PRINT October 1985


The celluloid cannot hold. Did you see who Alexis kissed last night?

CRISIS IS “THE STATE OF THINGS” in European cinema, to quote the title of Wim Wenders’ obituary to his own Hollywood utopias. The crisis is no mere wandering ghost, it’s staring us straight in the face with the deadened eyes of shut-down movie theaters. European film, which is not alone in this crisis, can’t tell a story anymore. It has no energy, no spirit, no wit, no urgency.

This sort of paralysis has plagued film periodically, but in the past it has cured itself with the new, for instance with Italian neorealism in the mid ’40s, the French “new wave” at the end of the ’50s, the “new German film” in the ’70s. The present crisis, however, lies deeper than previous esthetic or creative impasses. In a period of seven years European cinemas have lost 400 million viewers, and it doesn’t look as if they are ever going to be able to woo even a fraction of this public back. Statistics show that in the United States the average citizen goes to the movies about six times a year, but in West Germany it’s a mere three times, and in Great Britain barely once. The onetime palaces of mass entertainment have all but lost their appeal for enormous segments of the public.

When the movie theaters die, films will no longer have a public forum. The densely populated countries of Europe have begun to see creeping cinematic desert zones. In whole regions, and in many towns of, say, ten-to-thirty thousand people, the cinema is once again only known by hearsay, or from viewers’ rare visits to the big city. New residential settlements are already being planned without movie theaters. In metropolitan areas and university towns the movie palaces of yore have long since turned into “movie centers”: their small theaters with tiny screens are uninviting, ugly places, without comfort or charm. In West Germany, one of the richest nations in the world and said to be host to more theater and opera productions than any other country “movie culture” has always been a foreign phrase, and is today all but meaningless to most. Moviegoers here are not treated like clients to be wooed; they are doled out the cinematic equivalent of army rations. It’s hardly surprising, then, that West Germans prefer to stay home, all the more so because the city centers, big and small, are empty and all but comatose in the evenings. The cinema no longer provides any metaphoric food here; people prefer drip-feeding from the tube at home.

In France, where from the start le cinéma in all its forms has been a part of daily culture for all classes and age groups, the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, has initiated a counteroffensive to stop the disappearance of cinemas and even win back some of the territory already lost. One of the largest budget increases to be introduced under the socialist administration of François Mitterand was that of the Ministry of Culture, and because France, unlike West Germany and, in certain respects, Italy, is governed through a thoroughly centralized system, initiatives from Paris can reach even the furthest provinces. It is Lang’s goal to give greater importance to these traditionally neglected areas, and in the last year a number of new movie theaters have been built in the provinces, under governmental subsidy but without state regulation. And, in an attempt to retard outside influences (particularly from the United States), Lang is seeking to support the French film industry by introducing quota regulations on the number of foreign films allowed shown on television. This policy is unique in Europe, but even an attempt such as this to establish new oases in the eroded cinema landscape is in the long run quite unlikely to reverse the general trend against the movies as a mass medium.

This trend transcends the different political and economic systems operating in the different countries of Europe. (In East Germany too, for instance, the number of moviegoers is on the decline.) In fewer and fewer movie theaters an ever smaller number of films accounts for the profits. Mostly—and this too cuts through ideological boundaries—they are the productions of major American film companies: James Bond movies, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Police Academy, Eddie Murphy comedies. They target an audience that they hit dead on: kids aged from 14 to 20. These are the people who make up the movie-going public in Europe today. There are also rare, unexpected successes that without marketing attract a different, older, usually cinema-abstinent public: for instance, Milos Forman’s Amadeus, Carlos Saura’s dance version of Carmen, Jean-Luc Godard’s scandal-provoking Je vous salue, Marie (released in America as Hail, Mary) or Robert van Ackeren’s ironic and erotic melodrama, Die flambierte Frau (A woman in flames).

Of course, television, as a domestic medium and as a vehicle for movies, is the Goliath among the cinema’s gravediggers. It glues eyes to its screen. On occasions when legal restraints that in certain countries check the flow of commercial channels have been suddenly lifted, as they were, for instance, in Italy this year, television has so flooded the cinematic countryside that nothing but islands remain. It has given what the poet, polemicist, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini called “consumismo” (consumerism) a tremendous boost, stimulating a counter-reformation of beautiful illusion, the Baroque eye-and-ear appeal that Pasolini in the early ’70s had already recognized with diagnostic incisiveness as the “homogenizing,” “leveling” answer of neocapitalism to the “backward,” agrarian, traditional regional culture of multilingual Europe. What Pasolini painted on the walls of his times in desperate publicist prophecy—in his book Scritti corsari (Pirate writings, 1975) for example, and in films like Teorema and Salto—has long since spread throughout Europe. Movie programs in cities from Lisbon to Berlin, from London to Palermo, are indistinguishable not only from each other but also from those of Chicago and New Orleans, LA and NY. Everywhere, the same films play at the same time (and on TV, the same series, like “Dallas” and “Dynasty”), only in different languages. The “Europe of the Fatherlands” of which Général Charles de Gaulle once spoke is becoming more and more distant, and not only in regard to film; the cultural identity of the individual European is becoming more uncertain.

Wolfram Schülte is the film and literature critic for the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, and the editor of the Reihe Film book series. He is a film columnist for Artforum.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.