Which films offer the most disturbing soundtrack

Sound of the century

Rainer Fabich

Rainer Fabich, Dr., music and communication scientist, works as a composer, musician and author in Munich.

The era of silent film music

Berlin, November 1, 1895, Varieté Wintergarten. Max and Emil Skladanowsky present moving images in front of around 1,500 guests as the final part of their variety program. They show them with their projector, the bioscope. The 15-minute program with eight short strips of filmed variety numbers is accompanied by an orchestra. A certain Herman Krüger, friend of Max Skladanowsky, wrote the music for it. Paris, December 28, 1895, Indian Salon des Grand Café, Boulevard des Capucines. For the first time, the Lumière brothers are publicly showing ten of their self-made documentary short films lasting between 40 and 50 seconds to a paying audience. To do this, they use the cinematograph, a recording, copying and projection device they have developed themselves. A pianist accompanies the films. Both events mark the beginning of a new era, the silent film era. In it, the film turns from a fairground attraction into a popular mass medium, into a new, separate art form with silent actors. The feature and documentary film, its own film language (camera and montage) and, last but not least, a new musical genre, film music, are created in it.

The end of this era was heralded in the late 1920s when talkies began to take hold. For every third professional musician in Germany this meant the loss of a job. After a transition period of several years, which in some places lasted until the mid-1930s, the now retrospectively so-called silent film almost completely disappeared. However, it was very rarely "silent" in the cinemas. There were various reasons for this. Following traditional models in which the music enters into connections with language, drama or dance, it was obvious that the music and the film would merge into an inseparable unit. These "forerunners", such as stage and program music, melodrama, oratorio, opera and operetta, musical and revue, were repeatedly adapted in silent film music. Not only were numerous plays and operas filmed, but their musical and dramaturgical design was also adopted in the original compositions. Principles such as leitmotif, music number, recitative and well-composed sequences were taken up and adapted to the particularities of the new medium.

Music should not only drown out the annoying projector noise, but also breathe life into the silent play of facial expressions and gestures of the screen actors and musically illustrate, emotionalize or comment on the flickering images. This acoustic subcode provided the viewer with additional information about what was happening on the screen and created a sound space that should make the projected two-dimensionality forget. Even then, "increasing the enjoyment of art" through music, as Brecht put it, was an important factor. According to an audience survey from 1914, music in the cinema seems to have been a central motive for going to the cinema, at least for girls (Altenloh).

Live or technically reproduced sound generation

Interior view of a cinema with Wurlitzer organ - photo around 1920 (& copy picture-alliance, akg-images)
Since the earliest beginnings, sound (music, noise and sometimes language) has been realized in two different ways: live or through reproduction with technical aids. The live sound was generated by musicians and noisemakers present in the cinema, sometimes also singers or speakers. Already at the beginning of the silent film era, for example in the traveling cinema, a reciter commented on the image or the roles of the actor in the manner of a morality singer by speaking in a different voice. Singers and choirs were used when the fashionable opera and operetta film adaptations were performed live. The most important interpreter in the cinema, however, was initially the piano, harmonium or organ player, who could most easily follow the fast film images.

The establishment of its own cinema ensembles ran parallel to the emergence of local cinemas. The spectrum ranged from duo, trio, salon orchestra to large symphony orchestra and choir. The job of the noisemaker was usually taken on by the drummer or the organist, whose special cinema organ was able to provide certain sound effects. Live orchestral music came to full bloom, especially in the cinema palaces of the 1920s, and represented the climax of a remarkable development.

One problem was the synchronicity between film and music. In order to get this under control, the musicians either had to adapt their playing to the film, or to work with technical aids or to experiment. While it was still relatively easy to coordinate the belt speed between the projectionist and the conductor using a hand signal, telephone or signal lamps, the conductor and his orchestra had to use the noto-film method to orientate themselves on the music tape that was copied at the bottom of the film and from left to right wandered. In the Beck process, the actors acted while filming to music that was generated at the location where the film was recorded. The conductor's movements, recorded with a second camera, were then projected in front of the orchestra in the cinema. In another method, an orchestral musician controlled the projection speed of the projector with the help of the measuring torrent, a device made by the German film pioneer Oskar Messter. Finally, Carl Robert Blum's musical chronometer enabled remote synchronization between a music tape on the conductor's desk and the film projector.

For reproduced music, gramophones or sound rolls were used, but also mechanical musical instruments such as pianola, mechanical piano or orchestrion as well as specially constructed cinematograph instruments. The technical inadequacies of these aids in terms of performance time, volume and, above all, the synchronicity of image and sound could ultimately only be overcome with the introduction of sound film, with the so-called optical sound method, an optical conversion of the sound track on the film strip.

Live music was created in the individual cinemas on site and was therefore closely tied to external framework conditions (size and quality of the cinema or the performing ensemble). The manner and quality of the live music were in the hands of those responsible. It therefore diverged very strongly and could also have a considerable influence on the reception of a film. The reproduced music, on the other hand, was mostly distributed by the film manufacturer or the distributor in the form of sound carriers together with the film, unless the cinema operator used their own material for the sound design.

Compilations and Illustrations

The composition of the live music, then called compilation or illustration, was initially in the hands of a pianist or conductor. One could fall back on existing works of entertainment and concert music, operas or operettas. Or you used short pieces of music specially created for this purpose for standard cinematic situations, such as tension, persecution, escape, love or mourning scenes. So includes J. S. Zamecniks Sam Fox Moving Picture Music (Vol. 1, New York, 1913), one of the first of its kind, including the following genre pieces for piano: cowboy, fairy tale, war and storm music, Chinese and oriental music. In Germany, the film music pioneer and composer Giuseppe Becce published the first volume of his in 1919 Cinema library (Cinema library) with adaptations of existing works for cinematic use and genre pieces. Also Arnold Schönbergs Music to accompany a movie scene (1930) reflects the setting practice customary at the time. Its principle has been preserved to this day, especially in the area of ​​television, in the use of archive or library music cataloged by keywords.

The art of the illustrator was to create a kind of coherent whole from the mix of different works. Contemporary witness Kurt London describes the workflow of a film illustrator: viewing the film to get an impression of its content and form; Stopping the duration of the scenes, which he divides according to musical criteria; Selection of pieces of music according to stylistic and dramaturgical aspects and their processing and adaptation to the film; Composition of transitions; Instrumentation of the music for the respective ensemble.

Compilation practice dominated everyday film music and delivered not only good results (especially in the 1920s) but also questionable results, which were responsible for the sometimes bad image of film music at the time. It was ultimately an expression of the working conditions of the cinema musicians (great time pressure, limited sheet music), but also revealed stylistic and dramaturgical uncertainty and incompetence of individual illustrators, especially in the early stages of silent film music. Oskar Messter reports on this: "Even in 1913, the artistic value of the film accompaniment music was quite mediocre, even in some of the larger movie theaters. The cinema bands played a series of pieces of music and fantasies to accompany the films, which mostly ignored the content of the film."

However, the compilation was necessary to meet the high demand for music that a constantly changing cinema program generated. In the 1920s this practice was refined to such an extent that artistic results were achieved, encouraged by quality debates in relevant film music publications. This succeeded when, for example, stylistic uniformity was achieved or an experienced Kapellmeister demonstrated the necessary sensitivity in dealing with the music. It is not uncommon for film companies to commission the conductors of the premiere theaters for their compilations cue sheetsTo prepare musical constellations, which were then delivered to the cinemas together with the film.

Author illustrations and improvisations

An improvement in film music practice was what was then called "author illustration", a hybrid of compilation and composition. The compositional part of an illustrator could, however, vary greatly. Most important representatives of this guild in Germany were Eduard Künneke, Hans May, Fritz Wenneis and Giuseppe Becce, who like numerous films Countess Ursel by Curt A. Stark (1913) or The last man (1924) and Tartüff (1925) by F. W. Murnau, set to music. Becce also worked closely with Hans Erdmann (music too Nosferatu von Murnau, 1922) and wrote with him the standard work of the time, the Handbook of film music (Berlin 1927).

In the USA, Joseph Carl Breil had great success with his author's illustration for D. W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation (1915). "His" music for the New York world premiere with a large orchestra combines his own works with popular melodies and work fragments, including: von Grieg, Tschaikowsky and Wagner, and paved the way for American compilers such as Ernö Rapée, Hugo Riesenfeld and Mortimer Wilson.

At that time the art of improvisation also experienced a kind of musical revival. Above all, pianists and organists were the quickest to improvise and follow the course of the pictures. A famous example of this is the young Dmitri Shostakovich, who worked as a silent film pianist in Leningrad cinemas for several months in order to earn money. Before that, however, he had to take an entrance examination as a piano illustrator: "This examination was very similar to my first visit to Bruni [his conservatory teacher, RF]. First I was supposed to play a 'Blue Waltz' and then something Eastern. but by 1923 I had it Scheherazade Rimsky-Korsakovs met and Orientals by César Cui. The qualification had a positive result and in November I started my work at the Goldenes Ribbon cinema. The work was very difficult […]. The service in the cinemas paralyzed my creativity. I couldn't compose at all anymore. "

1925: Poster for Fritz Lang's film "Metropolis". (& copy picture-alliance, ZB)

Original film compositions

The declared goal, however, was the "original" film composition, film music from a single source, from the hand of a single composer. However, a number of obstacles stood in the way of this ideal, which had become the standard in talkies: the lack of infrastructure for the dubbing of a large number of films; the enormous time pressure under which the music had to be created, you often only had a few weeks to write a piece of music the size of a small opera and to produce the sheet music; the high expenditure of time and resources of a new rehearsal; different requirements on site, inconsistent orchestral line-ups, etc. And from the publisher's point of view: the shorter exploitation margin for film compared to opera or operetta, the legal situation and unclear prospects of success in combination with a high additional financial expense. In addition, numerous original compositions by "ambitious" conductors were boycotted on site, who only wanted to perform their own, specially honored compilations.

Nevertheless: Despite these special circumstances, there were repeated efforts to realize original film compositions. The reasons for this were, in addition to younger composers' willingness to experiment and the composers' changed relationship to applied music, the filmmakers' realization that an original composition could significantly increase the success of a film. So took z. For example, Ufa has to make considerable losses in the Berlin premiere cinemas in order to be able to better market a film with good, specially composed music. The music was no longer selected and compiled on site, but composed in close cooperation and coordination between the composer, director and producer and determined once and for all. A sophisticated cinema culture emerged that wanted and was able to compete with established art forms such as theater and opera. A number of original film music was created in this way, mainly in Germany, France and Italy.

1910, 15 years after Max and Emil Skladanowsky had shown their moving pictures in the Berlin winter garden, Paul Lincke composed the music for the "film pantomime" The lucky waltz. One of the first more extensive film scores in Germany was that of the Liszt student Josef Weiss zu The student from Prague (1913) by Hanns Heinz Ewers and Stellan Rye. The piano reduction - a concentrate of the most important orchestral parts for piano - with notes on the film plot and instrumentation already contained typical features of a silent film composition: leitmotifs, quotations, musical descriptions and pure musical passages. The piano virtuoso Weiss gave concerts in various German cities and was celebrated with his first "cinema opera".

1922: The actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge as King Etzel in Fritz Lang's film "Die Nibelungen" (& copy picture-alliance, akg-images)

The most important film composers in the strict sense of the word in Germany in the 1920s were Gottfried Huppertz and Edmund Meisel as well as Marc Roland. Huppertz composed silent and sound film music, e.g. B. for To the chronicle of Grieshuus (1925), Hanneles Ascension (1934) and Through the dessert (1936) .- Above all, however, his film music work is linked to Fritz Lang's work. He worked closely with Lang and his wife, the screenwriter Thea von Harbou, even during the making of a film. The two classics the Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927) are positive results of an intensive exchange between director and composer at a time when German film, influenced by Expressionist painting, developed its own aesthetic (e.g. strong chiaroscuro effects, stylized decorations) and gained international importance.

Is Huppertz's score closed the Nibelungen The music is still strongly image-oriented and characterized by an intensive use of leitmotifs and musical descriptions Metropolis despite the renewed use of these funds, more autonomous and larger-scale for the picture. There are versions of both works for large orchestra (premiere), salon orchestra (normal cinema operation) and a piano reduction (small cinema), which is used in Metropolis contains a total of 1,028 references to the film. Such hints, originally intended as an aid for the performance, are important information for the reconstruction of silent films, along with other musical features (use of leitmotifs, instrumentation, clock and tempo changes) when it comes to restoring parts of a film that are caused by There is no censorship, damage or subsequent processing. The same applies to many other silent film scores. They reflect a certain status quo of a film that comes very close to the original or premiere version and is therefore an important source.

Also noteworthy are the works of the film music pioneer Edmund Meisel, who first worked as a theater composer, especially for Erwin Piscator, then as a film composer for Sergeij Eisenstein's German version of Armored cruiser Potemkin (1925) made a name. The film caused violent reactions in Germany. It was used as communist propaganda orunderstood as a call for socialist revolution in a time of unstable political conditions. Attempts were made to prevent this "agitation and decomposition film" - according to the Supreme Army Command - and army soldiers were banned from attending demonstrations.

Poster for the film "Battleship Potemkin" (USSR 1925) (& copy picture-alliance, akg-images / Erich Lessing)

According to Eisenstein, the music in particular had a "devastating effect". In some places, such as the now famous scene The stairs of Odessa, with the help of percussion instruments, she gave viewers in the cinema the feeling of experiencing the brutality of the military against the defenseless civilian population on their own bodies. The same applies to the scene Meeting with the squadron, about which Eisenstein wrote: "For this point I categorically demanded from the composer the renunciation of the usual melodies and a precise focus on the bare knocking of the pistons and with this demand, strictly speaking, I also forced the music into this crucial point a 'new quality' to skip over in 'noise'. At this point the film already broke the stylistic limits of the structure of a 'silent film with musical illustration' and moved into a new area - the area of ​​'sound film' […]. "

Film formation: The film music in the "Battleship Potemkin"

Manfred Rüsel, author and film lecturer in teacher training and teacher training, on Meisel's compositions

The musician Edmund Meisel (1894-1930), a close friend of the influential German theater director Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), discussed the musical concept for the German version of PANZERKREUZER POTEMKIN with Sergej Eisenstein in March 1926. Eisenstein himself was not particularly pleased with the original use of classical set pieces (see chapter film history) and supported Meisel's plan to compose completely new, effective music that would match the rhythm of the montage. So, in just under two weeks of work, the effective sound carpet was created that contributed significantly to the later success of the film.

Accompanying film music has been around since the early days of the film, but it was only through the congenial combination of music and image in PANZERKREUZER POTEMKIN that its outstanding function became clear: Meisel's composition is dominated by the timpani and other percussive instruments. They illustrate, for example, the machine noises of the armored cruiser or the pounding boot steps of the Cossacks, linger shortly before the tension peaks, and then discharge in a wild crescendo. When the ship's butcher chops the rotten meat (min. 8), then every blow is "audible" with a timpani accent.

This means of acoustic accentuation, so-called "Mickey Mousing", was more familiar from shorter slapstick and cartoon films at the time. Such emphasis can also be found in other scenes. The gradual rebellion of the sailors against the conditions on board is accompanied time and again by strong musical rhythm changes. In the quieter passages, a threatening musical mood signals the tense situation. But Meisel also uses set pieces from other works. When the sailor washes the plate (min. 13), on the bottom of which wheat and flails are embossed as symbols of the peasant class, a melody that is reminiscent of classic Russian folklore sounds. Then the sailor's gaze falls on the inscription on the plate: "Give us today our daily bread". The style of the music suddenly changes into something threatening. The bangs illustrate the sailor's cognitive process, who exposes the biblical saying as a cynical message in view of the supply situation on board. While a delegate from the city of Odessa declares his solidarity with the sailors (min. 40), you can hear slightly different excerpts from quotations from the "Internationale", the dedicated battle song of the socialist movement. A little later - when the red flag is hoisted - sequences from the "Marseillaise", the French national anthem, the freedom song of the French Revolution are heard. Short motifs from the “Marseillaise” can also be heard in other scenes.

Excerpt from: Filmkanon-Filmheft zu "Panzerkreuzer Potemkin", ed. from the Federal Agency for Civic Education / bpb, 2013



Spurred on by the success, Meisel set this combination of music and noise in Berlin. The symphony of the big city from Walter Ruttmann from 1927; he composed machine, traffic, sport and night rhythms and formulated his intentions as "making the film sound". In a certain way it can be seen as a forerunner of today's "sound design". In addition, he set to music, among other things. The holy mountain (1926), October (1927/28) and subsequently the silent film The blue Rider (1930).

E-composers discover the film

Composers of so-called serious music also dealt with the film. Paul Hindemith, for example, wrote for the documentary film in 1921 In the fight with the mountains - In storm and ice by the mountain filmmaker Arnold Fanck a score for salon orchestra. In this, he makes a large-scale reference to the film, a passacaglia can be heard at various glacier settings. The first German film opera Beyond the stream (M .: Ferdinand Hummel) premiered in 1921. For the film version of The Rosenkavalier (1926) Richard Strauss added a military march, battle music and individual dance scenes to his opera score; he conducted the world premiere in the Dresden Opera House.

Music by Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Ernst Toch, Walter Gronostay and Hanns Eisler was heard on the occasion of the Baden-Baden Chamber Music Days in 1928, live or with the help of mechanical musical instruments, for short and experimental films by Hans Richter, Sascha Stone, Pat Sullivan and Walter Ruttmann .

Romolo Bacchini composed his music in Italy as early as 1905 La malia dell'oro by Filoteo Alberini. Numerous compositions were created mainly in the years 1910 to 1920, the heyday of Italian film, e. B. to L’Histoire d’un Pierrot (M .: Pasquale Mauro Costa, 1914) or Cabiria (M .: Manlio Mazza / compilation and Ildebrando Pizzetti / composition, 1914). How important an original film score was considered shows Rapsodia Satanica (1917) by Nino Oxilia. The director was ready to re-shoot parts of his film so that Pietro Mascagni - next to Puccini the most famous composer of his time in Italy - could create the music. Mascagni had asked for this so that the music would have more weight. He wrote for that Rapsodia Satanica quasi pure opera music, just without singing. He used leitmotifs and resorted to classical forms such as scherzo, gavotte or minuet.

Cinema poster for the French film "Napoleon" (1927). (& copy picture-alliance, Mary Evans Picture Library)
The most famous composer of his time, Camille Saint-Saëns, ascribed the first extensive film music in France L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908) for the Film d’Art Society. She wanted to raise the film to theater or opera level by hiring the most famous artists of the time. Saint-Saëns ’music for salon orchestra includes leitmotifs (duke, murder and love), isolated descriptions and music scenes. Other silent film scores included. the to La Roue (1923) by Arthur Honegger, whose parts are in the famous symphonic movement study Pacific 231 find again, too Salambô (M .: Florent Schmitt, 1925), L’Inhumaine (M .: Darius Milhaud, 1924), Napoleon (M .: Arthur Honegger, 1927) and the experimental films Ballet Mécanique (M .: George Antheil, 1924) and Cinema. Entr’acte symphonique (1924), a film-musical interlude by René Clair on the Dadaist ballet Relâche by Francis Picabia. Erik Satie's pattern-oriented music concept of repetitive single bars according to the modular system that he musique d'ameublement called, accompanies the fast sequence of settings of the film like a musical wallpaper.

Another highlight of the silent film music was Shostakovich's orchestral score The New Babylon (1928/29). The film depicts the uprising and suppression of the Paris Commune of 1870 and was made by members of an avant-garde Leningrad artist collective. In addition to symphonically composed passages, Shostakovich uses numerous quotations (revolutionary songs, hymns, cancans from operettas by J. Offenbach), some in an alienated form or as a leitmotif. He reproduces the struggle of the combatants (bourgeoisie / communards) on a musical level and uses a technique of deliberately "incorrectly" set tones to comment on individual film scenes in a parodistic way. Like a cartoonist, he portrays the decadence of the bourgeoisie in z. T. grotesque musical exaggerations.

In the silent film era, it can be said that, despite all the initial problems, numerous masterpieces were created, especially with the original film compositions, and all the essential elements of a film music were developed, which formed the basis of the music for the sound film. With its introduction, the music lost some of its importance as its previous task - continuous compensation for the lack of speech and noises - ceased to exist and it had to be redefined. Nevertheless, this special kind of film music lives on to the present day.

Worldwide full concert halls for silent film performances with a live orchestra as well as a multiple award-winning example from recent history (The Artist, 2011) prove: The silent film and its music have lost none of their fascination as a non-verbal, interculturally understandable, audivisual art form.


Emilie Altenloh: On the sociology of the cinema. The cinema company and the social classes of its visitors, Jena 1914

Giuseppe Becce / Hans Erdmann: General Handbook of Filmmusik, Berlin 1927

Rainer Fabich: Music for the silent film. Analyzing description of original film compositions, Frankfurt a. M. / New York 1993

Oskar Messter: My way with the film, Berlin 1936

Friedrich P. Kahlenberg: The economic factor "music" in the Ufa theater business in the years 1927 to 1930, in: Walther Seidler (Hrsg.): Silent film music. Yesterday and today, Berlin 1979, pp. 51 - 71

Kurt London: Film Music. A summary of the characteristics features of its history, aesthetics, technique and possible development, London 1936

Enno Patalas: Metropolis in / out of ruins. The premiere version, retold by Enno Patalas (film) and Rainer Fabich (music), Berlin 2001

Dmitri Shostakovich: Avtobiografija, in: Sovetskaja Muzyka 9/1966