When movies gained the power of speech, thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, a universal language was lost in the process. In the midst of today’s busy, talky culture, a great silent film can feel like a transmission from another plane of existence, transporting us to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn referred to as “a realm beyond words.”
Unfortunately, the overwhelming amount of new content swirling around us can make hunting for these rare experiences a challenge. Here are a handful of time-tested gems (listed in chronological order) that communicate deep spiritual truths in a vital way, and some suggestions for where to find them.
1. Hypocrites (1915)
An early landmark of cinematic social commentary, Hypocrites takes aim at the false pieties of an affluent, urban church congregation. It was an instant blockbuster and catapulted its director, Lois Weber, to fame and fortune. Weber’s bold visual choices—one character appears literally as the Naked Truth—galvanized audiences at the time, garnering widespread acclaim on one hand while inciting calls for censorship on the other. More than a century later, it survives as a compelling celluloid sermon. Available as a standalone DVD from Kino Lorber; there is also a fine HD transfer from KL’s recent box set Pioneers: Early Women Filmmakers.
2. 7th Heaven (1927)
Frank Borzage, a Catholic and practicing Freemason, won the first Oscar for best director for this primal melodrama about a Parisian sewer worker (Charles Farrell) who marries a pitiful waif (Janet Gaynor) in order to save her from prison. They retire to the paradisiacal attic of a tall building (the “seventh heaven” of the title), and their love for each other begins to grow. The intense, Dantean romantic gestures, the haloes of light that form around the couple, and the barefaced supernaturalism of the ending all point toward a divine presence permeating the natural order. Available on a magnificent DVD set called Murnau, Borzage, and Fox.
3. Sunrise (1927)
Released by Fox Film Corporation the week after 7th Heaven, F. W. Murnau’s elemental drama—recipient of the first best picture Oscar—fully earns its grandiose subtitle: “A Song of Two Humans.” A farmer is seduced by a woman from the city, who persuades him to drown his wife. He almost goes through with it, but breaks down in shame at the last moment. He and his bride—now thoroughly shaken—run away to the city, and there among the raucous sounds and sights of the metropolis, their marriage is restored. Supported by a technical and artistic mastery unsurpassed in silent cinema, Sunrise is a hymn to the power of holy matrimony, which despite its precious fragility finds the strength to endure. “What God therefore has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
4. Sparrows (1926)
Mary Pickford was the most popular movie star in the world when she produced and starred in Sparrows, an uncharacteristically downbeat vehicle for America’s sweetheart. This grimly Dickensian fable, set in a fairy tale swampland where penniless parents send their offspring to labor for food and shelter, contrasts the innocence of children with their sinful, corrupt masters. One memorable sequence, in which the Good Shepherd appears to usher the soul of a departed ragamuffin into heaven, is the kind of irony-free religious imagery you simply don’t see in mainstream cinema anymore. Available to stream on Fandor.
5. Visages d’enfants – Faces of Children (1925)
Children also play a central role in Jacques Feyder’s neglected masterwork about a secluded community of Christians living in the Swiss countryside. A young boy’s mother dies; his father remarries. As the child struggles to accept his new circumstances, the stepmother endeavors to reach him, culminating in a powerful image of maternal love. The austere beauty of the isolated village and Feyder’s dedication to psychological realism conspire to melt the heart of the sensitive viewer. Available on a DVD set called Rediscover Jacques Feyder.
6. Body and Soul (1925)
Paul Robeson made his screen debut as a convict who escapes custody and reinvents himself as the Rev. Isaiah T. Jenkins, a charismatic man of the cloth whose wickedness is concealed beneath a veneer of righteousness. A stinging indictment of Christian hypocrisy within the black community, Body and Soul was written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, the first great African-American filmmaker. While firmly rooted in the social milieu of the 1920s Deep South, Micheaux’s quirky yet commanding film is a universal warning against mendacious religious leaders, and those who blindly follow them. Available at Internet Archive, as well as the Criterion Collection’s Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist DVD set and Kino Lorber’s excellent Pioneers of African-American Cinema.
7. Häxan – aka Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
For Christian viewers, Benjamin Christensen’s morbidly fascinating docudrama—the most expensive Danish film of the silent era—is a reminder of the powers and principalities against which they must arm themselves (Eph. 6:11–12). Inspired in part by the Malleus Maleficarum, an infamous medieval tractate on witchcraft, the film blends fictional re-enactment with historical discourse. Though it attempts to justify the Devil as the product of religious hysteria, the disturbing primacy of the imagery bypasses reason altogether, touching a spiritual nerve. Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
8. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Carl Theodor Dreyer spent more than a year researching his transcendent masterpiece about the French war hero who was tried and burned at the stake at the age of 19. Forsaking both politics and theology, Dreyer dramatizes the triumph of the personal experience of God over fear and death. As Joan, Maria Falconetti gives a peerless performance, her face rendered beatific in a series of brilliantly wrought close-ups. (For this black-and-white film, Dreyer had the walls of the sets painted pink so that the faces would stand out in relief against the background.) A sobering reflection on the limits of dogma, as well as a painful reminder of the link between intense suffering and spiritual salvation, the film is as difficult as it is sublime—a testament to the power of cinema to exalt the mind and illumine the spirit. Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
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