Sound is always present, even silence is the presence of the absence of sound. So it comes to no surprise that film has accepted sound has a constantly present companion as well. Most people will focus on the beauty of cinematography, editing or directing. But sound, noise and music in a film influence our perception of a film just as much as images do. Films like The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, 2007) or Gozo (Miranda Bowen, 2015) proof the importance of sound in film: May that be in terms of narration, aesthetics or emotional response.
The advancement of our technology has made it possible that sounds is not merely a symptom of contemporary filmmaking but it is part of the creative process. Sound in film and its various inventive expressions has it roots at the end of the 1920s, when sound in film was invented. In the USA, sound came about in 1926 while in European countries such as Germany and France sound in film emerged around 1928/1929. Warner Brothers were the first company to invent a sound-on-disc system called Vitaphone. By 1929, Germany had invented a sound-on-film system called Tobis Klangfilm. Crosland’s and Hollingshead’s The Jazz Singer (1927) reflected this milestone in film technology. The latter proved that sound in film was possible and could become a profitable business. Suddenly sound encouraged cinematography and actors were not longer recognised by their faces but by their voices. By 1930 almost every cinema in the USA was wired for sound; Germany followed in 1933 and France in 1935. Cinema was no longer a multimedia show with live orchestra or performances. Besides shaping the structure of the film industry in both America and Europe, sound became a hot property – economically, politically – the latter which has been abused the by Nazis during the 30s and 40s – and socially.
While we take sound in film and its use in matters of aesthetic, narrative, socio-economical or political expression for granted, films towards the end of the 1920s and 1930s lay the foundation for such reflection. The sound invention reflected on-going debates on technology, modernity and its phenomenon of metropolitan cities.
So, if you want to brush up on your film history and get to know the roots of inventive and creative use of sound in film, these are the films you should have a look at. They will show that was an auditive power, which developed a universal language.
M (Fritz Lang, 1931 Germany)
The film tells the story of a child murderer who strikes the citizens of Berlin with terror. It’s Fritz Lang first sound film. The narrative use of sound is very selectively chosen. As Lang himself says: “I found, for example, that when I was sitting alone in a sidewalk café, of course I heard the noises from the street, but that when I was immersed in an interesting conversation with a companion, or when I was reading a newspaper that totally captured my interest, my organs of hearing no longer registered theses noises. Hence: the justification to represent on film such a conversation without laying down the aforementioned street noises as background.” This whistling of the murderer becomes the embodiment of terror and has become the most iconic part of the film.
Emile and the Detectives (Gerhard Lamprecht, 1932 Germany)
Sound in ‘Emile and the Detectives’ represents the soundscape of the metropolitan Berlin; a noisy, urban, fast-paced lifestyle & modern modes of communication. Compared to ‘M’, which was entirely shot in a studio, this film shows the real Berlin of the 1930s. Because the outside noise/sound could not be recorded properly yet, it was recreated in a foley studio.
Sous les toits de Paris (René Clair, 1930 France)
René Clair’s masterpiece has become immensely popular, especially in regards to sound: it was one of the first French films that did not only showcase sound, but experimented with sound. Many scenes have sounds that do not fit the shots or off-screen noises which dominate the on-screen images. It reflects what Sergei Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov wrote in A Statement (1928): Sound in film should create an “orchestral counterpoint of visual and aural images”.
Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930 France)
This film is another sounding homage to the noise of a metropolitan city: Paris. The crowning end of the film – which will not be given away at this point – expresses how film has enabled sound to become immortal.
Allô Berlin? Ici Paris! (Julien Duvivier, 1932 France/Germany)
This French-German comedy is an embodiment of sound as global force. Showing la follie of the city life in both Paris and Berlin, the telephone becomes the expression of modernity and personification of the machine age coupled with love and intercultural exchange.
Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928 USA)
Clearly inspired silent city symphony films such as Manhatta or The Crowd or A Bronx Morning, this love story is the American interpretation of metropolitan sounds. Similar to ‘Allô Berlin? Ici Paris!’ the film emphasised sounds in respects of modern life being like a non-stop working factory machine. The film was originally silent, but due to the popular demand of talkies, some scenes were re-shoot and recorded with sound in a studio.
42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933 USA)
One of the most famous musicals from that time, ‘42nd Street’ introduces the world to the marvellous, ornamental choreographies of Busby Berkeley. The genre of musical was especially popular during the 30s as sound offered new possibilities for studio choreographies and musical numbers.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (Busby Berkeley, Mervyn LeRoy, 1933 USA)
This is another wonderful Busby Berkeley musical. Besides the impressive choreographies, the musical numbers in this film are especially interesting since they address the circumstances of the Great Depression, the speech of Roosevelt in 1932 and the critical condition for World War I veterans at the time. Music becomes a matter of addressing political occurrences.