Münsterberg’s claim of photoplay’s central aim being “to picture emotions,” is one that works particularly well within the realm of the silent cinema. In DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the director attempts to condense the turbulent emotions of the Civil War struggle through focusing primarily on a Southern family, and the majority of their emotions are conveyed through over-exaggerated facial ticks and body gestures shown most-often in close-ups. Without the core of the family present, we as viewers would be lost within the epic battle scenes and historic re-creations.
While the way in which these emotional responses are framed and presented may come off as blatantly obvious, that’s arguably largely due to our privilege of having been trained over the course of a lifetime to understand and comprehend meanings built cinematically out of series of shots, framing, etc. At the time of The Birth of a Nation, filmmakers like Griffith were still writing the language of film, and an audience’s level of comprehension was different to our somewhat more film-savvy minds.
While present day audiences may chuckle at the sight of some of Nation’s emotional responses (the twitching shudders of one of the daughters reacting to bad news from the front, or the balled fists and “gol-darnit!” hat-throwing reactions of a disappointed Southern gentleman, and finally the terrified close-ups of African Americans when confronted by the “heroic” Ku Klux Klan come to mind), 1915 audiences still required a guiding hand through exaggerated presentations as to how they were meant to feel, as pointed out by Münsterberg. These silent film characters did all of their feeling out loud, through grand gestures. A single tear couldn’t do – flailing arms and open-mouthed agony were the chosen mode of expression. To us, as present day filmgoers, it can feel over-the-top and comical – one wonders how the actors of the silent film world would feel to know their most “emotional” scenes more likely produce laughs than the emotions they were hoping to portray.