The Silences of the Silent Era
Lost films are not the only tragedy of the silent age. It’s time that we counted up all the forgotten stories, and the overlooked connections as well. The truth is that lost films and lost memories can’t be separated. One omission leads to another—and distorts our understanding of decades of cinema. When our collective mental image of silent film is dominated by a white male comedian acing a pratfall, or a white female star elegantly swooning in an embellished silk gown, we fail to make room for the films and characters that challenge this impression. If we had to establish a new avatar of silent cinema, could it be a laughing Black woman shot in a loving close-up? A Jewish woman defying a mob? Or a Native woman facing down a posse of cowboys? The answer is yes.
Important strides are being made toward recognizing that women, people of color, and members of other oppressed communities made silent films, and, even more so, in making those films accessible. But there are still persistent absences, lost histories of performers who were beloved by audiences in the 1910s and ’20s but are little known today. Their omission from the record books is not so innocent, because it was motivated by prejudice and has reinforced similarly pernicious attitudes in subsequent eras. We deserve to know the truth about the origins of cinema. We can’t allow the impression of a historical lack of diversity in the art form to limit access to the industry today.
The Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which this year held its first in-person gathering since 2019, offered a poignant case in point. One strand of the festival was devoted to a retrospective of the Weimar-era star Ellen Richter. A revelation to many, Richter proved the hit of the festival, and provoked some fruitful discussions about the ways in which popular entertainment and politics intersect and what we still don’t know about the history of the silent era.
A sleek and vivacious actor with saucer eyes and a wide, pearly smile, Austrian-born Richter starred in seventy German feature films between 1913 and 1933. She was one of the biggest box-office attractions in Germany during the 1920s, appearing in everything from comedy to costume melodrama, but she was most associated with the serial-inspired, heavily plotted antics of fast-paced Reise-und-Abenteuerfilme, a.k.a. travel-and-adventure films. At Pordenone we saw two of these multipart features and so were able to enjoy her fashion-plate aviator circumnavigating the world in Der Flug um den Erdball (Willi Wolff, 1925) as well as her Armenian princess on a mission to save her incarcerated father in Die Frau mit den Millionen (Wolff, 1923). Often, thanks to her dark hair and eyes, Richter was cast as the German film industry’s concept of “exotic”: not just Armenian princesses but Spanish dancers and Gypsy girls—see Aberglaube (Georg Jacoby, 1919), a thundering variation on the Carmen theme, with Richter’s seductive beauty luring men to their inevitable destruction. In this way, her profile was similar to that of her near-contemporary, the Polish actor Pola Negri. But whereas Negri boarded a liner, headed across the Atlantic, and rebuilt her career in the Hollywood studio system, Richter stayed in Germany and started her own production company in 1920, which made nearly forty films. Richter had been the first muse of celebrated director Richard Eichberg in the 1910s, and worked with Joe May and Richard Oswald as well, but she subsequently made most of her films with her husband, the writer-turned-director Willi Wolff, in more crowd-pleasing genres.
So why doesn’t Richter have more than a sliver of contemporary name recognition, even an entry in the major German film history textbooks? As Barbara Hammer reminds us in Nitrate Kisses (1992), “Effective history does not retrieve events/actors by official history. But shows the processes that produced those losses. Those constructed silences.” Richter’s films filled cinemas, but box-office receipts and postcards easily fade—prestige rather than popularity is a reliable route into history, and Richter rarely worked with the more celebrated auteurs of the period. Most urgently, as a Jewish performer, Richter was heading for a dangerous bend in the road. She and Wolff weathered the transition to sound, making four talkies, but not the arrival of the Nazi regime and the eviction of Jewish creatives from the German film industry. That’s the loudest silence in her life story. Richter and Wolff left the country in 1933, settling first in Austria, then France, before fleeing Europe for the States in 1940 and becoming U.S. citizens in 1946. Wolff died a year later, while Richter lived to the age of seventy-eight, dying in 1969. They never made another film.
Viewed in 2021, the closing scene of Aberglaube, in which Richter’s character is brutally stoned to death by a baying mob, seemed to carry an eerie premonition of what was to come. While Richter had once been beloved of German audiences, she was soon yesterday’s woman: not accidentally forgotten but aggressively omitted from screen histories and early attempts to preserve German silent movies. Most of her films are now lost, at least partly because of this premeditated erasure. Without the posthumous credibility of having shared a set with a Lubitsch or a Lang, Richter has been mislaid along with them.