In her day, Lois Weber was regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest film director in America, but unlike contemporaries and near-contemporaries such as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Charles Chaplin, her name has not survived to any kind of broad recognition among general film buffs or even those with a particular fancy for silents. This has a great deal to do with availability, the bane of the early cinema enthusiast: out of the 137 films that the IMDb credits to Weber between 1911 and 1934, the best estimate is that only 17 exist in full or in part, and of that much reduced list, only a mere two - 1915's Hypocrites and 1921's The Blot are even a little bit easy to lay your hands on. There's not much you can do to keep a director, even a very great one, alive in the hearts and minds of cinephiles with just two films to dangle in front of them.

And while I can't speak, obviously, to the 135 Weber films I haven't seen, "very great" is the absolute least we can say about Hypocrites, our present subject (The Blot is a fine, rich work, but not in the same league). If you'll indulge me in some wanton hyperbole that can't harm anybody, all these many years later, it's a flat-out masterpiece, maybe the most engrossing and sophisticated and all-round goddamn beautiful movie I have seen from that decade of American film (admittedly, I haven't seen all that much). If it's not quite as freakishly ambitious and accomplished as Griffith's The Birth of a Nation from around the same time (they premiered within two months of each other), it's certainly not simply because of the latter film's notorious racism that I find Weber's film to be vastly more watchable, and at 50 minutes long - less than a third of the running time of the Griffith epic - it still manages to cram in so much thematic density that I almost don't know what to do with it.

As is almost inevitably the case, given the film's title, Hypocrites is a work of social commentary. It fits into what has been reported to be a career-long obsession of Weber's with something that we might call moral evangelism: an earnest endorsement of Christian values that wasn't inherently connected, in the artist's life, with any particularly dogmatic Christian behavior. In fact, it's religious hypocrisy first and foremost that Weber looks to take down in this film, in the form of people for whom religion is totally unrelated to any code of ethics and behavior, serving instead a mostly social function. The film takes place in two parts: in the first, a local pastor (Courtenay Foote) finds that his flock has no interest in his or anyone else's exposition of Truth; after a certain time, he falls sleep or dies, and we are presented to an allegorical story in which a medieval monk, Gabriel (Foote also) is driven by religious passion to create a statue of Truth. When it is revealed in a grand event for the whole town that the statue is of a naked woman, Gabriel is hounded by the outraged citizenry, egged on by a venal abbot (Herbert Standing), who happens to look just exactly like the most prominent member of the community who finds the pastor's teachings too darn religious for church back in the present day story.

That's not even getting to the part of the film that literally gives up being a narrative in favor of a series of vignettes in which Gabriel and the ghostly Naked Truth (Margaret Edwards) pop in to comment on the venality of early 20th Century life. Hypocrites quickly reveals itself as a film heavy on symbolism and allegory, with a very clear-cut message to share with us all about how awful people are, these days or 400 years ago, doesn't matter which. There's absolutely no chance of missing out on Weber's polemic, particularly when she insists on putting in title cards like this one, in case you've missed all the nudity metaphors:

But just because Hypocrites is a lecture, that doesn't mean it can't also be absolutely scintillating cinema, completely and compulsively watchable. As I've said, it boasts a remarkably sophisticated level of technique for a film of 1915, using double exposures literally from the opening credits to literally layer its meaning on top of its narrative throughout. The incorporation of Edwards - fully nude throughout the movie - as a ghostly presence adds a jolt of surrealism that does not jive with the rather more sedate aesthetic of the film itself (though compared to a lot of mid-'10s cinema, Hypocrites is not beholden to the stagey tableaux-style blocking that makes earlier silents a rough sit for modern audiences: compare it to the previous year's The Squaw Man, and the vastly increased range of shot choices and use of camera movement to emphasise certain spaces and objects is immediately, and gratifyingly apparent), and this gives the film a very specific kind of freshness, even to modern eyes: it collides the old-fashioned with the weirdly timeless, and this gives it a visual energy that remains, to myself if no-one else, remarkably appealing. And that's setting aside the shots that are simply beautiful, including some breathtaking silhouettes against a river.

Anyway, to get back to the meat of it, Weber does an inordinately good job of using the images to communicate her message, making things like that "naked truth" title card doubly unnecessary; the contrast between Foote's presentational poses and the relaxed, casual crowd shots of his parishoners tells us in two images precisely what Weber thinks about the difference between the hard work of good behavior and real faith and the lazy reliance on fashionable activity. And it should be noted, I don't know that I agree with much of what Hypocrites believes about morality, but Weber presents it in such graceful, potent visual terms that I certainly want to.

It should be noted that the film itself was subject to the exact small-minded sniping that Weber herself indicts: the considerable quantities of nudity in the film angered the guardians of decency, who didn't care to notice the niceties of the metaphor about nakedness being true and thus beautiful that the film hardly attempts to make subtle. Hypocrites was thus bogged down in a lot of controversy, not helped by the fact that Bosworth Inc, the releasing company, was a new independent firm (Weber had left Universal in 1914 when it became clear that the larger studio had no sustained interest in feature-length stories, though the terminology would have of course been different; three- and four-reelers, as would have been said then). Eventually the argument that religious art - and this is such a thing, after a fashion - has a longstanding relationship with human nudes was enough to secure the film release, but by that point, society had made Weber's point for her: people are hostile and downright mean when you try to make them experience things outside of their comfort zone. At any rate, we're now far enough away, with nudity in cinema normalised enough (though hardly in silent film, and the film still feels taboo-busting as a result) to appreciate the haunting, poetic, and insightful film without the baggage of its initial release. Much of the technique and artfulness of the film would, in the passing years, be replicated or replaced and cease to seem so special, but the moral and intellectual boldness evidence by Weber here is as rare in Hollywood filmmaking a century later as it was at the time the film was brand new.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1915
-D.W. Griffith's infamous The Birth of a Nation codifies everything that cinema of the day could be capable of at its greatest causing virtually non-stop moral confusion for film scholars for the rest of history
-Theda Bara plays "The Vamp" and becomes cinema's first sex symbol in A Fool There Was
-A short biopic of Edgar Allan Poe is the first of many films titled The Raven to not actually adapt "The Raven" in any meaningful way

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1915
-Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen create the now-lost early horror film Der Golem
-Louis Feuillade's serial Les Vampires begins
-The Italian Assunta Spina is one of the first extant films to explore largely realistic narrative and acting techniques