Which is better cinematography or filmmaking

Cinema in Europe

Georg Seeßlen

To person

Georg Seeßlen, born in 1948. Studied painting, art history and semiology in Munich. Works as a freelance publicist. Texts for Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Rundschau, epd Film, etc. He also holds seminars and guest lectures at universities. Numerous books on film and popular culture, e.g. Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock.

From the contradicting dream of European cinema

The cinema makes it possible: national borders disappear, viewers can immerse themselves in the thoughts and feelings of another country for the duration of a film. The appeal of European film lies in the differences. What makes a film British, German or French?

"How do we come to a happy ending without lying?"
Alexander Kluge
(& copy AP)

European film is an economic-aesthetic project, of which no one knows how much reality it may contain and how much of it must remain a beautiful dream. What we know very well about him: that there is a longing for his unifying and enlightening work, that he is a contested field for open and hidden interests, and that at the same time he creates a system of contradictions in itself. The European film is a dream and a nightmare at the same time: If we dream of such a film, then we can also be afraid of "Europeanized films" which lose the ability to identify in their production as well as to communicate. One thing is clear: the "European film" project consists of "unity in diversity". As reality, this term describes a precarious system in which, when things go well, the centrifugal and centripetal forces achieve a balance. It rarely goes particularly well.


Longing for connection and clarification in European film once came from two related and yet very different cinematic pilgrimage sites of the post-war period: Locarno in Ticino, Switzerland and Oberhausen in the industrial area of ​​West Germany. Since 1947, Locarno has offered European filmmakers in search of a cross-border dialogue a friendly stage, while in Oberhausen that view to the east, which was politically more or less forbidden during the Cold War, was at least made possible as a screen view. In both places, European films were utopian plays of light about a peaceful encounter between nations that were recently separated by war, occupation and the crimes of National Socialism, or that were still mutually opposed to one another as enemies in ideology and arms races.

The European cinema of awakening

The German filmmaker and author Alexander Kluge in 2008 at the award ceremony of the German Film Prize. (& copy AP)
European cinema also had this function of a utopian, solidarity-based medium of another Europe in the years around 1968. At that time, intellectual demands arose on this cinema, which should always be both an incentive and a burden at the same time Time criticism and analysis will be. It was Godard's famous motto that one would not only make political films, but one would make political films, and a derivative of this idea was that one would not only make European films, but also films in Europe. A Pasolini film would be as Italian as an Alexander Kluge film would be German, and that is precisely why Pasolini would be understood as well in Berlin as Kluge in Rome. Such films would show solidarity in the criticism of national history and mythology and would do what they have to say in a very personal and "readable" way at the same time.

In Olivier Assayas' film "Irma Vep", Maggie Cheung comes to Paris as an Asian superstar and utterly compliments European films. The director, on the other hand, sarcastically interjects with a journalist that European film is nothing more than a waste of "public money that is slipped from friend to friend to make films that no one wants to see." Time and again, young filmmakers try to free themselves from the ballast of a European film history, whose tradition can also mean paralysis and alienation. And so European cinema keeps looking for new pacts - with the subversive impulses of pop culture, with cult cinema from other countries or with migrant ghetto culture. The cinema must constantly free itself and reflect on its roots.

At the same time, however, cinema also has a unifying effect in the mainstream: In cinema, people love the "typically Italian" or "British" and even the "typically German". At the same time as the awareness of a European cinema with artistic and political aspirations was developing, cross-border tendencies also developed in entertainment films. The onset of mass tourism in the sixties is triggered and accompanied not least by film images that are obtained either from imported films (the Italo comedies) or from self-produced images (the Italian romanticism of German hit films).

The dynamic of European film in the arts as well as in the entertainment sector lies not least in the different codes of the respective societies. Not only are there limits to sexual and political censorship that can be overcome through cinematic exchange, there is also a transfer of ideas and fashions. In the boom years, European cinema directly became a fictional accompaniment to real flows of import and export.

In the sixties and seventies, with the so-called "Euro-Trash", a completely different European cinema emerged than the poetic and critical filmmakers had imagined. German Karl May films (produced in Yugoslavia), coat and sword adventures in French-Italian co-production, horror films in exchange between British and southern European traditions. In this way, a European cinema reacted not least to a crisis in the Hollywood dream factory, but at the same time also created extremely unique forms of expression. A model for this is the transition of the German Edgar Wallace films with their very characteristic flair to a hybrid of Anglo-Saxon mystery thriller, Italian Giallo thriller and screen stars from all European countries. Although the abstract codes of genre films predominated here, these crime films, agent thrillers or westerns also told of Europe, of the "archaic south" and the "decadent north", of power relations and rebellions. While the "art films" offered, as it were, critical journeys through the past and present of European countries, the Eurotrash cinema created an imaginary "mapping" of Europe and the world in a thousand different masks.

The "Euro-Trash" genre very quickly lost its importance on the international picture market in the eighties, and one reason for this was a political will to re-nationalize cinematographies. As a legacy of this development, the difficulty for European films that do not belong to the recognized cinema of the European master directors and are not enhanced by the presence of European stars to cross the borders of their own country. It is precisely the image production that crosses European borders the least, which is neither created for artistic eternity nor for quick, unconscious consumption, but which would most likely offer contemporary images to society in the neighboring country.

Paradoxically, the interest of one European country in the other is ultimately lost precisely because of the lack of semiotic difference. Because the same chain of stores, urban designs and clothing lines are everywhere, the differences lie in the area of ​​more pronounced subtlety. The situation of a person in Romania is very different from that of a person in Germany, but on the one hand the visibility of this difference is not only problematic in the reality found, but also in the second reality of the eternal media images, the series and entertainment shows, the goods and Fashions, and secondly, this difference is again produced in Europe: If a person in Romania kills himself, it can be related to the fact that a chain of stores in Germany is lowering the price of a can. Only European films can show such connections, and they could only do it in a painful way. So it's no wonder that there is little interest in producing and communicating them. The economic interest in a European film runs counter to the political fear of what it has to show and say. Therefore, the economic interest is not at all on European, but on Europeanized film.

The national identity cinema

For the European bourgeoisie in the post-war period, the cinema played a similar role as the opera played for the European bourgeoisie in the 19th century, not only as a "powerhouse of emotions" (Alexander Kluge), but also as a production facility for national and trans-national myths. European cinema differs from other centers of cinematographic production not only in terms of its history and its aesthetic and political demands, but also in its cultural function.

The Italian actress Claudia Cardinale in a scene from "Once Upon a Time in the West" (directed by Sergio Leone, 1968). (& copy AP)
Although the instruments of a European film culture, such as universities, festivals and legal provisions, are sufficiently programmatic, far too few films reach the cinemas and the film discourses in neighboring countries. This not only has to do with political and cultural moods or a lack of curiosity, but also with the limits of "legibility". Every technical innovation and every impulse from international events must first be examined for its significance in this European cinema before it can be put into practice. Just as a "revolutionization" of opera would endanger the self-identification of the European bourgeoisie, so upheavals in audiovisual culture endangered the self-identification of the European bourgeoisie in the 20th century. Mutual demarcation was just as important in both cases as mutual fertilization.

The festival director of Venice, Luigi Rondi, declared in 1983: "It is important that the poets of European cinema adopt the new means of expression, otherwise technology will destroy poetry in the cinema in the future." But this strange dialectic between the technological and the aesthetic development of the cinema can hardly be fulfilled with a simple act of appropriation. Rather, it only made possible the paradoxical situation in which we are currently at ease: the Europeanization of the means of production with simultaneous nationalization of the product. A message of our days is not: A European film finds more viewers than a Hollywood film. Rather: In Italy, an Italian film finds more viewers than a Hollywood blockbuster.

European film history cannot be written without a kind of subsidy history of political economy. In the eighties, for example, the British government's funding model changed abruptly, which in particular sidelined a dedicated art line within a short period of time. At certain times, cinematographies like the French or Spanish opened up to partners outside of Europe more easily than their European neighbors, because laws and institutions made such cooperation easier. "Trends", "successes" and "moods" in European film culture are therefore neither exclusively events on a "free market" for images, nor are they exclusively the result of cultural dialogues between audiences; what happens there happens in a triangle with the corner points "interest", "power" and "language".

In exactly such a triangle, what a film from one national European cinema culture can say to another is also realized. And in this situation an old contradiction breaks out again, namely that between authors and production. While the authors learn from each other much more quickly, part of the production machine first tries to produce a nationally identified product. The capital invested in the audiovisual culture of Europe pays for itself most quickly and surely through the offer of identification, both in terms of the subject matter as well as in the narrative and depiction. The success story of European films over the past ten years can be written as the story of films that convey something like "home" within limited regions and limited scenes. This cinematic feeling can in turn be exported as a whole; Films with happy Sinti and Roma in the Czech Republic or vital provincial people in Lower Bavaria are obviously easier to exchange than films that describe Europe as an economic and political system that extends into the private lives of individuals.

The widespread "Europe skepticism" is also reflected in European films. The creation of “national identity” seems to have returned to the agenda, precisely because the economic and political community of Europe promises people neither “progress” nor “home”, and thus neither invites people to identify nor encourage communication.