We’ve talked a lot about the history of cinema from an American perspective. That’s due to a few reasons. Chiefly, it’s because Hollywood really has been the historical center of world cinema. This dynamic is beginning to change as globalization breaks down some barriers, but there is little doubt that Hollywood was the main driving force behind film’s rising popularity. However, that’s only one side of the story. Cinema was developing as a powerful art form across the world.
World cinema, as its name implies, is a vast topic. We will explore some of the highlights and hopefully provide incentive for you to research international films and filmmakers further.
You may remember from the first episode that one of the earliest films, A Trip to the Moon (1902), was one of the first films to be pirated and sold illegally overseas. With film cameras becoming more easily accessible around the world, communities of filmmakers formed in each country.
Some of the earliest international success stories came from Weimar, Germany, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a groundbreaking science fiction film of the silent era. Propaganda films were powerful communication platforms during the prelude to the Second World War. Leni Riefenstahl, a woman filmmaker, directed Triumph of the Will in 1935 to celebrate Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism in Germany. Setting aside its controversial subject matter, Triumph was a tremendous achievement for both its technical quality and because production was helmed by a woman. Riefenstahl inspired many women to establish careers in the film industry, both in front of and behind the camera. Triumph was so well received that it even won the grand prize at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. Three years later, Paris would fall under German occupation.
European art cinema captured many of the attitudes and anxieties of post-war Europe. This was especially true of the French New Wave. Films of the New Wave movement dealt with existential themes and used satire to criticize contemporary society. Filmmakers like Jean Luc Godard were also noted for their experimentation—breaking standard filmmaking rules, improvising dialogue, and shooting scenes in public places in an almost documentary style.
A “Golden Age” parallel to the mythic Hollywood Golden Age began in the 1950s, this time in most places excluding the United States. The Asian film industry experienced tremendous growth as the post-war economic boom and social climate generated both the financial capital necessary to mount production and the increasing demand for Asian-focused films.
Nowhere was this parallel Golden Age more prevalent than Japan. Akira Kurosawa, regarded as one of the greatest directors in cinematic history, inspired the citizens of a defeated Japan to take renewed interest in their history and culture. Kurosawa’s films Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and The Hidden Fortress (1958) were among the most critically acclaimed films of the decade and reached audiences worldwide. George Lucas has stated that some of his inspiration for Star Wars came from Kurosawa (namely, The Hidden Fortress), and Seven Samurai was later remade as a Hollywood western, The Magnificent Seven (1960), starring the biggest American names at the time.
Both French New Wave and Japanese cinema were direct influences on the New Hollywood movement, which we’ll cover in our next episode.
Did You Know?
India’s Bollywood is a portmanteau, taking the B of Bombay (Mumbai), the center of India’s film industry, and combining it with the name Hollywood. Bollywood is only one part of the Indian film industry, and its formal name is Hindi Cinema.
Five Films to Watch
Pather Panchali (India)
Seven Samurai (Japan)
Battleship Potemkin (Russia/USSR)
A Fistful of Dollars (Italy)
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