Silent film fans sound off for local festival


DENVER | It was a film that broke new boundaries in terms of artistry, expression and sheer creepiness.

The flickering images of a pallid figure creeping up a staircase, the close-ups that revealed a monster intent on murder, the unsettling shots of coffins piled up on a horse-drawn coach — all of these elements helped make director F. W. Murnau’s silent film “Nosferatu” a groundbreaking film when it was released in 1922. According to Montine Hansl, those effects still pack a punch nearly 100 years later, even in the age of surround sound and computer-generated effects.

The 1929 film “Pandora’s Box” starring Louise Brooks will be a featured selection in this year’s Denver Silent Film Festival, which will run at the King Center at the Auraria Campus in Denver from Sept. 21 to 23. (Courtesy of the University of Colorado College of Arts and Media)

“I had one student come up to me after the screening last year who had been part of the musical accompaniment for ‘Nosferatu,” said Hansl, the executive director of the Denver Silent Film Festival, an event slated to kick off its second year Sept. 21 at the Auraria Campus in Denver. The debut festival took place last fall, and ‘Nosferatu’ was one of the featured selections in a lineup of masterpieces from the silent film era, a time that served as the dawn of a new art form.  “The student said, ‘We’ve never experienced anything like this before’ … I’m passionate about these amazing masterpieces. Even the filmmakers of today return to these works.”

The theme of timelessness will underlie this year’s festival, presented by the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Arts and Media. This year’s event will include works by early filmmakers like William A. Wellman, Robert Wiene and Georges Méliès. It’s also set to feature lectures by preservationists and other special guests.

Hansl insists the forum will spotlight the output of these early filmmakers in a fitting and appropriate context. That means showing audiences top-quality prints, films that have been painstakingly preserved and restored. It also means including live musical accompaniment, scores performed the Louisville-based Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and pianist Hank Troy, a Denver musician who’s spent decades playing along with silent films for live audiences.

“We do what the filmmakers used to do,” said Hansl, who served on the board of directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival before helping to organize a similar event in Denver. “We select the finest archival prints and we show them in 35 millimeter with dual projection. That’s the right speed for these stunning prints … We show them always with live music. We ask performers from our state as well as from other parts of the country to come and perform the music for each film.”

That approach brings immediate energy and life to the films in this year’s festival, selections like “Le Voyage dans la Lune,” Georges Méliès’ 1902 science fiction film based on fantastical stories by H.G. Wells. The sultry charm of Louise Brooks in the 1929 film “Pandora’s Box” will come through in carefully restored prints. Similarly, the festival is bound to spotlight the technical brilliance behind the World War 1 epic “Wings,” William Wellman’s 1927 film that won the very first Academy Award for best picture.

“There is some incredible footage of dogfights in that film,” Hansl noted. “This is a film where you see some of the best flight footage ever. It was used by the director of ‘Top Gun’ as a model for some of the fights,” she added, referring to the 1986 film directed by Tony Scott.

While the films themselves will be the stars of the festival, Hansl added that the event will include tributes to the preservationists who have helped the prints withstand the decay of the intervening decades. A forum featuring preservationists David Shepard and Serge Bromberg will detail the science behind their efforts. What’s more, the festival will also include firsthand input from William Wellman Jr., the son of the legendary director behind “Wings.” Finally, the festival is set to include appearances by actors taking on the roles of legendary silent film actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

All of these elements are designed to offer audiences a firsthand view into a different era of filmmaking, a time when directors created a visual vocabulary for a new art form. Without the benefit of sound, directors like Wellman and Méliès relied on the power of visuals to make their points. Actors like Fairbanks, Pickford and Lee conveyed emotions through the arch of an eyebrow or the sweep of an arm.

“We want to bring more people into the living presence of these remarkable films,” Hansl said.



The Second Annual Denver Silent Film Festival 

Will run from Sept. 21 to 23 at the King Center at the Auraria Campus, 855 Lawrence Way.

Tickets start at $12 for individual shows.

For a full lineup and tickets, log on to



Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at agoldst[email protected] or 720-449-9707