at the machine which energizes the city, in the quad around their apartments or even when they move in smaller groups into the catacombs to hear the heroine of the film Maria (played by Brigitte Helm) speak about liberation from their daily drudgery. The bound internally focused movement qualities found in the underground starkly changes when we move above ground or when the workers revolt. The closed fists of the workers, their tight forwardly curved shoulders, their faceless expression and uniformed movement patterns kinesthetically provides the socio-political subtext of oppression and suppression which runs through Metropolis. These stylized gestures of a faceless or dehumanized/mechanized worker bare a strong kinesthetic relation to the mise-en-scene of Symbolism, to movement choruses of Laban (1879-1958) and to the Biomechanics of Meyerhold. Even the workers uniforms look, in black and white, similar to the attire (Prozodezhda) worn by the constructivist / agit-prop performers of the 1920's who embodied these same movement qualities.

Above ground characters move independently with light, open and outwardly directed movement qualities, as can be see in the garden scene where young inhabitants enjoy the pleasures of a Baroque styled garden with lush greenery and a decorative fountain. The only time this is not true comes late in the film when a group of the elite male population of the upper city are worked into frenzied movements of ecstasy after an erotic dance by the Robot. Likewise, the only time the workers movements break out of their constrained boundness is when they are in revolt (this is where the two groups meet kinesthetically) lead by the Robot.

The main characters of Metropolis are the only ones who can cross the physical and kinetics boundaries of the split metropolis. As Maria (the heroine from the underground) appears in the garden by mistake, she has a light open chest with soft expansive gestures. When we see her underground she is closed, tighter in her expression, more inwardly focused and more angular with smaller movements. This is exaggerated when she is replaced by the Robot where her gestures become more fluid, serpentine almost, where she alternates between closed and open and her use of sharp angular gestures, which have a futuristic quality about them now, are complimented by fast almost violent-like exposures of herself. In the final segment of her exotic dance where she agitates the crowd of men into a fury of ecstasy, just as she will agitate the workers into a explosive state of revolt, she lures them (MEN) closer with her tentacle arms, their eyes swirling in uncontrolled amazement; an image which replicates the earliest image of the machines swirling as an animated futurist canvas . Images of disks, the circular motion of the orbital eyes and serpents reinforce the kinesthetic reading of the socio-political subtext of mechanization / industrialization / modernized woman gone awry. An image quite often found in the paintings and dances of the German Expressionists.

Maria's wild release from bondage through the decadence of a strip tease kinesthetically develops into her encouragement of the workers revolt leading them into a frenzy of destruction culminating in a celebratory circle dance which references the circle of men in the exotic dance scene connecting her aboveground and underground persona unlike any other character in the film. Perhaps since she is the only non-human character she can transcend both planes without having to change her kinesthetic qualities.

Lang's awareness of the kinesthetic possibilities of movement to reinforce the narrative development of his film and to underscore its socio-political parameters is manifested in Metropolis.


Aelita works in a similar fashion to Metropolis in its use of stylized movement to develop a subtext for the socio-political parameters of the film by employing the same dichotomy of underground versus aboveground movement. The film incorporates two realms of reality: one is on earth in Moscow just after the Revolution and one is at a contemporary time but in an imaginary/futuristic society on the planet Mars. The movement qualities on Mars is more stylized, more gestural bearing a close relationship to the physical acting techniques developed by Meyerhold and Foregger (which also happens to be where many of the actors were trained) than the realistic acting style of the characters on Earth.

As with the Metropolis' workers, the workers of Mars are kept as virtual slaves running the machinery which powers the city from underground. Their movement qualities of bound tension, curved in shoulders and literally faceless expressions (they have cubical helmets on) are almost identical to their Metropolitan counterparts.

Another important comparison between Metropolis and Aelita should be made between the movement qualities of the robotic/futuristic woman Maria and the queen of Mars, Aelita. Aelita employs stylized gestures which alternate with angular movements and serpentine fluidity. As does the Robot in Metropolis, the Queen of Mars acquires power and control through her movement. In an encounter between Aelita and the Astronomer of Mars we can see the implementation of the physical theatre experiments of Meyerhold and Foregger. Their interaction serves as a small micro-kinesthetic example of my argument. If we pay attention to Aelita's serpentine body her closed then exposed chest, her gripped fists and the Astronomers angular motions his closed fists and stylized stance then we can clearly make a kinesthetic line to the biomechanical experiments of the Soviets and the expressionist techniques of German physical movement theories of this period and back to the stylization of Metropolis.

Aelita, and Maria and the Robot in Metropolis, rely on movement to identify and empower their roles, but they still direct the narrative development of the films through spoken text. Where with the large chorus movements (the workers in Metropolis and slaves in Aelita) socio-political references are carried through the bodies, the narrative plot of the films progress with spoken text, unheard by the audience -- but still registered and imagined by them -- and with the inter-titles.

The kinesthetic similarities between Metropolis and Aelita that I have been mentioning show movement qualities which directly relate to the experiments of modern dance at the beginning of the century are indeed present, as are the physical acting techniques used in futuristic or modern theatre, but do not constitute a compositional structure which would enable us to read the entire film as a dance. As mentioned earlier a differentiation needs to be made between the use of dance in film, the use of dancers in films, the use of a movement quality in individual performance, group action and editing which resembles dance techniques created by the early dance modernists visually and kinesthetically, but does not replace the unheard voice.

They speak. They speak, but their voices are silent.

August 2000

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"Learning to watch silent films means trying to identify with a lost visual sensitivity. It also means going back to the origins of a truly inflammable, even explosive relationship between image and mind, provided that this relationship is cultivated with the rigour of the historian and the imagination of a spectator aware of reliving another's past in a beam of light projected onto a screen." (Burning Passions An Introduction to the Study of Silent Film, Paolo Churchi Usai trans. Emma Sansone Rittle London: British Film Institute 1994p.7.)


[Delsarte French (1811-1871) was music teacher and theoretician and not a dancer]. Delsarte developed a physical practice for performers, especially singers and orators which influenced several generations of professional and amateur performers in Europe and North America. His goal was to free the body up so that the voice could be free; so it could enjoy a fuller platitude of expression and resonance. "He analyzed the gestures and expressions of the human body, dividing the movements into three categories (eccentric, concentric and normal) and the expressions into three zones (head, torso and limbs), formulating from them his system of teaching the control of body movements" 1] Symbolism as manifested in its theatrical mis-en-scéne [the symbolist mis-en-scéne consists of a synthetic environment of color, sound, movement and voice which incorporates stillness, symbolic representation and an impersonal expression allowing for a mystical dialogue between the audience and the environment orchestrated by an overriding structure based on rhythm. What is missing then is the declamatory style of acting, the naturalist representation of decor, gesture and setting and a perspective of depth to the stage. The symbolist mis-en-scéne offers the space for an engagement of emotional and symbolic relationships between the stage decor and the performer and the text. The stage becomes a location for the senses of the viewer to be transformed or transfigured through the synthetic environment].
1 Horst Koegler, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977). p.153

The role of movement is more important than that of any other theatrical element. Deprived of dialogue, costume, footlights, wings, and an auditorium, and left with only the actor and his mastery of movement, the theater remains the theater. -

- V.E. Meyerhold

[Rudolph van Laban was an early proponent of Modern Dance in Germany. He developped a language for describing movement and a method of notating movement which is still in use today worldwide. Besides tutoring the great Ausdruckstanzerers (dance of expression) Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss, Laban choreographed movement for large groups moving in unison known as movement choruses]


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