PRINT February 1986


local technicolor.

MOVIE CINEMAS AND THE FILMS they bring to life are offspring of the metropolis. Their late-19th-century ancestors were comic/subversive variety theaters, circus sideshows, and the panoramas and perspectival dioramas of city, country, and foreign lands that amazed our grandparents with their deceptive realism. The urban masses were inquisitive, sentimental, easily scared, and endowed with vivid imaginations; the movies offered them faraway places close up, brought the past to the present, and transformed the familiar, the city, into something strange, a murky jungle of crime and passion. Whether as musical, adventure story Western, melodrama, or detective movie, film everywhere elaborated and perfected its genres, sacraments in the rituals that were performed in the secularized temple of the movie palace. In perfecting them, it turned them into myth.

This is mostly long past. The genres have faded away, and most movie houses have more or less become drive-ins, with fast-changing menus of standardized wares. The place of the movie house has been inherited by television—the medium in the home, and the drugstore for every conceivable product.

What’s having a "good run,” what’s popular right now, and what should I address in cinema to capture the attention and interest of my fellow countrymen and -women, today’s moviegoers? The answers to the questions every film director must ask are all the more complicated in Europe, where hardly any movies can recoup their costs through ticket sales within the producer country alone, and so must appeal not only to the director’s fellow-citizens but to foreign viewers as well. Few films succeed in this by remaining in cinemas. Only on the different European lands’ television channels do they reach a mass international audience, which generally speaking turns its back on them when they are screened in movie theaters outside their country of origin.

Furthermore, American films enjoy an overwhelming commercial dominance in Europe. To counter their power, European directors often must either adapt to and imitate their styles, or self-assertively deviate from and resist their familiar images and stories—still keeping these in mind, however, if only to react against them. The adaptation approach is the more seductive of the two, since imitations stand a chance of getting sucked into the American airstream of commercial success. Wolfgang Petersen tried this route with 1984’s The Neverending Story (based on the 1983 German bestseller Die unendliche Geschichte, by Michael Ende); and Roland Emmerich, a graduate of the Munich Hochschule fur Fernsehen and Film who drew European attention to himself as a science fiction–enthusiast with Das Arche Noah Prinzip (The Noah’s ark principle, 1983), is currently and unblushingly filming Joey, a film in the mold of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.

“German Cinema: How to Become American”—this was the title of an article on the imitation approach in the Spring ’85 issue of the British film magazine Sight & Sound. The trend has gotten some of its commercial impetus from the revived, expanded Bavaria Studios, near Munich. Within Europe the Bavaria Studios have now outgrown England’s Pinewood Studios, famous especially for their special-effects facilities (Stanley Kubrick produced many of his films there). But even while Pinewood was on top, British film as such had more or less disappeared from the screen, just as Petersen’s The Neverending Story, as William Fisher writes in Sight Sound, “was not a German film, but, first and foremost, a Warner picture.” And what was Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984)? A German film in the tradition of John Ford and Nicholas Ray? ”A German vision of what an American film once upon a time was supposed to be," as I wrote when I saw it at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984?

Yet some European directors, temporarily or permanently, haven’t wanted or haven’t been able to channel themselves into the traffic of international big business, and have dealt instead with the commercial and cultural status quos of their own situations. They have held fast to their own cultural identities, however chimerical those may have become. Inspired by Luigi Pirandello’s short stories, Italy’s Taviani brothers evoke the peasant world of Sicily at the turn of the century in their comic, drastic Kaos (Chaos, 1985). In his Oberst Redl (Colonel Redl, 1985) the Hungarian director István Szabó resurrects the long-gone “kaiserlich-königlich” (imperial-royal) rule of the Austro-Hungarian monarch Franz Joseph as a gloriously morbid multiracial culture. The Russian émigré Andrei Tarkovsky had a Russian dacha built in Sweden for a film he has just finished, while West Germany’s Alexander Kluge, in Angriff der Gegenwart auf die übrige Zeit (Attack by the present on the rest of time, 1985), composes a requiem for film and the movie theater, for the closing years of the 20th century and the stubborn resistance of lone uncoopted rebels against the scrap heap of German history and the growing demand for junk product in the new electronic media. In his new film Poulet au vinaigre (Chicken in vinegar) Claude Chabrol continues his ironic explorations of the moral hypocrisy and degeneracy of the French provinces. In Switzerland, Alain Tanner’s No Man’s Land, 1985, takes the Swiss-French border as a metaphor for an allegorical game among four characters, reflecting in its course on stagnation and utopia, illusion and reality in our “bleierne Zeit” (leaden time). These films constitute very different experiments in poetic involvement with the present, but they have one thing in common: immersion in the cultural, historical, obsessively individual details of their various lands.

Such films are acts of resistance against an easily consumable conformity of thought and feeling. The echoes they find in American productions—in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, 1984, for example—are encouragements for this unspoken but clearly living culture of difference in Europe. And the culture is growing richer, with not only Spanish but also British films, which were close to nonexistent a few years ago, joining the concert of variously toned voices. I am thinking, for instance, of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, 1983; Michael Radford’s Another Time, Another Place, 1983; Malcolm Mowbray’s A Private Function, 1984; and John Mackenzie’s The Innocent, Mike Newell’s Dance with a Stranger, and David Hare’s Wetherby, all 1985. It’s notable how many of these films are set in the provinces, or in remote places or times. Rediscovering differences of landscape, dialect, and period, they cast the cinema in the role of witness to experiences and memories that seemed to have disappeared from it under the rule of the "dream factories.” The best European film now is involved in the revisioning of history.

Wolfram Schütte is the film and literature editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper and writes a column on film for Artforum.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.