Trying to briefly cover the entire breadth of foreign film is clearly an insurmountable task: to reduce entire historical movements into a reader-friendly digest surely runs the risk of eliminating something gravely important. But alas, to expound upon the entire subject would fill several books, and many have already done this--and far better than your humble writers. However, what we can do is give you a short list of some seminal works, discuss their importance for cinema as a whole, and offer a selection of our own personal favorites. From here, if any particular style of filmmaking or certain country's history appeals to you, check out our list of External Links, and you will find resources that will allow you to further your enjoyment.
Moving pictures as an artistic medium have been around for a little over 100 years, and it is arguable that very few forms of expression have gone through such marked changes in such a finite length of time. While cameras capable of producing these images had been around since the 1870s, it was not until 1895 that the British electrician Robert W. Paul and the Lumière brothers in France, independent of each other, devised the idea of showing these movies to large audiences. Paul invented a film projector, yet it was the Lumières who, with their ''Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory'', are commonly recognized as the first film producers.
It took a few years to transition from the novelty of film to the idea of an entertainment industry, and even longer still to develop the idea of montage and other artistic techniques. Georges Méliès' 1902 film, ''A Trip to the Moon'' (which can be viewed here), is regarded as the first science fiction film; Méliès was the largest producer of fictional films in France. However, his films did not tell stories the way to which modern viewers are accustomed. In these movies, each scene was more or less a story in and of itself; there was not a genuine connective thread from start to end. Editing became more advanced with the work of Edwin S. Porter of the Edison Manufacturing Company, and his film, ''Life of an American Fireman'' (viewable here).
The devastation of World War I and the hopelessness of World War II and its aftermath had a profound effect on art and media, and European cinema from the silent era on through the mid to late 60s is an excellent way to examine these societal and political trends. For more information on this topic, you might also want to check out our guide on Silent Films.
German Expressionist film was born out of the period of recovery following the First World War. As resources were obviously limited, in an effort to compete with the extravagance of the more financially secure American studios, filmmakers developed a highly stylized aesthetic that was heavily reliant on symbolism and mise en scène. These movies often treated grim subjects, in a sense analyzing the ever-present tension between good and evil leading to the rise of the Third Reich and Nazi Germany. Viewers will notice the extreme interplay of light versus dark, clarity versus shadow, presence versus absence.
In 1937, dictator Benito Mussolini approved the creation of a town to be used exclusively for film production. This Cinecittà consisted of theaters, technical services, and a school to train young cineastes in the art. However, this was the era of fascism, and the aim of such a production company was primarily to further the movement: many films were produced for propaganda purposes. After the war ended and the system fell, a new style of filmmaking was born: one, as with Expressionism, limited by a lack of resources, yet motivated by the desire to describe the poverty and desperation that followed the war. Neorealist directors rejected the controlled studio atmosphere, and instead employed nonprofessional actors, shot on location, and sought to convey these changes in the Italian psyche. This individualistic spirit gave rise to auteurism, in which a film is a direct reflection of its creator, not influenced by studio heads and committees.
The trajectory of French cinema is similar to that of Italian film: the New Wave movement was likewise born out of frustration with the studio system, and was heavily influenced by Neorealism. Until 1948, the studio was the dominant form of film production. In an effort to rival luxe Hollywood, all aspects of filmmaking were strictly controlled: scenery was meticulously constructed, sound was synchronized after filming had taken place, time was carefully budgeted, etc. After the war, however, the economy was so strained that technical updates were an insurmountable task, and thus equipment became horribly outdated. Quality deteriorated, which deterred viewers and therefore the industry became even less profitable, and on and on in a vicious cycle. As seen in Italy, aspiring cineastes likewise took matters into their own hands to create a new French cinema, one that was reflective of their own experiences in this new society.
New Wave cinema is known for its innovative techniques: movies were shot on location with new, often experimental, equipment. Directors sought to challenge viewers, so while watching, you will notice the use of jump cuts (jarring cuts in the middle of a scene) and rapid scene changes, odd sound effects, the alienation effect in which actors address the camera, and so on.
When we think Swedish cinema, most of us immediately think Ingmar Bergman, who is undoubtedly the most influential Swedish filmmaker of all time. However, the film industry in Sweden was producing as early as 1911 under the star directors Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, who not only influenced German cineastes, but also much of Hollywood through their work at MGM. During and after World War II, films became very artistic, with slow pacing and theatrical settings. There was a close relationship between live theater and the cinema, so it was quite common for directors to work in both environments. For example, Alf Sjöberg, best known for ''Miss Julie'', was a First Director of Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre, and Bergman as well was Managing Director there for several years. These days, Swedish pictures continue to be popular with international audiences, and are providing a vehicle for young filmmakers to explore their craft.
Though the history of Asian cinema also began at the turn of the 20th century, it wasn't until after the Second World War that it truly achieved its Golden Age, so to speak. From the late 40s to the 60s, scores of critically-acclaimed films were produced by directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Yusujiro Ozu of Japan, China's Fei Mu, South Korea's Kim Ki-young, and many more. In the 1970s, the studio system continued its gradual collapse and many countries suffered; however, still others flourished: for example, the world watched the evolution of Hong Kong cinema (and the talents of Bruce Lee). Since the 1980s, East Asian cinema has become extremely popular in western nations and these films have become easily accessible.
While there is absolutely an entire Indian film industry outside of this subset, Bollywood is arguably the most well-known. Though India was late to enter the cinematic world, by the 1930s and the advent of sound, it began to experience success, especially with the desire for escapism present during the Great Depression, World War II, and independence from Great Britain. The late 1940s through the 1960s were known as the Golden Age: the industry thrived, critically-acclaimed films were produced, and cinematic movements were born that echoed the New Wave aesthetic going on in the rest of the world. However, beginning in the 1970s, commercial films became dominant, and family-friendly romantic musicals were the impetus for the star factory Bollywood has become in recent years.
Latin American Cinema
Though Latin American cinema can collectively refer to the films produced by any of the countries in Central and South America, as well as the Latin countries in the Caribbean, the main centers of production have been Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba. Since the end of the silent era introduced the need to dub soundtracks, it was no longer as simple for Hollywood to export movies to non-anglophone audiences; as a result, those countries now separated by linguistic barriers had increased potential for the growth of their own cinemas. It was at this point that Latin film truly began to flourish: Mexico had its own Golden Era in the 40s and 50s and the Argentine industry was likewise booming at this time. With Third Cinema and Cinema Novo (a political cinema for the masses, and the Latin evolution of French New Wave, respectively), Latin filmmaking took a polemical stance, which it has preserved throughout its modern history.
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