What is European Cinema?

an essay by Scott Fernie

Version francaise



  In this essay I am going to be looking at the characteristics of certain European films which I think provide a clear definition of what I think European Cinema is. I will be looking at the aesthetics of European films, the representation of women and the focus on political and social issues in these films through the development of European cinema from the end of the First World War.

"The elements of the power of Hollywood fell into place and geared itself up for domination of the world;s markets. But, until the First World War, other countries' film output still had more commercial and artistic impact than the United States." - Mark Cousins (2011, P.45)

  European cinema can be classified as an artistic response to the overwhelming influx of commercial, mass produced, entertainment films of Hollywood from the end of the First World War. This led to Europe being a ground for experimental, political, creative, relatively non-commercial and challenging cinema to be made.

  European filmmakers at first tried to compete with the Hollywood studios but these films weren�t distributed anywhere nearly as widely as the entertainment films of Hollywood. These films therefore failed to find a large enough audience to get the kind of box office success needed to allow an industry as large as Hollywood to flourish in Europe. This drove European filmmakers to resent the films from Hollywood and caused them to revolt against the glossy, narrative focused films and to make more visually focused, artistically challenging and satisfying films such as "Metropolis" (1927, Fritz Lang), "L'Age D'Or" (1930, Luis Bunuel) and  "La Belle et La Bete" (1946, Jean Cocteau).


"Equally, to turn the equation around, in competing with Hollywood for a share in the market, or in seeking a space of its own within it, the films produced by a specific national film industry will have in any case to differentiate themselves from those produced in Hollywood" - Steve Neale (2002, P104 - 105)

  This cemented Europe as a breeding ground for more interesting, artistic films and a place for filmmakers who want to make interesting, non-commercial films and to find financing which is still strong today. These films are commonly referred to as Art-House films due to their clear departure from the Hollywood norm of clear storytelling.

 Due to this focus on films with artistic integrity Europe has produced a huge range of different films with different aesthetic uses ranging from the visual immediacy of Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini to the low key, deliberately non-visually self-conscious films of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson. European cinema has a strong focus on the aesthetics of film and is a cinema largely of images, ideas and the process of filmmaking

over narrative. This is opposed to the Hollywood films which focus on a clear, coherent narrative where everything is resolved and style is dictated by story.

  European cinema can be seen in many cases as a cinema of the extreme in terms of its visual aesthetics. As Europe became a solid ground for artistic freedom in filmmaking, filmmakers began to challenge each other in terms of their aesthetic choices. This competition manifested itself by many filmmakers making realist films in response to the visual flare of many European filmmakers. Many visual filmmakers became even more focused on the visual aspects of films in response to the realist approach to filmmaking. For example, after World War II the Italian Neo-Realist movement was started in 1943 with "Ossessione" (1943, Luchino Visconte) although the movement wasn't globally recognised until 1946 when "Rome, Open City! (1946, Roberto Rossellini) was released. Italian Neo-Realist films focused on the everyday lives, challenges and troubles of ordinary people living in Italy after World War II. The directors used non-professional actors to play the characters, used real locations, de-dramatised their films and didn't offer happy endings. Aesthetically the films are minimalist and do not distract the audience at all from the characters and the situation they are in.

"It arose from the need to break with the cultural heritage of fascism and in particular with rhetorical artistic schema that seemed to bear no relation to life as it was lived." - Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (2007, P. 233)

"The Italian film has the air of documentary, a naturalness nearer to the spoken word than to the written account" - Andre Bazin (2002, P.59)

  This movement was hugely significant as films like these had never been seen before and stood in direct contrast to the traditionally visually focused and indulgent films which Italy was famous for. Italian cinema would then move away from its realist aesthetics and again become famous for its lavish visual style. This drift from a realist aesthetic can be seen in the work of Luchino Visconti, arguably the originator of the Neo-Realist movement, who went on to make such visual epics as "The Leopard" (1963, Luchino Visconti) and "Death In Venice" (1971, Luchino Visconti).


  Another good example of European cinema as a response to aesthetics of the previous generation is the French New Wave which took place from 1959-1963. The French New Wave was spearheaded primarily by five filmmakers, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rhoemer, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Goddard. The French New Wave responded against the "quality" films of the 1940s which were being made in France which were mainly adaptations of novels or plays. Annette Kuhn described the French New Wave as:

"A critical response to French cinema of the 1940s - a cinema of classical virtues, literary scripts, smooth photography and elegant decor." - Annette Kuhn (2007, P. 203)

The French New Wave rejected the clean photography of 1940s French cinema in favour of a more improvisational, naturalistic and fragmented approach of filmmaking. Not only were actors encouraged to improvise dialogue but plot and editing also took on this improvised style. The camera also was given a greater freedom through the use of hand held operation as opposed to the traditional use of mounting the camera on a tripod. Jean-Luc Goddard is credited with popularising the jump cut with his film "A Bout De Souffle" (1960, Jean-Luc Goddard) where a cut occurs during an action. This movement is one of the most famous and influential in film history and has influenced filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Sofia Coppola, Andrzej Zulawski and Richard Ayoade. This impact on filmmakers freed them up to think more creatively in terms of how film aesthetics can be put to use in a more expressive manner. This movement fused the kind of realism found in Italian Neo-Realism with a more abstract and artistically expressive use of imagery and plot.

 Europe is a place where filmmakers can find funding to make films which deal with overtly political and socially relevant subject matters. Naturally the devastating effect of WWII is one of the events which have resulted in an enormous number of films being produced which vary aesthetically, tonally and with their subject matter. This focus on politics and social issues found in European cinema is also not just a response to the subject matter of Hollywood films made about the war but a retaliation in its desire to bring the barbarity, absolute lack of humanity and abhorrence to the screen as strongly as possible which stood in contrast to the romanticised depiction of war found in Hollywood. These films often used the realist aesthetic and aimed to be as honest about what the war had done to their country as possible.


"How did filmmakers react to the devastation left by the Second Worlds War? In Japan, Germany and Italy, They opened their doors in the morning and found that their city streets had turned to rubble. Some took up documentary cameras and filmed what they saw. Filmmakers were not detached from the historical events that were taking place around them." - Mark Cousins (2011, P.187)

 The films about WWII made in Europe tend to deal with how the country in which the film was made was affected by the war. The majority of these films show characters struggling to survive through the awful circumstances and conditions forced on them by the Nazi. Examples of such films include Andrzej Wajda�s War Trilogy, which consists of "A Generation" (1955, Andrzej Wajda), "Kanal" (1957, Andrzej Wajda) and "Ashes and Diamonds" (1958, Andrzej Wajda), the documentary "Shoah" (1985, Claude Lanzmann) and "The Counterfeiters" (2007, Stefan Ruzowitzky). In contrast to these films which objectify Hitler and the Nazis Oliver Hirschbiegel made "Downfall" (2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel) which is a film that tries to humanise, not sympathise but humanise, Hitler and looks at the last days of his life. This was a controversial film and is a good example of the creative freedom filmmakers have in Europe as it could only have been made in Germany and would not have been made by people of any other nationality due to the taboo of the subject matter.

This freedom to address political and social issues head on through film has allowed Pedro Almodovar to make the films he wants. His films all focus on the social issues of the treatment of women and freedom of sexuality and always feature women as the leading protagonists. The freedom of sexuality not only applies to his female characters but his male ones as well. His films retaliate against the social oppression forced upon women by the Franco regime by portraying them as strong, free thinking, responsible individuals. These films would not have been able to be made in Hollywood. These films could only be made in Europe as they are far too sexually explicit for the Hollywood studios to produce. Also the fact that the films have strong female characters would frighten the studios as it would not appeal to the 12-25 white male demographic the studios produce their films for. His collaboration with Penelope Cruz is also a very important in terms of what European can do for not only filmmakers but actors and actresses.  

  Penelope Cruz is one of the rare actresses working in Hollywood who is talented and can still open a film on its opening weekend. Although she has an extremely successful career working in Hollywood she has worked numerous times with Almodovar making "Live Flesh" (1997, Pedro Almodovar), "Volver" (2006, Pedro Almodovar) and "Broken Embraces" (2009), Pedro Almodovar). It is very rare that a Hollywood star of Cruz's size would make a point of returning to Europe to make films so regularly especially when they do not get a massive release in America. Europe is also therefore an area for actresses to escape sexist treatment from Hollywood.              

  There are a number of great actresses who have found steady, good, challenging work in Europe as a response to the sexualised representation and secondary status of women in most Hollywood films. Three of the major actresses who have made huge progress in breaking free of the Hollywood trappings of sexual objectification are Kristin Scott Thomas, Tilda Swinton and Isabelle Huppert. Kristin Scott Thomas and Tilda Swinton have both found a certain degree of success in Hollywood. Kristin Scott Thomas with "Mission:Impossible" (1996, Brian DePalma) and Tilda Swinton with "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" (2008, David Fincher) and "Moonrise Kingdom" (2012, Wes Anderson). Despite this both choose primarily to work in Europe. Kristin Scott Thomas works largely in France making such films as "I've Loved You So Long" (2008, Phillipe Claudel) and "Leaving" (2009, Catherine Corsini). Tilda Swinton's European work includes "I Am Love" (2010, Luca Guadagnino) and "The Man From London" (2007, Bella Tarr). Isabelle Huppert works almost exclusively in Europe and has worked frequently with Michael Haneke in "The Piano Teacher" (2001, Michael Haneke) and "The Time of the Wolf" (2003, Michael Haneke). They all choose to play interesting, complex female characters and make artistically dignified films rather than play minor characters in Hollywood.


  In conclusion I believe that the term European cinema means a form of cinema which not only doesn't follow but challenges and retaliates against the Hollywood norm of storytelling. European cinema fights against Hollywood standards through the various uses of aesthetics, subject matter, politics and character.  Europe is a place which allows filmmakers freedom to express themselves in a personal way in order to create a work of art. This belief in film as an art form in itself is opposed to the Hollywood sensibility where a director's job is usually to do what the producers or the studios want and to simply deliver a product which will make money. I feel that apart from a handful filmmakers who are heavily influenced by European cinema (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and a few others) the films made in European are always more interesting and engaging than the cinema coming out of Hollywood. Other than a place for responding, experimentation, expression and retaliation, European cinema is a place for reminding us of the potential of and variation of cinema which therefore makes it infinitely more important and worthwhile than the films coming out of Hollywood.





Mark Cousins, 2011, The Story Of Film, 2nd Edition, London: Pavillon Books

Catherine Fowler (Editor), 2002, The European Cinema Reader, New York: Routledge

Pam Cook (Editor), 2007, The Cinema Book, 3rd Edition, London: The British Film Institute

Fritz Lang, Metropolis, Universum Film (UFA), 1927

Luis Bunuel, L'Age D'Or, Vicomte de Noailles, 1930

Jean Cocteau, La Belle Et La Bette, DisCina, 1946

Luchino Visconti, Ossessione, Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane (ICI), 1943

Roberto Rossellini, Rome, Open City, Excelsa Film, 1946

Luchino Visconti, The Leopard, Titanus, Societe Nouvelle Pathe Cinema (as S.N. Pathe Cinema), Societe Generale de Cinematographie (S.G.C.), 1963

Luchino Visconti, Death In Venice, Alfa Cinematografica, 1971

Jean-Luc Goddard, A Bout De Souffle, Les Films Imperia, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Societe Nouvelle de Cinematographie (SNC), 1960

Andrzej Wajda, A Generation, Zespel Filmowy "Kadr" , 1955

Andrzej Wajda, Kanal, Zesp�l Filmowy "Kadr", 1957

Andrzej Wajda, Ashes And Diamonds, Zespel Filmowy "Kadr", 1958

Laude Lanzmann, Shoah, Historia, Les Films Aleph, Ministere de la Culture de la Republique Francaise, 1985

Stefan Rozowitzky, The Counterfeiters, Magnolia Filmproduktion, Babelsberg Film, Beta Cinema,Filmforderung Hamburg (funding), Josef Aichholzer Filmproduktion, Studio Babelsberg Motion Pictures, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF),  2007

Oliver Hirschbiegel, Downfall, Constantin Film Produktion, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Degeto Film, osterreichischer Rundfund, EOS Entertainment, Rai Cinema, 2004

Pedro Almodovar, Live Flesh, CiBy 2000, El Deseo S.A., France 3 Cinema, 1997

Pedro Almodovar, Volver, Canal+ Espana, El Deseo S.A., Ministerio de Cultura, Television Espanola, 2006

Pedro Almodovar, Broken Embraces, Universal Pictures International, Canal+ Espana, El Deseo S.A., Instituto de Credito Oficial, Instituto de la Cinematografia y de las Artes Audiovisuales, Lanzarote Reserva de Biosfera, Ministerio de Cultura, Television Espanola, 2009

Brian DePalma, Mission: Impossible, Paramount Pictures, Cruise/Wagner Productions, 1996

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, David Fincher, Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Kennedy/Marshall Company, 2008

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson, Indian Paintbrush, American Empirical Pictures, Moonrise, Scott Rudin Productions, 2012

I've Loved You So Long, Phillipe Claudel, UGC YM, Integral Film, France 3 Cinema, UGC Images, Sofica UGC 1, Sofica Soficinema 4, Fonds Eurimages du Conseil de l'Europe, Region Lorraine, Ville de Nancy, Communaute Urbaine du Grand Nancy, Canal+, TPS Star,  2008

Leaving, Catherine Corsini, Pyramide Productions, Camera One, VMP, Solaire Production, Canal+, CineCinema, Cofinova 5, Region Languedoc-Roussillon, Centre National de la Cinematographie-Cofinova 3, Procirep, Angoa-Agicoa, 2009

I Am Love, Luca Guadagnino, First Sun, Mikado Film, Rai Cinema, La Dolce Vita Productions, Pixeldna, Ministero per i Beni e le Attiviti Culturali, 2010

The Man From London, Bela Tarr, TT Filmmehely, 13 Productions, Cinema Soleil, Von Vietinghoff Filmproduktion, Black Forest Films, Hungarian Motion Picture Fund, Ministry of Education and Culture, Centre National de la Cinematographie, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Eurimages, arte France Cinema, ZDF/Arte, Collectivite Territoriale de la Corse, Canal+, CineCinema, National Cultural Fund, Hungarian Motion Picture Ltd., Duna television, Szerencsejatek Zrt, Fondazione Montecinemaverita, Erste Bank, Natexis Coficine , 2007

The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke, Arte, Bavaria Film International, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Canal+, Centre National de la Cinematographie, Eurimages, Filmfonds Wien, Les Films Alain Sarde, MK2 Productions, Wega Film, arte France Cinema, osterreichischer Rundfunk, osterreichisches Filminstitut, 2001

The Time Of The Wolf, Michael Haneke, Bavaria Film, Canal+, Centre National de la Cinematographie, Eurimages, France 3 Cinema, Les Films du Losange, Wega Film, arte France Cinema, 2003




My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some interest.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk , and I can pass on any comment or question to the author.



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