Out of the rubble

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996

It's different in Europe. To paraphrase Vincent in "Pulp Fiction," they got the same stuff we do, but the details are different. And the devil, as we know, is in the details.

What follows is a select list of European films, grouped by national origin (only non-English speaking countries). The films were chosen not so much because they were made by Europeans, but because they have a distinctly European viewpoint and could never have been made in Hollywood.

The greatest non-Hollywood filmmakers are the Italians. It can be argued that all modern European filmmaking flows from the Italian neo-realism in the post-war years, when the yoke of fascistic grandiosity and propaganda was thrown off.

"Open City" (1945) and "Paisan" (1946), both by Roberto Rossellini, launched neo-realism with gritty accounts of everyday Italian people struggling to survive and defeat fascism in the waning years of the war. The power derives from unadorned simplicity.

Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" (1949) is the masterpiece of neo-realism. An unsentimental and unflinching portrait of a man who is desperate because his bicycle has been stolen, it is imbued with great humanity.

"Umberto D." (1952), directed by De Sica, showed neo-realism evolving into modern cinema. This story of a pensioner trying to hold onto his dignity while threatened with homelessness is poignant in ways other movies can only dream about. It has the most uplifting ending ever filmed.

"Two Women" (1961), directed by De Sica, was neo-realism's last fanfare. Sophia Loren and her young daughter endure starvation, rape, and other wartime travails on sheer grit and determination to survive.

"Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" (1964), directed by De Sica, contains vestigial elements of neo-realism. Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni play out comic tales of love from three strata of Italian society.

The late Federico Fellini, who started out writing scripts for Rossellini, came into his own with "I Vitelloni" (1953), a coming of age tale about five restless teenage boys trying to find their way in a small town.

"La Strada" (1954), Fellini's masterpiece, is arguably the finest movie ever made. It is the deceptively simple tale of a peripatetic strongman, Anthony Quinn, who buys a servant woman, Giulietta Masina, to help him with his low rent act. When they join a circus and meet the acrobat, Richard Basehart, the triangle is complete and tragedy ensues. If this movie can't move you, you are a stone.

"La Dolce Vita" (1960) manages simultaneously to exalt and debunk the glamour of celebrityhood. The "decadence" depicted here now looks endearingly quaint. Marcello Mastroianni is an instant icon.

"8 1/2" (1963) is an epic about the failure to make an epic. In Fellini's most personal film, a filmmaker ponders his next artistic move, then decides to have a drink with friends instead.

"Amarcord" (1972) was Fellini's last great film, an affectionate portrait of the magical and eccentric wonders that lay just beneath the surface of the placid small town where he grew up.

The notorious reputation of Pier Paolo Pasolini may or may not be deserved, but amid his several kinky and controversial films is one superb literary adaptation, "The Decameron" (1971), which includes several of the uninhibited tales by Boccaccio.

Lina Wertmuller's black comedies dominated European cinema in the 1970s, beginning with "The Seduction of Mimi" (1974) with her great star, Giancarlo Giannini, as a knuckleheaded lothario and communist who stumbles into trouble at every turn. Sly and uproarious.

In "Swept Away...by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August" (1975), Giannini is the glowering Marxist deckhand on a yacht who ends up marooned on an island with a jet-setting rich bitch who becomes his love slave. A politically incorrect comedy, to be sure.

"Seven Beauties" (1976) is an ambitious and disturbing masterpiece about a supercilious Roman pimp, Giannini, who is tossed into a Nazi concentration camp, where he begins a harrowing ordeal of survival. In many ways, what happens to him is the sadder-but-wiser epic of Italy during World War II.

Out of nowhere in 1978 came "Bread and Chocolate," directed by Franco Brusati and starring Nino Manfredi. This startling comedy dares to lampoon Italian envy of Nordic grace and beauty in a tale of an Italian guest worker at large in Germany.

The most promising new light on the horizon in Italy is the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, whose "Night of the Shooting Stars" (1982) goes again to the well of World War II in a tale of a group of Tuscan village people who sneak away from the Nazis holding their village to link up with the American troops they think are just a short distance away. It is not, of course, that simple. Interestingly, there's a revisionist view here of fascists as victims of the system.

Swedish cinema means Ingmar Bergman and his talent troupe, starting in 1955 with "Smiles of a Summer Night" in which summer in the country works its romantic magic on a group of vacationers.

"The Seventh Seal" (1957) is Bergman's full-fledged masterpiece, a tale of a weary and disillusioned knight and his squire, Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand, who return home after the Crusades to find their village threatened by the Plague. The knight, memorably, plays chess with Death personified.

"Wild Strawberries" (1957) has a bittersweet tone as a retired professor, taking a road trip to a banquet where he will get an award, picks up people along the way who remind him of his life and its disappointments.

"The Virgin Spring" (1960) is a departure for Bergman, a stark revenge story with the simplicity of a medieval folk tale. A father corners and kills the three men who raped and killed his daughter.

"Persona" (1966) achieves an authentic dreamlike state in a story about an actress who, inexplicably, becomes mute and almost catatonic. The nurse who cares for her begins to take on the actress' personality.

"Shame" (1968) is Bergman's scathing anti-war film, depicting how war turns some inoffensive musicians into loathesome refugees. The final scene is as grim as this kind of cinema gets.

"Fanny and Alexander" (1983) closes Bergman's film career with a story of a young brother and sister who must endure a tumultuous family life. It's a funny and harrowing take on the "family values" debate.

There is one non-Bergman Swedish film (actually Swedish- Danish) deserving of mention, "Pelle the Conqueror" (1988). It's a coming-of-age movie about a Swedish boy who comes to Denmark with his father to work on rich man'e estate and learns about life.

In eastern European cinema there are the Poles, who are romantics, and the Czechs, who are cynics.

The godfather of Polish cinema is Andrzej Wajda (AHN-jay VOY-dah), whose trilogy of World War II movies goes from Nazi oppression to post-war faction fighting.

"A Generation" (1954) and "Kanal" (1956) depict the Polish resistance, courageously exchanging gunfire with Nazis across rubble-strewn streets and fleeing inside sewers.

"Ashes and Diamonds" (1958) is set in a village at the end of the war where a disillusioned freedom fighter must carry out an assassination. The mission, of course, is doomed. The charismatic young actor Zbigniew Cybulski stars.

Wajda in 1977 made "Man of Marble," a story of a journalist determined to get to the bottom of a propagandistic legend of a noble communist worker. This movie in many ways was the first telling artistic blow against the Iron Curtain.

Any discussion of Polish cinema must include Roman Polanski's debut feature, "Knife in the Water" (1962), in which a college professor and his wife go out on their sailboat with a virile young student as guest. Posturing and conflict between the two males ensues.

Although ostensibly a British movie, Jerzy Skolimowski's "Moonlighting" (1982) belongs here because this story of Polish workers in London working "off the books" is a profoundly Polish story. Jeremy Irons is outstanding as the straw boss with a foot in England and a foot in Poland when martial law is declared in Poland.

The first Czech film to make a dent in the West was "Closely Watched Trains" (1966), a World War II saga about a dopey young railroad worker who seems hopelessly inept at love and career. Then, as the war worsens, his future ironically gets brighter.

The great Czech director who came to Hollywood, Milos Forman, gets credit here for "The Firemen's Ball" (1968), a wry and politically sly fable about a group of firemen whose annual ball becomes a fiasco because of bureaucratic and other kinds of incompetence.

I'll include director Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1988) because although it is a Hollywood movie it captures the Czech spirit of 1968 with grace and humor. A Czech doctor, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, has a happy life full of sex with different women, but two women, representing different sides of the Czech character, come to obsess him. Then, the tanks come.

Spanish cinema means Luis Bunuel, a master of surreal humor, class war, and anti-clerical venom. Few filmmakers plant their own personality so profoundly in their films as Bunuel.

"L'Age d'Or" (1930) is the great surrealist film of its time. Salvador Dali collaborated with Bunuel on this. When first screened, riots broke out.

In "The Exterminating Angel" (1962), shot in Mexico, a group of elegant people go a posh dinner party and find they are unable to bring themselves to leave. After lots of heated argument and debate over how this has come to be, they begin to starve to death.

"Belle de Jour" (1967) is Bunuel's dark sexual comedy, featuring Catherine Deneuve as a bored housewife who decides to sneak off for a career in a brothel while her clueless husband is at work.

In "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972), another group of upper class twits, headed as usual by Fernando Rey, searches for a place to have a nice dinner and finds no place suitable. They keep trying and trying...

"That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977) is Bunuel's last and best film. Rey is a wealthy pervert who becomes obsessed with a beautiful young woman who seems available, but who continually eludes him. Two different actresses play the same woman and a third actress provides the vocals. This is a provocative masterpiece.

The Germans pioneered expressionistic cinema in the silent age, then produced an indisputable talkie masterpiece before the darkness fell. Fritz Lang's "M" (1931) with Peter Lorre as a deranged child killer sought by both the police and the underworld is a milestone in European film. Lorre is stunning.

"The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" (1975), co-directed by Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta, is about a young woman who picks up a guy at a party and takes him home for a night of sex. Turns out he's an international terrorist and she is suddenly thrust into the public eye through no fault of her own. As the exploitation mounts, her patience begins to run out.

Richard Hauff's "Knife in the Head" (1978) has Bruno Ganz as a poor sap shot in the head and paralyzed by police during a raid who finds himself being used for various political purposes.

"The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1978), directed by Rainier Werner Fassbinder, is the great German movie of our time. In its tale of an amoral woman who survives World War II and learns how to prosper at any cost is the story of modern Germany itself.

Schlondorff's directorial showpiece is "The Tin Drum" (1979), based on the Gunter Grass novel. Oskar, a little boy played by David Bennent, refuses to grow as long as the Nazis are in power. He uses his little drum to bang out his rage at his countrymen. It's an odd but compelling epic.

"Rosa Luxemburg," shot in 1986 by von Trotta, is a respectful biography of the great leftist thinker, speaker, and activist of the early part of this century.

Last, but not least, it's time to consider the French. While Americans were devoted to making movies a mass market commodity, the French were devoted to making them an art form.

French cinema begins with Jean Renoir, whose "Grand Illusion" (1937) is about the kinds of comradeship, both real and fake, that emerge under the stresses of war and imprisonment during war.

Renoir's "Rules of the Game" (1939) is a kind of French "Upstairs Downstairs" in which the nobility and the servants all have their little romantic flings during a weekend in the country.

The late Francois Truffaut, the critic-turned-director, is the standard-bearer for French cinematic art. In 1959 Truffaut released "The Four Hundred Blows," a semi-autobiographical account of a boy whose rotten home life begins to turn him into an alienated delinquent.

"Jules and Jim" (1961) is what French filmmaking is all about, a deceptively lighthearted account of a quirky threesome--two men and a woman--and their life together. The ending is often debated, often borrowed by other movies.

Truffaut's "Small Change" (1976) is the finest film about children ever made, presenting school, home, and town as the children themselves see it. Perhaps Truffaut, in this movie, gave himself the childhood he wished he'd had.

French existentialist philosophy, especially the ideas of Albert Camus, are clearly an influence on H.G. Clouzot's great adventure movie, "Wages of Fear" (1952). Four desperate men agree to take a job driving trucks loaded with nitroglycerine over a South American mountain range.

"Breathless" (1959) by Jean-Luc Godard has been somewhat overrated over the years, but it remains a milestone for its nervous jump cuts, Parisian street flavor, and bravura performance by Jean-Paul Belmondo as a cop-killer on the lam.

"Going Places" (1974), directed by Bertrand Blier, was an interesting attempt to make a French "Easy Rider" with two anti- social hippies thumbing their nose at conformity and messing up people's lives everywhere they go. Not for the squeamish. The talent-rich cast includes Gerard Depardieu, Patrick Dewaere, Miou-Miou, Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Fossey, and Isabelle Huppert.

"The Return of Martin Guerre" (1982) is the best movie about medieval life ever made. Guerre, a feckless youth, disappears from his village, only to return years later as a strong, mature, ex-soldier. But is it the same person? Depardieu is first rate, as usual, as Guerre.

"Entre Nous" (1983) is director Diane Kurys' moving story of two women, Miou Miou and Isabelle Huppert, and how their friendship endures through war and other travails. Their bond proves stronger than their relationships with men.

The paired movies "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring" (1986), directed by Claud Berri, show the treachery beneath the tranquil surface of French rural life as one farmer, Yves Montand, schemes to ruin another, Depardieu. Tragedy ensues and in the second movie revenge is sweet. It's a bit soapy, but engrossing all the way.

"Au Revoir Les Enfants" (1987) by Louis Malle is based on a real World War II incident in which some brothers at a Catholic school try to harbor some Jewish children to protect them from the Nazis. The other children, however, are not mature enough to understand the stakes.

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