European Film

Today let us embark on the impossible task of looking at European film, in an hour and 15 minutes. As you know, Europe is a patchwork of countries speaking diverse languages. Every one of these countries has a national cinema. Most of these countries had a national cinema before the Second World War. But that war was so drastic, so devastating, that more than one enjoyed a political and artistic re-awakening after 1945.

It is hard to believe, but in several European countries women weren’t allowed to vote until the turmoil of the War made women’s suffrage possible. France only allowed women to vote in 1944, Italy in 1946, Greece in 1952. In Switzerland, so often held up as the European ideal, women were not allowed to vote until 1971! So by our standards and expectations, much of pre-War Europe was a backward, sexist place, and backward, sexist societies tend not to produce good art. France and Italy had been damaged, but not devastated by the War — unlike Germany and Russia, which suffered massive destruction and unusually high numbers of civilian casualties. Economic recovery brought with it a renaissance in the arts, most of all in film.

France saw the Nouvelle Vague — a new wave of young filmmakers working on shoestring budgets. Italy saw the rise of the neorealistas – the young realists. Both movements quickly rejected studio shooting in favour of real locations. These films were often made with amateur actors. Roberto Rosselini’s ROME: OPEN CITY (Italy, 1945) was shot only two months after Italy surrendered. It is a story of partisan resistance against the Nazis. Its hero is a communist resistance leader, whom the German Gestapo torture to death. Vittorio deSica’s BICYCLE THIEVES (Italy, 1948) dealt with post-War Italy and the hardships of working-class life, again with mainly amateur actors, and showed how cruel post-War austerity could be. BICYCLE THIEVES is one of the best films ever made. Though it was shot on the streets and in real locations, there is still some studio work: the scene where father and son ride in a garbage truck in the rain, and almost hit a pedestrian, is clearly a rear-projection shot. And the Nazi bunker in ROME: OPEN CITY looks like a studio set. Even in arduous circumstances, the new generation of Italian filmmakers never gave up on the artifice of film in favour of an entirely documentary style.

Neorealist films were popular abroad, but less so at home, especially as living conditions improved in the 1950s. American films were flooding the market, and Italian politicians were keen to promote more positive, modern images. Giulio Andreotti, a mafia-connected Christian Democrat politician, attacked Neorealism as “dirty laundry that shouldn’t be washed and hung out to dry in the open.”

In France, the New Wave was supported and sustained by an influential film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, which began publication in 1951. Several of its critics, including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Francois Truffaut, became prominent directors, following – at the beginning of their careers – the New Wave style of long takes rather than conventional editing strategies.

Not all French directors were part of the New Wave. Jean Cocteau looked to Greek mythology and fairy tales for his inspiration, and was a master of inexpensive yet impressive visual effects. His great films include BEAUTY & THE BEAST / LA BELLE ET LA BETE (France, 1946), and ORPHEE – the story of Orpheus and Eurydice – filmed in a visibly war-torn landscape in 1950. In ORPHEE, Cocteau used ruined buildings as locations, ran the camera backwards, employed rear projection and infra-red film, and devised ultra-quick costume changes. Some of his inexpensive effects were so complex that it’s still hard to see how they were achieved.

At the other end of the spectrum of French film was Robert Bresson: A MAN ESCAPED / UN CONDAMNÉ A MORT S’EST ÉCHAPPÉ (France, 1956) is a minimalist depiction of his own wartime experiences as a partisan, and prisoner of the Germans. (The film has the same theme as ROME: OPEN CITY — a Nazi occupation, supported by politicians, police, and civilian collaborators, opposed by partisans who risk death – and worse – to defeat it.)

In Italy, filmmakers who had begun their careers as Neorealists had to find other forms of storytelling. One of them, Federico Fellini, earned international auteur status with glossy depictions of Roman high-life like LA DOLCE VITA (Italy, 1960) and 8 1/2 (Italy, 1963). Other directors were not as fortunate as Fellini, or as Francesco Rosi. Many of their contemporaries found work as assistants on Hollywood coproductions which shot in Italy because it was cheaper. Sergio Leone was one of the second unit directors on SODOM AND GOMORRAH (USA, 1962). Out of the experience and set construction of these coproductions, vibrant genres and sub-genres would emerge: the gladiator picture, the Italian Western, and the giallo – a broad Italian genre which includes thrillers, crime fiction, and slasher films.

British cinema has always lurched from crisis to crisis. One of the disadvantages of sharing a common language with a superpower is that smaller states tend to be swamped with its cultural products: film, music, television, and now the Internet. For a long time the Mexican film industry was protected by a Ley de Cine which insisted that English-language films could not be dubbed in Spanish, only subtitled. This functioned as a literacy program, and limited American penetration of the national cinema. Britain could rely on no such strategy. Before the Second World War, the government had encouraged American studios to set up British production units so as to meet quota requirements. In 1947 it placed a tax on American film imports, which resulted in Hollywood boycotting the British market; the tax was abolished by 1948’s Anglo-American Film Agreement. Instead of a tax, the British Board of Trade imposed a ceiling on the amount of money earned that the Hollywood studios could repatriate: in other words, a certain amount of the studios’ profits had to remain in Britain, and be spent on film-related activities. The Board of Trade estimated this would be about $20 million a year. In 1950 the British Film Production Fund was established: a small tax on cinema admissions, the Fund provided several million pounds a year to British producers, and to the studios’ British subsidiaries. This was named “Eady money” after the politician who sponsored it.

Both France and Italy had set up similar subsidy schemes to attract American production, but the British subsidy was four times larger than the French, and twice as large as the Italian, so not surprisingly the bulk of Hollywood’s offshore production went to Britain. Over the years, the British government re-worked its subsidies, in an ongoing attempt to support domestic production which usually ended up funding the studios.

What impact did this have on British cinema? Did it create more British pictures? And what was the nature of the films that got made? For the most part, the American/British productions were “big” pictures geared to an international audience: colourful historical adventures like TREASURE ISLAND (UK, 1950) and IVANHOE (UK, 1952) or war films like BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (UK, 1957) and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (UK, 1961). LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (US/UK 1962) “qualified” as British, and was thus able to receive subsidies, even though less than four of its 202 minutes were shot there. It appears that the British tax authorities were shown a concocted budget which “padded” the film’s British spend, and included the salary of the American producer, Sam Spiegel, because he had a British residence. But revenue from the international release of LAWRENCE flowed not to the British shell company which made it, but to Columbia, the studio which financed it, and for whom Sam Spiegel worked.

In the early 1960s a small independent production company, Woodfall, made films in the New Wave style: stories with working class protagonists, which took place in cities other than London. THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER (UK, 1962) is a fine example. By the mid-1960s Woodfall was making bigger films, for the international market, like THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (UK, 1968). Both were directed by Tony Richardson. In the 1970s, the studios’ British presence increased: GET CARTER (UK, 1971) was made by MGM British Studios, while Warner Bros. funded Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS (UK, 1971), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and O LUCKY MAN! (UK, 1973) via British “shell” companies.

We screen the end of O LUCKY MAN!, directed by Lindsay Anderson, who appears in the latter part of the sequence, and who combined both the Brechtian and the Surrealist approach, at least in his early films. The protagonist, Michael Travis, is played by Malcolm McDowell, who also starred in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE the same year, and played the lead in Anderson’s previous picture, IF… (UK, 1968). In IF…, McDowell played a schoolboy who starts a violent revolution at his exclusive school: hence the schoolbooks and the gun which Anderson asks him to hold. Most of the actors in O LUCKY MAN! play multiple roles, which is why McDowell’s character seems to recognize so many people. Lindsay Anderson plays himself, in the power film director outfit of red shirt and black leather jacket.

Studio money funded a number of good British features, especially in the 1970s. But the British industry became dependent on it, and seemed unable to develop without it. What are perceived as successful “English” franchises – Harry Potter and James Bond – are Hollywood studio series, whose international profits flow back to the parent company in the United States. In the 1980s, a British TV company, Central, set up a production arm, Zenith, which funded or co-financed British features, including my film, SID & NANCY. Margaret Matheson was their inspired head of production. But they did not endure. Other companies were simply absorbed by the studios. Working Title, another independent British company which specialized in London-based rom-coms, was acquired by Universal Pictures as its “indy” British subsidiary.

The New German Cinema came late. The country had been divided in two by the former Allies. Almost all the infrastructure and much urban housing had to be rebuilt before a re-birth of cinema was even possible. In the 1970s, this occurred. A new generation of film directors emerged, all of whom made features which gained them international attention. It included Werner Hertzog (AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD, 1972), Wim Wenders (THE AMERICAN FRIEND, 1977), Volker Schloendorf (THE TIN DRUM, 1979) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder  (ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, 1974).

This New Cinema produced some great films and some great actors and directors. The most prolific was Fassbinder, who was openly gay, highly political, very intelligent, and an obsessive worker who completed 44 projects as a director, and acted in 30 others, between 1966 and 1982. His work was taboo-breaking and usually done quickly. His personal life was quite self-destructive; his professional life extremely disciplined. Fassbinder remarked in interviews that he – a young German – didn’t know anything about the Holocaust until he went to theatre school in the mid-1960s. Nazi atrocities had been kept a secret from his generation, he said (Fassbinder was born in 1945, the year the War ended. He died, of a drug overdose, at the age of 37). In 1975 he made a film about a young hustler who is ruined by false friends after he wins the lottery. Like all his movies, FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (Germany, 1975) is a melodrama. Fassbinder wrote and directed it, and played the title role.

We watch Fassbinder, as Fox, trying to raise money for that fatal lottery ticket.

The Dutch, or Netherlands, industry is small compared to the other film industries we’ve discussed, and reliant on state support. The Netherlands Film Fund was established in 1957 and the Netherlands Film Academy in 1958. The best-known Dutch director is Paul Verhoeven, that former mathematics student from our Kurosawa documentary, who also attended the Film Academy. In the 1970s Verhoven had a series of popular hits, at home and abroad, including TURKISH DELIGHT (Netherlands, 1973) and SOLDIER OF ORANGE (Netherlands, 1977). He was for some years an A-list Hollywood action director. Rutger Hauer, star of both films, also emigrated to Hollywood: we saw him in BLADE RUNNER.

Marleen Gorris studied drama at university in Amsterdam and Birmingham, England. Her first feature was A QUESTION OF SILENCE (Netherlands, 1982), which tells the story of three women who kill a shopkeeper and their progress through the legal system. It is worthy of your attention. A QUESTION OF SILENCE  was a low-budget drama made with state funding. Gorris wrote the script for ANTONIA’S LINE (Netherlands, 1995) in 1988, and shot it in 1994. It was her fourth feature film. With a bigger budget – around $4 million – funding came from the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain. By the mid-1980s multi-national productions like this were becoming the norm, in the absence of money from a Hollywood studio. ANTONIA’S LINE is set in Holland but was shot in Belgium, partially because the location was very specific, and difficult to find, but also because Belgian film support could go into the budget.

Margaret Matheson, who headed Bard Entertainments after the demise of Zenith, provided the British share of the budget. Producers who had made pre-sales of their pictures could also take these sales agreements to the bank, and – in theory – get a loan against them. Asmik Ace was the Japanese distributor, and so the value that pre-sale could be added to the overall budget. It was a complicated way of making films, but this mix of partnerships, state subsidies, and pre-sales funded most mid-range independent pictures outside the US, until the financial crash of 2008.

In the case of ANTONIA’S LINE, we are fortunate. This is a complex story, spanning several generations, demanding a reasonable budget. As a feature film about a powerful woman and her dynasty, it is original in its conception and unique in its execution. Gorris is currently working on the bio-picture of James Barry, a 19th century Englishwoman who passed as a man so as to attend medical school, and – in due course – became the Inspector General of British Army Hospitals, and a health reformer.


European Film Continued … a lecture by Tod Davies

My principal interest is story – how it reflects, informs, and can change culture. Film, as a communal experience, resembles a group activity like the Mass. It is the ultimate art form, collaborative, despite the myth of the “hero director”. A good piece of art says something about your world, and about how it can be changed. I see art as a ladder by which we climb to become more autonomous people. The first clip I’ll show is from RULES OF THE GAME (France, 1939). Its director, Jean Renoir, was the son of Auguste Renoir, an an Impressionist painter. He intended this film as an entertaining romantic comedy. Instead it was detested by the audience, which literally tore up the theater at its first screening. RULES OF THE GAME was banned by the French government as “it would have an undesirable effect on the young.”

In the hunting scene from RULES OF THE GAME we see a group of bored, upper-class French men and women killing rabbits and pheasants driven to them by “beaters”. The animals have no chance and are massacred in a way which undoubtedly recalled the killing fields of the First World War, and anticipated the War to come, along with the collapse of French resistance when the Nazis invaded. It is both a picture of French culture, and, although Renoir did not intend this when making the film, a critique of it. When the film was restored and re-released in the 1950s, it was considered a classic.

Ingmar Bergman wrote THE SEVENTH SEAL (Sweden, 1957) in 1953, in the aftermath of World War Two and a year after the first Hydrogen Bombs were tested. It was highly regarded by critics who saw it as a masterpiece “about the Middle Ages.” But its is clearly about much more than that, as we see in the scene near the end, where the Knight and his friends meet Death in their castle. His film SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (Sweden, 1955) was also highly regarded, and re-made at least twice (THE SEVENTH SEAL was also frequently referenced and parodied – even in an episode of The Muppets). We watch a clip in which a mother and daughter talk. Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Probably not, think some, though I disagree—the women in this scene are talking about Life in general…not about a storyline centered around a male character.

The three criteria of the Bechdel Test (popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For) are 1) the film have two or more women in it, 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.

What is the purpose of the Bechdel Test? Is it a test of a film’s feminism, or of its more global humanist perspective? What do you think?

Human values are the most important things which films—all art– can support. Vittorio deSica’s A BRIEF VACATION (Italy, 1973) is the story of a working-class woman who supports a family of worthless adults and three children. We watch the opening scene, and, after she discovers she has tuberculosis, a scene in which she and three wealthier and more mobile women drive to a concert. The film tells the story of her awakening (sickness being the holiday of the poor), and of her return to her dire family.

(Alex note: the film is greatly marred by the use of a blurry star filter, which gives it the look of a TV commercial. How could the director of BICYCLE THIEVES go for such a corny effect, which – while it might help the idealized sanitorium sequences – works against the working-class realism of the opening scenes? DeSica’s GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINI (Italy, 1970) is similarly glossified. Imagine BICYCLE THIEVES shot through that star filter and you will realize what a bad thing this is.)

The producer of A BRIEF VACATION was Arthur Cohen, for whom I worked on two occasions. The second time was when Arthur optioned a script I had written for Charles Burnett to direct. Arthur was a master at gaming the Academy Awards. He won four of them, all for Best Foreign Film, sometimes for films that weren’t very good, by a strategy of sending videotapes of his films to all Academy members and by throwing lavish dinners for them. Charles and I were summoned to appear at one of these dinners – a small event for 200 Academy voters, at which 200 chocolate soufflees were served. Charles remarked to me, “With the money Arthur paid for this dinner, you and I could have made three films.”

Our last clip is from THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (France, 1972). It was directed by Luis Buñuel, who as you know was a Surrealist. The Surrealists weren’t – initially – manufacturing art to make money. They were trying to change the world via new ways of seeing. I saw DISCREET CHARM the day that it first came out. I was still in high school, and my friend and I found it hilarious — but we were the only people laughing in the entire cinema. Next day the reviews came out, declaring the film a hilarious comedy. We went back and saw it again on the weekend, and the entire audience was laughing. The reviews had told them what to think about the film.

In DISCREET CHARM a group of upper-middle-class people constantly try to eat dinner, but never can. Behind their veneer, they are really cocaine smugglers, importing the drugs from the “Republic of Miranda” in diplomatic bags. Like most of Buñuel’s films, DISCREET CHARM has a “yes-but” structure.

ANTONIA’S LINE – like these other European pictures – was a ground-breaking film. It showed a new way of looking at things — not about heroic male activity, but the history of a long line of women. It deals with the restorative nature of family, and the joy of sex, for all ages.