Creative History: European Films That Changed Cinema
I can picture the film director Brian Da-Palma slumped on a Chicago bench, he knew the final scenes of David Mamet's script were unfilmable. He had simply run out of money. His movie, The Untouchables, was on a knife's edge. But Da Palma got himself one chance to realise his vision. He began to secretly store film stock with the intent to film his new unscripted ending. He wanted a scene that would represent the effects on innocent people during the war on organised crime. When he started to construct the scene narrative Da Palma didn’t look for inspiration in the rich catalogue of American westerns or gangster movies. Instead he would look to the 1925 movie the Battleship Potemkin. He would pay homage to soviet cinema's most famous scene, the “Odessa Steps Sequence”. The scene would go on to be one of the most celebrated moments in the 1987 Oscar winning movie.
In this video we’ll look at the influence of European cinema and the massive impact just 5 films have had.
Number 1. The Battleship Potemkin.
It’s difficult to overstate just how important this movie is to film making. The film maker's ambition was to create a revolutionary propaganda piece loosely based on the mutiny of Russian sailors of the Potemkin. It certainly was revolutionary, the 1925 silent film would transform the way films would be shot and edited.
Before Sergei Eisenstein, the director, created the film he wrote a paper titled ‘A Dialectic Approach to Film Form’. In it he calls montage “the nerve of cinema”. The 5 types of editing montage he details in his paper are:
Metric Montage - where the length and quantity of shots in a sequence is fixed irrespective of the action within each frame.
Rhythmic Montage - which is determined not only by the length of shots but also the rhythm of the action itself.
Tonal Montage - where editing is used to generate the emotion of a scene.
Overtonal Montage - which combines the three aforementioned styles of montage.
Intellectual Montage - which uses editing to generate a logical connection between shots and hence add meaning to the entire scene.
These are the building blocks of editing.
The film is one of the only movies on Rotten Tomatoes to have a 100% positive rating. The critical consensus reads "A technical masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin is Soviet cinema at its finest, and its montage editing techniques remain influential to this day.” Since its release Battleship Potemkin has often been cited as one of the finest propaganda films ever made, and is considered one of the greatest films of all time
Number 2: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released in Berlin, 1920, to thunderous applause.
The film was a global hit.
In the film Dr.Caligari is a demented hypnotist. He manipulates a person who suffers from a sleepwalking disorder to commit horrific murders. But all is not as it seems. In the final act it’s revealed instead that the whole story is just the mad ramblings of a mentally ill inmate in a lunatic asylum.
This film would be a defining moment in the evolution of the horror genre. German Expressionism had certainly found a home on the big screen. “This highly stylised, distorted vision of the world is fill with jagged camera angles, hyper-artificial sets and jerky, robotic acting.”
Quickly Hollywood would start to use some of these menacing formal elements in the horror films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, starting with Dracula.
Today, the most obvious contemporary filmmaker whose signature style is based on this movie is Tim Burton. Nearly all of his movies feel like a love letter to German Expressionism from Batman, A Corpse Bride, Sweeney Tod, Sleepy Hollow and of course Edward Scissorhands.
It’s not just the visual style that has been emulated. American Psycho, Shutter Island, The Sixth Sense and Psycho all use unreliable narrators to create similar horrific psychological endings.
Number 3: Un Chien Andalou
Un Chien Andalou was directed by Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dali in 1929. The Franco-Spanish surrealist masterpiece was made to insult the intellectual bourgeoisie, but to the disappointment of its creators the film was a massive success amongst this group. Buñuel would say - “What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?”
Unsurprisingly the surrealist film plot is unconventional. Every time I watch the movie I wouldn't consider myself entertained; the word I would use is mesmerised. A disjointed narrative of arresting dream-like images and visual metaphors inspired by freudian theories. It’s like the audience are being asked ask, no, forced to analyse and diagnose a violent or broken mind. For me, watching this movie is both uncomfortable and beguiling. A shocking timeless experiment that keeps fulling me back in.
Premiere ranked the opening scene as 10th out of "The 25 Most Shocking Moments in Movie History”.
The Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa cited Un Chien Andalou as one of his favourite films.
Number 4: Nosferatu
This 1922 silent German Expressionist horror was considered the first vampire movie. The film was an unauthorised and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.
Names and other details were changed, including Count Dracula being renamed Count Orlok to avoid accusations of copyright infringement. But the Stoker heirs viewed it as a lesser version of Bran’s original. They sued over the adaptation, and a court ruling ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed. Luckily a few prints of Nosferatu survived. And quite rightly the film is regarded as an influential masterpiece of cinema.
Nosferatu would add to the mythology and law of the vampire, it was the first film to show a vampire dying from exposure to sunlight. In Stoker's Dracula it had shown them being uncomfortable with sunlight, but not life-threateningly.
Number 5: Metropolis
Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Matrix: in a family tree of science fiction they would all be related to a common grandparent born in 1927. If I had to choose the most influential movie of science fiction film making that would absolutely be Metropolis. Without it, the history of popular science fiction would be dramatically different.
Metropolis is the 3rd German expressionist film in this list. The first feature length science fiction movie is set in a futuristic urban dystopia. It follows Freder, the son of the city master, and Maria, a saintly figure, as they attempt to breakdown and overcome the vast gulf separating the classes in their city and bring the workers together.
Metropolis was met with a mixed reception upon release.
Critics found it visually beautiful and powerful and the film's art direction was influenced by opera, Bauhaus, Cubist and Futurist design. It was praised for its complex special effects, but its story was accused of being naive.
H.G Wells described the film as "silly", and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls the story "trite" and its politics "ludicrously simplistic”.
But later Roger Ebert, would say "Metropolis is one of the great achievements of the silent era, a work so audacious in its vision and so angry in its message that it is, if anything, more powerful today than when it was made.”