One Europe - Separate Cinemas?

Andrew Lydon

Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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The Eagle Has Landed...In the early 90's Europeans feared the crumbling of Russia. Bigger migration into our western countries, and mass fascism in France and Germany were other concerns. Writing in 1992 Andrew Lydon put the status of a European Cinema like this:

The Single European Act (1986) envisaged prosperity being spread around our EC land mass through the integration of national markets and ending of commercial boundaries. Now Maastricht would be back on the drawing board if anybody dared face the task. 

Recent years have heard talk of prospects for an integrated European media. Scepticism has been based on the language problem. However, if real European convergence needs changes in national popular feeling, we must accept that the media and the film industry in particular, now hinder any widespread European culture emerging. 

Turn of the decade films 

Regimes collapsing and new values emerging, ecological disaster being uncovered, ethnic strife and mass migration are dramas our old auteurs (of Cold War vintage) still fail to turn out. This is the most striking feature of the recent Cannes festival and contemporary European cinema. 

Our history since 1985 has yet to feed through to narrative cinema. Its biggest single impact was the opening up of censors vaults to allow some now dated films to see the light of the projector. 

The separate national forms of post war European film industries have remained remarkably unchanged! Even if appearing in reduced quantity. Much of this is because of the inclination of the 'art house' audiences for say, a French product etc., to be basically like what this export market is used to. 

These audiences 'like' the ghosts of Rosselini and Truffaut. European film is still mainly the work of the parents and products of the baby boom born in the rubble of 1944 and 1945. Fascination for this decisive era in their history withholds attention from the crises of our present. 

French cinema is full of refugees from the wartime sundering of the 'family'. Its unhappy heroes stem from the breakdowns of the war years. Many recent heroines are female cousins of Truffaut's Antoine Doinel. The very props of the war rubble haunt the German versions.

Paramount Example 

Paramount's The Hunt for Red October (1990) is a rare recent film in demanding we identify with a 'hero' recent ideology and propaganda had prompted us to fear or hate. 

Sean Connery, who has positive connotations to the western audience, plays a Lithuanian born ace sub commander. He leads his officers to defect to the US with a new super sub. His 'Soviet' officer decides to defect only when he is given command of an almost undetectable submarine which is thus a first strike weapon! In conversation with his closest officer (Sam Elliot) he makes it clear that he was committed to the 'stable' Cold War. 

Our CIA hero succeeds in resolving the narrative problem, that is retrieving the sub for the USA, because he trusts his instinctive identification with the Connery figure he has been watching for the CIA. (Even to the point of outright insubordination!) As all the American characters are flat, and all the most deep intimate conversations are between Soviets, making it hard for the viewer to differ. 

Connery is the first character we meet. He insisted on his Stalin/Sam Becket brush of hair. In sub-titled Russian he speaks of the need 'to make a start'. This sets up our curiosity in the alien. However a smooth transition to him speaking Scots/English, prevents a language barrier hampering identification. By the time he has to speak English to the Americans in his Connery accent disbelief is suspended. 

While Red October was not a European film, it uses mechanisms that were developed in European cinema, and suggests one direction for our film producers. 

What can film do during history's turning points ? 

The west in general in the 1970s was facing the biggest crisis since the rubble years. The critic, Robin Wood claims that the period from Vietnam/Watergate till Reagan was an era of almost revolutionary possibilities in the USA. He claims that many Hollywood films of that era were particularly challenging of mainstream ideas. 

This is not just seen in the films that Wood admires like Taxi Driver (1976). Spielberg's E.T. (1982), may even be a late echo of the trend instanced in Nicholas Roeg's The Man who Fell to Earth (1976), to show society then from the eye level of the alien. In times of doubt and hesitation the best film makers have made us address situations through 'alien' eyes. We can see this also nearer home, The Eagle has Landed (1976) instances this era in British film history. 

Wilson's Britain 

Since the fifties the cinematic recreation of the struggle against the 'Nazis' had been the single biggest and most popular genre of British cinema. Britain's outlook on the world rejoiced in military victory in a way that no other European nation other than the USSR could do. Labour Britain with Ernie Bevin as foreign secretary had played the biggest single role in the foundation of the military basis of the Cold War - NATO. European statesmen such as Jean Monnet, the original predecessor of Jacques Delors learned from their history to stress instead how economic and social renewal was just as important to stemming the advance of dictatorship. 

Britain's post war New Wave cinema was, like elsewhere in Europe, a naturalistic one. Look Back in Anger (1959) and the angry young men despaired of their Britain. Unlike many of those who revived naturalism after My Beautiful Launderette (1985), these men took up the option of working in the wider Anglo-Saxon diaspora. The Britain they presented was one only worth getting out of! At the time of their original films the option of emigrating down under, or to other parts of the white Commonwealth was still there. 

The Eagle appears at the time of the Referendum that confirmed Britain's membership of the EEC. This of course sundered our rights with the Commonwealth. Crisis ridden UK with inflation around 27 % was facing having to make the best of a future in Europe without any bolt hole. Hence at this time there was a historical need for a war film that did not just present the Germans as homogeneously Nazi. The most forceful way of doing that is to make the audience identify with Germans! 

'70s British war films 

Michael Caine/Colonel Kurt Steiner is first seen trying to stop the SS recapturing a girl escaping the SS in a rail yard. This is a very effective way of forcing identification. As a penance this unit is sent into England to snatch Churchill in some anti-Hitler plot to force a negotiated peace. After landing their mission is exposed when one of the men is killed saving a little English girl from a mill wheel, exposing his German uniform beneath a Polish one. As these very civilised Germans are cornered in a church, one of them plays Bach on the organ. By contrast the Americans are presented as gung ho led by Larry Hagman's desperate Colonel Pitts. 

Our Germans link up with a South African housekeeper in the village. She suggests rhetorically of concentration camps “you don't think the Nazis invented them ?” The audience even becomes involved with the IRA man played by Donald Sutherland through his humour and his intimacy with an English rose (Jenny Agutter). These twists increase the pressure towards identification with Caine's good Germans. This is topped by the disappointment of finding that Churchill relies on a double at the film's climax. 

Cross of Iron (1977) is of about the same time but is maybe not quite so radical. This Anglo-German co-production shot by Sam Peckinpah is merely an echo of a film tradition without which The Eagle has Landed would have been a scandal. James Mason plays the good German - Colonel Brandt, the name cannot be accidental - reminding us of his little noticed part of British film culture. 

'30s Experiments 

Cross of Iron naturally recalls Carl Laemmle's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This was more than a film showing the horror's of war like later trenches films, such as Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). Laemmle's film was a story from the German trenches and as such offers the audience no choice but to identify with German conscripts. The earliest and maybe the most outstanding films to twist the cinema's process of identification were films made in the crises of the early 1930s. 

The German, Fritz Lang began at this time to make his audience identify with the difficult in a way that was taken up and now is most associated with Hitchcock. In the German end of the Great Crash he made M (1930). Lang has us identify with an alliance of both police and gangsters hunting down an inadequate, played by Peter Lorre. Lorre may, but also may not, be a child killer. Later in Hollywood his You Only Live Once (1937) gave the audience a Henry Fonda to identify with but did not make it clear whether he was a dangerous criminal. His Hangmen Also Die (1944) made the audience identify with particularly ruthless Czech resistance against the Nazis. 

Treacherous English ? 

Conrad Veidt the star of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) which brought German film to world attention stands at the start of the string of British attempts at such deviant identification. He fled Hitler's Germany and in Britain made The Spy in Black (1939). This film was made by Michael Powell and another refugee from the German cinema, 
Emeric Pressburger.

This duo became known for making war films that seemed to break with the standard good and bad distinction between the British and the Germans. This film follows a naval version of Steiner in Britain during the Great War. Fellowship with the good German in their The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) infuriated Churchill. In The Battle of the River Plate (1955) Peter Finch's Captain Langsdorf of the Graf Spee is seen by his British captives in chivalric terms. However no one was then ready for The Eagle and its rejection of the British! 

This brings us back to James Mason. Mason refused to serve in the war but would have taken a reduced fee to do Rommel The Desert Fox (1951). His portrayal was so sympathetic that it provoked demonstrations and reinvigorated his career. His best and favourite film had been Odd Man Out (1946) in which he had played a shot up IRA man on the run. (It was because of such deviant success that Mason could always get lucrative if mediocre work as a German officer.) 

Incidentally it is not coincidental that two of the British actors spotlighted here were born to, or adopted by, the Irish/celtic periphery. It is also significant that Mason and Powell linked up towards the end of their careers. 

A European Future ? 

There are no apologies offered here for this tour through the war film. There is scant hope of interesting large audiences in stories of growing up after the war, especially when presented by film makers who did not do so. Anyhow, Fassbinder and Rosselini are probably the only ones who could enlighten about the actual experience rather than just exploit period. The national 'international' art houses must change beyond recognition to assist any European convergence. 

Popular genres with new identification demands must be the best basis for developing a European cinema. Maybe Stalin's films about the Soviet struggle in the last war, if shown now in western Europe might be a demanding and enlightening start? 

Co-production would seem to be the best basis for producing European films. The EC can legitimately intervene in encouraging such cultural and artistic developments. Financial incentives and assistance could be justified. Major production facilities at Neubabelsburg and even Mosfilm have now become available for new starts in European film. 

However, a Whitehall attempt now to prop up Britain's national cinema on a 'national' basis could be grounds for caution. 
 
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