Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Great European Films

The most recent installment of my regular column for e!Sharp magazine is a list of the Top Ten European Films of All Time. Of course it is ridiculous to try to compile such a list, but I did it anyway. And, in fact, these aren't even really the greatest European films of all time; they're just a small sampling of movies I think are brilliant. I'm already starting to second-guess myself...

1. Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge
Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993-94
Europe has produced many of the greatest films in history, but in recent years has suffered from an identity crisis. Under attack from the relentless Hollywood blockbuster (into whose gaping maw European audiences unashamedly flock), the prototypically artsy continental film has suffered. The EU and its member governments struggle to protect their supposedly vulnerable European culture with subsidy programs. Meanwhile, unfortunately, some recent European film offerings have acquired a Hollywood sheen – that is to say, they have become crap-tacular.

Compiling a list of the best movies in any category is a difficult and frequently pointless task. But it’s usually a good way to start an argument or at least spice up a dull dinner conversation. So here goes…

My nomination for the greatest European film comes from a man who started his career producing such documentary classics as The Principles of Safety and Hygiene in a Copper Mine and ended it (prematurely, dying just after their completion) with a series of masterpieces. In his Three Colors trilogy of the early 1990s, Red, White and Blue, Poland’s Krzysztof Kieslowski captured a Europe in transition by focusing on grand themes (liberty, equality and fraternity) as they related to intensely provocative individual situations. Never clich├ęd, always interesting, uniformly unpredictable, these understated films probably do not top anyone else’s list and may seem less momentous than some of the others on mine. But they are so uniquely European in their scope and execution that they ultimately outpace the rest of the bunch.

2. La Grande Illusion
Jean Renoir, 1937
A classic ever since it was first released, this movie has only become more influential over the passing decades. Directors continue to try to remake the war-movie genre, but none has ever topped Renoir’s take, which focuses on the personal relations between men who have become enemies for reasons beyond their control. In portraying Europe’s descent into fascism, the director focuses not on jingoism, but on human interplay that transcends national borders. It may be the first pan-European movie. Needless to say, it had enemies, and was nearly destroyed after the Nazi regime seized Paris in 1940. Prints and negatives, thought lost forever, were rediscovered in 1958. A restored version is available on DVD and should be in your collection.

3. A Bout de Souffle (Breathless)
Jean-Luc Godard, 1960
The movie that changed all the rules, this may have been the first truly “independent” film. Produced on a low budget and left with purposely rough edges, the movie feels as if it were made up as the director and actors went along. Co-stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg are so sexy you can’t take your eyes off them. This was the first film to use cross-cutting and seemingly nonsensical flash-forwards – techniques that have now become commonplace. It’s also a movie about movies, with references and homages to everything from Humphrey Bogart to Godard’s Nouvelle Vague compatriots. Breathless is perhaps not as sublime as other Godard movies, but is so revolutionary it makes this list.

4. Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean, 1962
As a piece of epic filmmaking, it is unrivalled. No movie made in Europe or America (the Lord of the Rings trilogy was made in New Zealand) has ever matched Lawrence of Arabia’s combination of cinematic vision, historic sweep, compelling character, stunning set-pieces and just plain huge-ness. What this film also has is class and, rare for a production of this scale, restraint. It manages to hold our interest through a four-hour running time not with gadgetry and gore but with good old-fashioned storytelling and brilliant acting. It’s often said about other movies but it’s especially true of this one: They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

5. Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God)
Werner Herzog, 1972
A relentlessly riveting performance by the mad German acting legend Klaus Kinski anchors this tale of a Spanish conquistador disappearing up his own Amazon in the early 16th century. Just as with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now a few years later, the audience gets the sense that the filmmaker and his star are exploring their personal hearts of darkness in this movie. European colonialism is boiled down to an insanity-fueled quest for wealth and power as Aguirre seeks the fabled El Dorado. And there are a lot of monkeys. Perfect.

6. La Dolce Vita
Federico Fellini, 1960
Yes, it may be that 8 1/2, his more astringently personal work, is the greater film. And yes, lately it has become more fashionable to cite La Strada or Amarcord as Fellini’s best films. But I stick with this iconic classic – maybe because it portrays journalism in such an, er, interesting light. The story follows a disillusioned gossip columnist as he makes his way through a seedy underworld of sex, booze and superficiality. One of its minor characters, the photographer Papparazzo, would forever enter our degenerate mass-media lexicon.

7. Det Sjunde Inseglet, (The Seventh Seal)
Ingmar Bergman, 1957
A friend of mine once told me that as a teenager he sneaked into a showing of this film thinking it would be a Swedish skin-flick. Boy was he in for a surprise. Dark, austere, surreal, this meditation on life, death and the existence of God won’t please moviegoers looking for a good time. A knight plays chess against the Grim Reaper as Europe struggles with the Black Death all around them. The story and the acting are tight but it’s the stark and distorted imagery that stays with you.

8. A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick, 1971
Ultraviolence, multimedia over-saturation, moral decay, societal breakdown, incomprehensible lingo, irritating electronica: this ever-controversial film predicted much that we’ve come to take for granted in the modern world. That it still turns our stomachs after more than 30 years is a remarkable testament to the vision of director Kubrick (an American who for most of his career worked exclusively in Britain, where at his request this film is still not shown). The film also features Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony way before it ever became the EU anthem.

9. No Man’s Land
Danis Tanovic, 2001
Though it depicts Europe in what was undeniably not its finest hour, this film is one of European cinema’s finest hours-and-a-half. The tragic international debacle that was the Balkan conflict is concentrated on three wounded soldiers – two Bosnians, one Serb –trapped in a trench between enemy lines. They come to terms with the crisis even as the international observers around them – UN diplomats, a British journalist, a French soldier – cannot. A truly pan-European production with funding from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium, France, Slovenia, the UK and Italy.

10. Zentropa
Lars Von Trier, 1991
Von Trier before he became dogmatic, didactic, misogynistic and anti-American. Though his more famous films Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are undeniably astounding and at times downright revolutionary, this earlier work is more European (it was even called Europa in some markets) and holds up better on second or third viewings. Its mesmerizing use of narration and suspenseful Third Man feel (heightened by stunning black-and-white photography) perfectly suit the story of a young American caught up in post-war European intrigue.

Honorable mentions: Wings of Desire, Withnail & I, The Battleship Potemkin, The Life of Brian, Underground, Au Revoir Les Enfants...

1 comment:

satyanshu singh said...

I agree with you that making a list of 'best' movies does not make sense. But I still go through such lists to check my growth as a movie buff. Like out of the 12 movies you mention (I am taking Three Colours as three separate movies), I haven't seen 3. Would love to finish those soon.
But the reason why I am posting this comment is due to the movie(s) you have selected as #1.
I am from India and my exposure to world cinema is still limited. I began watching films from across the world just two years ago. But whatever I have seen yet, the biggest impression on me was by Kieslowski. I have just watched his Three Colours and seven of the Decalogue. But I relate to his cinema more than anything in this world. Felt so great that you have placed his name on the top of your list.
I have started a blog too. It is called and my email ID is . I wanted to ask something. How can I set the clock in my blog, the one you have in yours that counts the number of visitors? And what can i do to get my blog appear in google search. Like i came to your blog by entering the keywords "best european films ever" on google search.
Hope to get a reply from u.
All the best.
Keep up the great work.