Henri Langlois’ quote at first seems so outrageously absolute, so outright, so unquestionable, that one might think it trivial if it weren’t stated by such an authority in film. But who is Henri Langlois?
Monsieur Langlois was one of the founders of the Cinématèque Française, in 1936, which holds one of the biggest film archives in the world. Thanks to the smuggling efforts of Langlois, many masterpieces were saved from being destroyed by the Germans during World War II. Besides preserving invaluable works of art, Langlois was a cinephile that encouraged the discussion and study of the medium of film before anyone else thought it relevant to discuss film as an art form. Langlois’ screenings at the Cinématèque Française were influential for many of the New Wave directors, such as Françoise Truffaut, Alain Resnais and Jean Luc Goddard.
I would have to agree with Langlois: “A film without sound is not worth making”(1). First of all, in order to believe that about film one should define it, as well as its composition, qualities, and possibilities. Although film is bi-dimensional, it is not a painting, as it incorporates movement through space and the actors upon it.
Film is not theater; again since it is bi-dimensional whereas theater is three dimensional and interactive. In fact, theater could be done without sound – both its three dimensionality and interactivity, as it is live, can compensate for lack of “sound” (or speech, since it is impossible for actor performing on a stage not to make any sound.)
Nevertheless, film needs sound. Without sound, it would not be film; it would instead be something that could be made on a theater stage or in a painting. For example,
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1920’s silent film directed by Robert Wiene – a very famous and influential film of the German expressionist movement – leaves one quite dissatisfied, as if it were not a complete film. Even though its visual motifs are very interesting, the color, design, overall theme and style, the movie presents a story that could have been done in theater. I believe that part of the reason is that it was a silent film.
Sound adds another quality that film should not omit, a quality that has become intrinsic to the medium; it creates a truly complete film experience. “Sound had economic and technological implications, but it also affected style. Some critics and directors feared that extensive dialogue scenes in adapted plays would eliminate the flexible camera movements and editing of the silent era. Most filmmakers soon realized, however, that sound, used imaginatively, offered a valuable new stylistic resource” (Boardwell, 193).
Yet as we win some, we lose some. As sound became a part of film, I believe film lost something special too: vibrancy and purity in its visual composition, the exaggerated and physical comedy of greats such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Yet film is not trying to be something it is not. The development of sound technology helped mature film into its own medium with its particular defining qualities.
There was a period of transition from silent films to sound. At first it was a time of both economic and creative uncertainty. People were not entirely sure of its success. By 1932 the conversion of sound to film was virtually complete. People started to realized that sound on film adds a whole other dimension for filmmakers to work with creatively, such as, “imaginative use of camera movements, stretches of silence, and sonic puns. [These] helped quiet fears of critics who believed that sound would result in static dialogue pictures” (Boardwell, 207).
The introduction of sound to film not only brought more depth and complexity to film, it also gave the filmmaker complete creative control over their film. “In 1933, Alfred Hitchcock commented on the difference between musical accompaniment for silent Films and musical scores in sound Films: ‘I have always believed that the coming of sound opened up a great new opportunity. The accompanying music came at last entirely under the control of the people who made the picture.’ Now sound and image could be combined in predictable ways during production.” (Boardwell, 193).
Sound is an element that has the power to set or alter the mood in a motion picture. Sound can also give us literal or symbolic information about the characters on the screen. In Germany, it was not until early 1930 that sound production and exhibition accelerated. By 1935 virtually all theaters were wired” (Boardwell, 201). The film
The Blue Angel, directed by Josef Von Sternberg, was one of the first German talkies. In it Marlene Dietrich, then an unknown actress, becomes instantly famous for her appearance as a coquettish cabaret showgirl. This early sound film shows how sound creates a more moving experience.
Thanks to sound, we are able to enter the actor’s world in a more profound and personal way. We see Professor Rath at the beginning of
The Blue Angel in his silent apartment. We hear him whistling, and when we hear the silence of his dead bird that doesn’t whistle back, we can really feel his loneliness. In moments like these when there is a perfect match or synchronization between sound and image, when a filmmaker is able to put those two together in a way that is just right – that’s when memorable moments and great films are created.
To create an image in perfect harmony with a sound or witty dialogue is quite a challenge, the rules of the game had been altered. Sometimes it is even by chance that such fortuitous connections are made between those two senses. But it is up to the artist to identify such an instant in time. I believe that this is what Langlois meant when he said, “A film without sound is not worth making”.
The Blue Angel. dir. Josef Von Sternberg. Universum Film, 1931.
Boardwell., David and Kristin Thompson.
Film History an Introduction 2ed. University of Wisconsin Madison, Mac-Graw Hill Co. Inc., 2003.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. dir Robert Wiene. Die Nibelungen Rache, 1924.
(1) In this quote Langlois refers to diegetic sound or actual sound, which is any sound that is presented with its origin in the film’s world (voices of character’s and sound from instruments and objects presented in the movie, on screen or off-screen.)