Continental shifts

European innovators continue to reinvent the art of film

VEVEY, Switzerland — It’s hard to grasp that it has been 40 years since the French New Wave was changing global cinema, including Hollywood, forever. Europe stood at the focal point of world cinema. An older generation of helmers like Visconti, Antonioni, Fellini, Bresson, Bergman and Bunuel was still at its peak. The French, led by Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol, brought a spontaneity and passion to everyday stories, making eager use of Kodak’s faster Tri-X stock and technical innovations such as Nagra audio.

It’s important in looking back at those glorious years to understand that it was not just the sheer wealth of exciting young directors emerging across the continent that was crucial, but also the industrial infrastructure that welcomed and sustained them.That subsidy system, so derided in the Reagan-Thatcher era, spawned a rich feast of filmmaking in Eastern Europe and bolstered first the Gallic then the Teutonic industries. The Swedish Film Institute, founded by Harry Schein in 1963, seemed to blend the best elements of communist and capitalist culture.

And a deep pool of audacious technicians, trenchant screenwriters and intrepid producers allied to help the directors’ cause. Perhaps no year since can match 1963 in terms of glorious European cinema. Among the highlights of that annus mirabilis: Fellini’s “8½,” Visconti’s “The Leopard,” Berg-man’s “The Silence,” Malle’s “Le feu follet,” Anderson’s “This Sporting Life,” Richardson’s “Tom Jones.”

The fever was catching. Whether it was Carlos Saura in Spain, Alexander Kluge in Germany, Vilgot Sjoman and Bo Widerberg in Sweden or Fons Rademakers in Holland, directors tackled contemporary issues with an intensity that made “auteurism” a key term to drop at your local cocktail party.

The Brits, led by Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and John Schlesinger, and under the spiritual guidance of Lindsay Anderson, had cast off the Ealing image of comfy comedy and fed us slices of proletarian life. Meanwhile, Italians Francesco Rosi and Bernardo Bertolucci and the Greek Costa-Gavras delivered stinging rebukes to the power structures of the time.

In Eastern Europe, where movies were 100% state-subsidized, major talents like Wajda, Forman, Makavejev, Szabo and Jancso reconciled an almost casually brilliant aestheticism with the exigencies of official censorship.

The pace just had to slacken, and did so in the gray aftermath of the political firestorm that was May ’68, which resonated from Paris to Prague to Chicago. The artistic musings of introspective ’60s filmmakers as well as the socially charged fare of politically minded helmers either flamed out or fell from fashion; a new, hard-nosed financial reality began to pervade.

U.S. helmers like Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas grabbed the hearts as well as minds of a new generation in Europe. The era of the blockbuster was changing the rules of the game.

But while the British, Italian, Scandinavian and even French cinema lost its heat, a new wave emerged in Germany, featuring Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondorff and the feverish, flamboyant genius of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Quieter voices prevailed, however, throughout Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s, almost as if local creative forces were reeling before the onslaught of a revived American cinema juggernaut. Most directors, afraid to confront the dwindling ideals of their generation, buried their heads in the past. Auteurism went too far. Nations like Switzerland, Poland and Holland flattered only to deceive. Somewhere between the narcissism and the Hollywood lite of so many Euro puddings sprung a handful of intelligent pictures. But film buffs turned further afield for nourishment — to India, Iran, Australia and Taiwan.

Gradually, a new generation asserted itself: Sautet and Tavernier in France; Zanussi and Kieslowski in Poland; Angelopoulos in Greece; Tarkovsky in and outside Russia; Parker, Leigh and Roeg in Britain; the Tavianis in Italy. Arthouse cinema had shed the almost mystical aura of the 1960s, but European directors kept their balance at a time when TV was taking much of the best talent, and video loomed as a threat, not an ally.

From a creative perspective, the greatest change during these past four decades has been the decline of cinema in Eastern Europe. Under communism, movies were financed by the state, resulting in an explosion of talent in the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, in Hungary and Poland. Major directors like Forman, Menzel, Kieslowski and Jancso could never have made their reputation in the West without government subsidies. During the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the censorship of politics gave way, in the words of Polish helmer Krzysztof Zanussi, to “the censorship of money.”

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the burden of social analysis shifted westward — to Maurice Pialat, to Ken Loach, to Nanni Moretti. And although the 1990s became the most rapacious decade on record, Pedro Almodovar, Lars von Trier, Emir Kusturica and Aki Kaurismaki rode above the materialist chic by creating their own quirky worlds.

Some giants have even survived throughout with reputation intact: Roman Polanski, traveling an always original road from “Knife in the Water” to “The Pianist”; Alain Resnais, from “Last Year in Marienbad” to “Pas sur la bouche”; Claude Chabrol, from “Les bonnes femmes” to “La fleur du mal”; And Bernardo Bertolucci, from “La commare secca” to “The Dreamers.” Others continue to exert an avuncular influence over the new generation: Wajda; Angelopoulos; Costa-Gavras; Makavejev; and, above all, Bergman, still working at 85.

Europe these past 40 years has not just renewed, over and over again, the well-worn currency of film language. It has survived the convulsive impact of video, the multiplex, and an American mainstream cinema that’s assimilated many of its virtues and sold them back to Europe to lucrative effect.

It hasn’t been an easy road. The unpalatable truth of these four decades is that with the exception of five countries (France, Spain, Germany, Italy and the U.K.), European films continue to scramble to make ends meet domestically.

Radical changes also have occurred in exhibition over these past four decades. I was able to launch the International Film Guide in late 1963, with the avowed aim of championing arthouse cinema, when there were, literally, hundreds of art-houses throughout Europe. Today, they are a vanishing species.

On the positive side of the ledger sheet, working with digital video in the new millennium has trimmed budgets while leading to dramatic experiments like “Russian Ark,” shot by a German cameraman in a mesmerizing single take. Indeed, pushing the envelope remains very much an attribute of European movies. Sentimentalists might claim that the talent of yesteryear can never be matched, but a team containing Almodovar, Kaurismaki, Kusturica, Moretti, von Trier and the Dardenne brothers can hold its own against anything the 1960s might muster.

As Europe settles into the groove of a new millennium, it’s the offbeat names one should watch for — Lukas Moodysson in Sweden, the Dardennes in Belgium, Lynne Ramsay in Britain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Francois Dupeyron in France. Plus, to keep us all down to earth, there’s the versatile verve of Michael Winterbottom, Neil Jordan and Tom Tykwer. Europe remains, for better or worse, the cradle of arthouse (or should I say “festival”) cinema.

(Peter Cowie, formerly international publishing director of Variety, is founding editor of the International Film Guide.)

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