Elsaesser, Thomas. “European Cinema: Conditions of Impossibility?” In European Cinema. Face to Face with Hollywood, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, 7–31. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.

European Cinema – Conditions of Impossibility?

Thomas Elsaesser

from European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood by Thomas Elsaesser

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An Impossible Project

Any book about European cinema should start with the statement that there is no such thing as European cinema, and that yes, European cinema exists, and has existed since the beginning of cinema a little more than a hundred years ago. It depends on where one places oneself, both in time and in space. In time: for the first fifteen years, it was France that defined European cinema, with Pathé and Gaumont educating Europe’s film-going tastes, inspiring filmmakers and keeping the Americans at bay. In the 1920s, the German film industry, under Erich Pommer, tried to create a “Cinema Europe,” involving France and Britain. It soon floundered, and Hollywood became not only the dominant force; it also was very successful in dividing the Europeans among themselves.1 For a brief period in the late 1920s, it seemed the Russians might be Europe’s inspiration. Instead, from 1935 onwards, it was Nazi cinema that dominated the continent until 1945. The years from 1945 to the 1980s were the years of the different national cinemas, or rather: the period when new waves, national (art) cinemas and individual auteurs made up a shifting set of references that defined what was meant by European cinema. Geopolitically speaking on the other hand, when looking at Europe from, say, the American perspective, the continent is indeed an entity, but mostly one of cinema audiences that still make up Hollywood’s most important foreign market.

Looked at from the “inside,” however, the conclusion has to be that European cinema does not (yet) exist: the gap between Central/Eastern Europe and Western Europe remains as wide as ever, and even in Western Europe, each country has its own national cinema, increasingly defended as a valuable treasure and part of an inalienable national patrimony. Since the nouvelle vague, French cinema, in particular, insists on its long and proud tradition as the natural home of the seventh art. In the United Kingdom, British cinema (once called a ‘contradiction in terms’ by François Truffaut) has over the last twenty years been reinstated, re-evaluated and unapologetically celebrated, even if its economic ups and downs, its many false dawns as an art cinema, as well as its surprisingly frequent commercial successes put it in a constant if often covert competition with Hollywood. Germany, having repeatedly failed to keep alive the promise and prestige attached to the New German Cinema in the 1970s has, since unification in 1990, turned to a policy of archival conservation, where museum displays on a grand scale, encyclopedic databases, anniversary retrospectives and an ambitious internet portal all try to heal the wounds inflicted by unpalatable nationalist legacies from the 1940s and by the political-ideological divisions into “German” and “East German” cinema during the Cold War period. Italy, too, nostalgically looks back to both neo-realism and Toto comedies, while discovering the memory of open-air screenings in the piazza under Mussolini or smalltown cinemas run by Communists as the true sites of national film culture. Only in Denmark have the Dogma filmmakers around Lars von Trier come up with innovative and iconoclastic ways to stage a national cinema revival that also has a European outlook. In Southern Europe Pedro Almodovar became for a time a one-man national cinema, before sharing honours with Julio Medem and Alejandro Amenábar. But while Medem stands for “Basque cinema” and Amenábar for a successful navigation of the Hispano-Hollywood connection, Almodóvar not only embodied the radical chic of an outward-looking, post-Franco Spain, but with his stylish melodramas and surreal comedies gave international flair and street credibility to such strictly local habitats as the gay and transsexual subcultures of Madrid.

Looked at from outside of the inside, i.e., Eastern Europe, the idea of a European cinema is even more problematic. Knowing they belong to Europe, but feeling all too often left out, filmmakers from Central and Eastern Europe – some of them from the new “accession” countries of the European Union, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary – are perfectly aware of how much they have in the past contributed to the history of cinema, even during the difficult decades of the 1960s and 70s, when repression and censorship followed the brief opening of the “thaw.” This so-called “New Europe” (Donald Rumsfeld), however, is often quite particularist: it expects its respective national cinema to be recognized as specific in time and place, history and geography, while still belonging to Europe. Some of these countries’ national cinemas are usually identified by the outside world with one or two directors who have to stand in for the nation, even when this is manifestly impossible.

To give an obvious example: Andrzej Wajda was Polish cinema from the late 1940s, into the 1960s and up TO MAN OF MARBLE (1977), until this role fell to Krzysztof Kieslowski during the 1980s and 1990s. Both worked – and were admired – in France, the country of choice for Polish filmmakers in semi-exile. But this is “our” Western perspective: what do we know about the political tensions underlying Polish directors’ opposed ideological positions within their own country? What “we” perceived as national characteristics or received as part of the international art cinema, may well have struck Polish critics and audiences not as national cinema but as state cinema: official, sanctioned, sponsored. Yet were Polish filmmakers, along with their countrymen, not obliged to negotiate in less than half a century a world war, occupation, genocide, a civil war, communism, economic stagnation, censorship, repression and post-communism? Given such tensions and polarities, where do Krzysztof Zanussi, Jerzy Skolimowski, Jerzy Kawalerowicz or Agnieszka Holland fit into the picture we have of Polish cinema? Easiest for “us” to treat them as autonomous “auteurs.” Similarly, Hungary, for a time, was Miklos Jansco, before it became identified with Istvan Szabo, then perhaps with Marta Meszaros and since the mid-1990s most definitely with Bela Tarr. In the case of former Yugoslavia, which for a time was mostly represented by the brilliant and politically non-conformist Dusan Makavejev, we now have directors carefully advertising their specific ethno-national identity, such as Emir Kusturica’s or Danis Tanovic’s Bosnian identity. Some “smaller” European countries whose cinematic assets, to the outsider, seem equally concentrated around one director’s films, such as Greece (Theo Angelopoulos) and Portugal (Manoel de Oliveira), or countries like Austria, Belgium and Norway prefer to see their outstanding films labeled “European,” rather than oblige their directors to lead a quickly ebbing “new wave” national cinema. Michael Haneke would be a case in point: a German-born director with Austrian credentials, who now predominantly works in France. Lars von Trier, together with his Dogma associates, is at once claimed at home as a quintessentially Danish director, and yet his films hardly ever – if at all – refer to Denmark, in contrast to a director from a previous generation, such as Carl Dreyer. Or take Ingmar Bergman, whose films for decades defined both to his countrymen and to the rest of the world what “Swedish” (cinema) meant.


Zooming out even further, one realizes that neither the individual national cinemas nor the label European cinema conjures up much of an image in Asian countries, Latin America or in the United States. A few individual actors (from France or the UK) are known, and once in while a director’s name or a film catches the attention. Yet for traditions as historically rich, and for the numbers of films produced in the combined nations of the European continent, the impact of its cinema on the world’s audiences in the new century is minimal and still shrinking. If, in the face of this, there has been something of a retrenchment to positions of preserving the national heritage, and of defending a unique cinematic identity, the question this raises is: defend against whom or what? Against the encroachment of Hollywood and the relentless spread of television, as is the conventional answer? Or against provincialism, self-indulgence and amateurism, as claimed by more commercially successful makers of popular entertainment both inside and outside Europe, as well as by those European directors who have moved to the US?

On what basis, then, would one want to put forward a claim for a European cinema, at once superseding national cinemas and explaining their historical “decline” over the past twenty-five years? Several possibilities open up, some of which will be taken up in the essays that follow. One might begin by reviewing the dominant categories that have guided the study of films and filmmaking in Europe, examine their tacit assumptions and assess their current usefulness. Besides probing the idea of the “national” in cinematic production (once one acknowledges cross-national co-productions and the role played by television in financing them), the other categories demanding attention are that of European cinema as an auteur cinema, which as already hinted at, invariably tends to be implied by the argument around national cinema. Thirdly, one could also look once more at the concept of “art cinema” as a distinct formal-aesthetic style of narration, as well as an institutional-pragmatic category (i.e., art cinema encompassing all films shown at “art-house” cinemas, whether government subsidized or independently programmed, and thus potentially including revivals or retrospectives of mainstream “classics”).

Besides a semantic investigation into the changing function of these traditional definitions, the case for European cinema can also be made by pointing out how persistently the different national cinema have positioned themselves in opposition to Hollywood, at least since the end of the first world war, and increasingly after the second world war, when their respective mainstream film industries began progressively and irreversibly to decline. Indeed, in the set of binary oppositions that usually constitutes the field of academic cinema studies, the American cinema is invariably the significant (bad) Other, around which both the national and “art/auteur”-cinema are defined. As my title implies, this more or less virulent, often emotionally charged opposition between Europe and Hollywood exerts a gravitational pull on all forms of filmmaking in Europe, notably in France, Britain, Italy and Germany. Yet if European national cinemas are held together, and in a sense united by their anti-Hollywood stance, there are nonetheless markedly varying degrees of hostility observable in the different countries at government level or among the film-critical establishment. France is more openly hostile than the Netherlands, and Denmark more successful in keeping its own share of domestic production in the nation’s cinemas than, for instance, Germany. No country in Europe except France has a quota system like South Korea, but both countries have come under intense pressure by the WTO to reduce or even abolish this form of protectionism. The US cinema is felt as a threat economically and culturally, even though economically, European cinema-owners know (and let it be known) that they depend on Hollywood movies for bringing in audiences, week in week out. Economically, European films are so weak that they could not be shown on the big screen if the machinery of the blockbuster did not keep the physical infrastructure of cinema-going and public film culture going. This is the germ of an argument that reverses the usual claim that Hollywood hegemony stifles national cinema, by maintaining that Hollywood’s strong global market position is in fact the necessary condition for local or national diversity.2

The legal ramification of Europe’s ingrained anti-Americanism in matters cinema are the various measures taken by successive EU initiatives, intended to bolster the audiovisual sector and its affiliated industries within the European Union. The economic framework that initially tried to regulate world trade, including the rivalry between US and the EU, were the GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) rounds, in which audiovisual products featured as commercial goods, no different from any others. While notably France insisted on the cinema’s cultural character, and wished to see it protected, that is exempted from particular measures of free trade and open access, the World Trade Organization has never been happy with these exemptions and reprieves. The consequence is that the status of the audiovisual sector remains an unresolved issue, bleeding into questions of copyright, subventions, ownership and a film’s nationality. The French, for instance, are proud of their droit d’auteur, which gives the director exceptional rights over a film even by comparison with other EU countries, but Jean Pierre Jeunet’s UN LONG DIMANCHE DE FIANÇAILLES could not compete for the best French film award in 2005 because it was co-financed by Warner Brothers. Initiatives taken within the European Union to strengthen cinema and create the legal framework for subsidizing the audiovisual industries, include the various projects supported and administrated by the successive “MEDIA” programs of the Council of Europe, which created such European-wide institutions and enabling mechanisms as Eurimages, EDN (European Documentary Network), Archimedia, etc.3 These, too, despite their bureaucratic character, might be the basis for a definition of what we now understand by European cinema, as I try to argue in a subsequent chapter.

Historicizing the Now

European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood implicitly addresses and often explicitly discusses the question of Europe as a political entity, as well as a cultural space, from the distinct perspective of cinema. For instance, the book as a whole stands squarely behind the preserving and conserving tendencies manifest in most European countries with respect to “their” national cinema. Films are fragile, perishable and physically impermanent. They need institutional and financial support; they require technical but also intellectual resources, in order to maintain their existence. Until only a few decades ago, before the videotape and the DVD, a film’s presence was limited to the moment of its theatrical release, and for some, this fleeting existence is still part of the cinema’s essence. But however passing, transitory and seemingly expendable a particular film may be in the everyday, and however one may feel about the aesthetic implication of such an art of the moment, the cinema is nonetheless the 20th-century’s most precious cultural memory, and thus calls forth not only a nostalgic but also an ethical impulse to try and preserve these moments for posterity.

The book, however, does not endorse the view that Hollywood and television are the threats that cinema in Europe has to be protected from. The first section sets out a broad horizon and sketches an evolving situation over the past two to three decades, which includes the asymmetrical but dynamic relationship of cinema with television, re-appraising the division of labour between cinema and television in giving meaning to the “nation”. The section on authorship and the one entitled “Europe-Hollywood-Europe” are intended to show how much of a two way traffic European cinema has always entertained with Hollywood, however uneven and symbolic some of these exchanges may have been. What needs to be added is that relations are no longer bi-lateral; the film trade and its exchanges of cultural capital have become global, with reputations even in the art cinema and independent sector rapidly extending across national borders, thanks above all to the festival circuit, discussed in a separate chapter below. Hal Hartley, Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alejandro Amenábar, Tom Tykwer, Fatih Akin, Wong Kar-Wai, Tsai Ming-Liang, Kim Ki-Duk, Abbas Kiarostami and Lars von Trier have, it sometimes seems, more in common with each other than with directors of their respective national cinemas, which paradoxically, gives a new meaning to regional or local attributes. The argument will be that a mutation has taken place; on the one hand, there is an international art cinema which communicates similar concerns across a wide spectrum of settings, but within an identifiable stylistic repertoire. Partly determined by new film technologies, this style repertoire adjusts to the fact that art cinema directors share with their audiences a cinephile universe of film historical references, which favors the evolution of a norm that could be called the international festival film. On the other hand, the lowering of cost due to digital cinema has meant that films – both feature films and documentaries – are fulfilling functions in the domestic space and the public sphere that break down most of our conventional, often binary categories: first and foremost those between art and commerce, into which the opposition between Europe and Hollywood is usually pressed. But the mutations also change our assessment of the local and the global: in the chapter on festivals, I also argue that signifiers of the regional and the local are often successfully marketed in the global arena, while a more ethnographic impulse and purpose can be detected behind many of the films made in Europe, registering the fact that cinema has become part of culture as a resource for the general good: shared, prepared and feasted upon like food at the dinner table, rather than valued only for the uniquely personal vision of the artist-auteur.

As a collection of essays, the earliest of which were written as film reviews, European Cinema Face to Face with Hollywood combines two seemingly contradictory impulses. Writing as a critic, I tried to record the moment and address the present, rather than this or that film’s or filmmaker’s possible posterity. Other pieces, also addressing the present, set out to develop a perspective of the longue durée, or to provide a context that could mediate and historically situate a filmic work or directorial oeuvre. In both cases, therefore, the essays were carried by the conviction that the cinema had a history, which was happening now. The implication being that history might even change, to adapt the catchphrase from BACK TO THE FUTURE, although at the time, I was more under the influence of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a seminal text in modernist literary history. Perhaps no more is intended than to convey the sense that each film entered into a dialogue with, contested and thereby altered not only those which preceded it, but did so by changing the here-and-now, whenever it brought about a revelatory moment or was an event, usually the reason that made me want to write about them. This makes the book, despite its omissions and selectivity, a history of European cinema since the 1960s, although not in the conventional sense. It does not deal systematically with movements, auteurs, national cinemas, significant films and masterpieces. Rather it is a discursive history, in the sense that the essays carry with them their own history, often precisely because they either directly address the historicity of the present moment, or because they self-consciously place themselves in the position of distance that historians tend to assume, even when they write about the now. Discursive history, also because this historicizing reflexive turn was the raison d’être of many of the articles. Several were commissioned by Sight & Sound (and its sister publication, the Monthly Film Bulletin) for instance, with the brief to step back and reflect on a new phenomenon, to take the longer view or to contextualize a change. Finally, a history of European film studies because the essays also trace a history of discourses, as the critic in me gave way to the academic, and the academic felt obliged to address fields of debate already constituted, not always avoiding the temptation of the meta-discourse.

Shifting the Discourses and Re-aligning the Paradigms

The more the essays reach into the new century, the more they take reflexive as well as retrospective turns. Not because of any disappointment in the state of European cinema or a nostalgic sense of regretting past glories. There is much to love and admire about the films being made by European directors. With talents as diverse and controversial as Pedro Almodóvar, Lars von Trier, Mike Leigh, Agnès Varda, Danny Boyle, Roberto Benigni, Catherine Breillat, Nanni Moretti, Emir Kusturica, Tom Tykwer, Fatih Akin, Claire Denis, and Jean Pierre Jeunet (to name just a few), the last two decades cannot but strike one as a period where it is exciting to be a working critic. But as my task changed from reviewing films to assuming the role of teacher at a university, establishing film studies degree and research programs, certain constraints imposed themselves about whom one is addressing also when writing, and to what pedagogical end and purpose. Some of the later essays had their origins in lecture notes and position papers, others were given at conferences, and some emerged out of discussions with colleagues and graduate students. Especially crucial were the last three years, when I headed a research group on “Cinema Europe” of about a dozen members, where the issues of European cinema were intensely discussed, sometimes taking a shorthand form, in order to quicker reach a new insight or perspective.


There is, however, one common thread or master-trope that seems to run through many of the essays brought together under the various headings. It has to do with an abiding interest in European cinema as it stands in dialogue with the idea of the nation in the political and historical realm, and on the other, with the function that I see the cinema serving in the spectators’ identity-formation. This master trope is that of a historical imaginary, but which in the present essays is mostly elaborated around the idea of the mirror and the image, the self and the other. Like a fractal structure, its can and does reproduce and repeat itself at micro and macro-level, it can be analyzed in specific scenes, it shapes the way a national cinema tries to address its national and international audiences, and it may characterize, at the macro-level, the way that the European cinema has been, and perhaps continues to be “face to face with Hollywood.”

A few words about this historical imaginary: I am well aware of how contested a notion it is; how it places itself between film theorists and film historians, without necessarily convincing either. I have defined it elsewhere at some length, and given some of the heuristic as well as pragmatic reasons why I employ it as a middle level concept, which allows me to hold in place what I see as related issues.4 These have to do with my view of the European cinema as a dispositif that constitutes, through an appeal to memory and identification, a special form of address, at once highly individual and capable of fostering a sense of belonging. Spectators of European cinema have traditionally enjoyed the privilege of feeling “different”, but in a historically determined set of relations based on highly unstable acts of self-definition and self-differentiation implied by the use of terms such as “auteur”, “art”, “national cinema”, “culture” or “Europe”. As discussed in more detail in a subsequent chapter (Imperso-Nations: National Cinema, Historical Imaginaries), there seems to be some common ground between my “historical imaginary” and the justly famous concept introduced by Benedict Anderson, that of Imagined Communities. While I would not even presume to claim such a comparison, an obvious point of difference can be mentioned nonetheless. My idea of a cinematic historical imaginary (first set out in “Primary Identification and the Historical Subject” [1981] and then again, in “Film History and Visual Pleasure: Weimar Cinema” [1984]) was intended to rely on the distinct properties of the cinematic medium, such as composition and mise-en-scène, the architecture of the optical point of view, onscreen and off-screen space, depth of field, flatness and frontal shots as the key indices of a formal inscription that could be read historically. They formed the basis on which to elaborate the properties of a representational system that enabled an individual film, a genre or a body of work to address the spectator as a national or art cinema subject. My topic being initially films and filmmakers from Germany making up a national cinema (in the 1920s and again, in the 1970s), the representational system I identified seemed to me to function across relations of mirroring, mise-en-abyme and the figure of “the double as other”, in which the self is invited to recognize itself.

Some of the terms were owed to the then dominant psychoanalytical film theories (notably Fredric Jameson’s reading of Lacan’s concept of the imaginary) and to feminist theory, while the historical-political part came from Frankfurt School-inspired studies of social pathology and the analyses done by Alexander Mitscherlich on collective “personality types”. To this already eclectic mix was added an ethnographic dimension. For instance, the mirroring function of such a “historical imaginary” had parallels with Michael Taussig’s reading of Walter Benjamin (in Mimesis and Alterity); it was influenced by Marcel Mauss’ theories about intersubjectivity as a process of asymmetrical power-relations, by Cornelius Castoriades,5 as well as by Jean Baudrillard’s concept of uneven exchange. At the same time, it was never meant to be systematic, but to help answer a particular set of problems: those encountered when trying to explain the repetitions and parallels between two classically European instances of a national cinema, Weimar Germany and the New German Cinema, across the gap and rupture of fascism. In both cases, the significant other was Hollywood, with which this national cinema, in two quite different phases, had established mirror-relationships, in order to work through the displaced presence of an uncannily familiar other: the popular cinema of the Nazi period, framed by two catastrophic histories of self-inflicted national defeat, of humiliation and shame, that of WWI and then WW II. Revisiting Siegfried Kracauer’s study of post-WWI films as a national cinema (a term he never uses) had thus to do with a parallel interest in the New German Cinema, in order to derive from it the idea of a historical imaginary, i.e., a concept that was both cinematically specific and historically grounded. This eventually resulted in two books on German cinema, and a monograph on R.W. Fassbinder – all exploring these shifting relations of identification and self-differentiation.

Parallel to this work on German cinema, and in some cases preceding it, I published essays analyzing what in retrospect now appear as similar sets of mirror-relations and over-identifications in France (“Two Weeks in Another Country – Hollywood and French Cinephilia”, 1972) and Britain (“Images for Sale”, 1984), as well as other essays on new waves, “national identity” and the national self-image. In two more recent contributions, one on “German Cinema, Face to Face with Hollywood: Looking into a Two-Way Mirror” (written in 2002), as well as one about films from the Balkans (from 2003) the same trope appears, differently contextualized and further developed: putting forward the idea of a national cinema (as a theoretical construction) always existing face to face with an “other”. Although initially developed in response to a “demand” coming from the “other,” namely universities in the United States asking me to lecture on these subjects,6 I should perhaps mention that much of this work on Weimar cinema and the New German cinema was done while I was teaching at the University of East Anglia, where I had the pleasure of discussing my book on New German Cinema with my then colleague Andrew Higson, who went on to write his own essay on national cinema, “The Concept of National Cinema” (1989), which soon became the standard point of reference for all subsequent contributions to this debate.7

My own involvement in the national cinema debate, as well as my conscious, but often also unconscious adherence to the trope of the “historical imaginary” and its theoretical configuration, have thus largely determined the selection of the present essays and may explain some of the more glaring omissions, such as a discussion of Jean-Luc Godard, possibly the most “European” director working continuously over the whole of the historical period here considered. The sequence and the structure of the different sections of the book are not chronological. They partly retrace the formation and repercussions of the three dominant discourses that have until recently defined European cinema in the academic realm: “national cinema”, “auteur cinema”, “art cinema”. One could call these the paradigms of autonomy: National cinema (the choice of making an auteur cinema represent the nation, rather than the stars-and-genre commercial cinema of a given country). Most national cinemas are (re-) defined as a consequence of self-declared movements or schools (the “new waves”, which in Europe started in Italy with neo-realism of the late 1940s, includes Britain’s kitchen sink films of the 1950s, the French nouvelle vague and other “new” cinemas throughout the 1960s and early 70s in Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic). Auteur cinema (the director as autonomous artist and representative of his country) usually goes hand in hand with art cinema (the formal, stylistic and narratological parameters which distinguish art cinema from classical i.e., Hollywood narrative, but also the institutional contexts, insofar as art cinema is made up of those films normally programmed in “art houses”, a term more at home in the US and in Britain than in continental Europe, where cinematheques, “art et essai” cinemas or the so-called “Programmkinos” fulfil a similar function). The second half of the collection re-centres and de-centres these paradigms of autonomy. “Europe-Hollywood-Europe” shows how productively dependent the national cinemas of France, Britain and Germany have been on their implied other, while “Central Europe looking West” tries to give some indication of what acts of looking and being looked at have been excluded when defining “European cinema” in terms of its Western nations. “Europe haunted by History and Empire” de-centers “auteur” and “nation” by re-centering them around history and memory, as Europe’s colonial past, political debts and troubled ethical legacy are gradually being transformed by the cinema into cultural capital: commodified, according to some into a “heritage industry”, capable of creating new kinds of identity, according to others. In either case, by dwelling so insistently on the (recent) past, European cinema distinguishes itself from Hollywood and Asian cinemas. In the essays brought together under this heading, the origins of the new discourse on history in the cinema are traced back to the 1970s and 80s. The section on “Border-Crossings: Filmmakers without a Passport” further de-centers “national cinema” without abandoning the “auteur” by highlighting the efforts – not always successful or recognized – of individuals who have tried to make films either in Europe or addressed to European audiences, from transitional and transnational spaces, including explicitly political spaces. Notably the essays on Latin American filmmakers or on European directors using Latin American topics and settings lead to the final chapter, which traces some of the intersections of European cinema with Third Cinema and World Cinema.

The national cinemas discussed are those of Britain, Germany and to a lesser extent, France. One might object that this hardly justifies the words “European cinema” in the title. And even if I responded by pointing out that there are essays about the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, the Serbian Dusan Makavejev, the Italian Ettore Scola and Francesco Rosi, the Chilean Raoul Ruiz, the Argentinian Edgardo Cozarinsky, the Mozambiquian Ruy Guerra, and that I had to drop my essays on Renoir, Truffaut, Godard, Welles, Bunuel, Chabrol, Pasolini, Fellini, Bertolucci, Visconti and Polanski, one might immediately point out that these essays deal with films from the 1970s and 1980s. Where are the films and filmmakers that I claim necessitate the revision of the paradigms of auteur and new wave, of national cinema and art cinema?

In some cases the chapters do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: essays written under different circumstances, for different occasions and spread over 35 years. Since they were not intended to “fit” the categories they find themselves in here, it is evident that even less so, they are able to “fill” them.8 Yet when making a selection of my writing on the subject of European cinema, these categories made more sense than serving mere taxonomic convenience. They are in each case suggestions of how the study of European cinema since 1945 might be conducted, that is to say, revised, revitalised, recontextualised.

In order to underline the point, the first section was specifically written for this book, as was the concluding chapter. Together, they want to provide an extended introduction, open up another perspective on the material that follows, as well as outline a follow-up for the current phase of European cinema in the global context. The essay on “European Culture, National Cinema, the Auteur and Hollywood” recapitulates some of the standard positions on Europe as a collection of national cinemas. It puts special emphasis on their common love-hate, parasite-host relationship with Hollywood, showing how many intriguing and occasionally even illuminating insights the passion over Hollywood on both sides of the divide can yield, but also how restricted, even narcissistic and self-complacent the “face to face with Hollywood” debate can appear when the horizon is opened a little, and “we” West Europeans either face the other way, or let ourselves be faced and addressed by the East (or the South). In this way the chapter speculates on what basis, other than bureaucratic and economic, a European cinema might build a sense of identity that was neither merely the sum of its parts nor the result of new lines of exclusion and “other”-ing. Might it be time to abandon the search for “identity” altogether, and look for more sovereign markers of European selfhood, such as intercultural competence or the virtues of the family quarrel, interference and dissent? First sketched under the impact of the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the difficulties encountered in even thinking about how to integrate not just the film histories of the former communist states of central Europe, but the memories of its citizens, the chapter is nonetheless cautiously optimistic that there is a common heritage of story types and myths, of deep structures of feeling, genres of symbolic action and narrative trajectories that create recognizably European protagonists and destinies.

The chapter called “ImpersoNations” examines in more detail the fate of the concept of national cinema within film studies, showing how it is structured by successive theoretical assumptions such as essentialism, constructivism and hybridity that characterise the humanities discourse generally, at the intersection and border-crossing of paradigms that run from semiology, cultural studies to post-colonial theory. The debates around national cinema and the conflicting fields of essentialism and cultural constructivism also highlight differences in Europe between cinema and television, popular cinema and auteur cinema, including the difference between imaginary communities and historical imaginaries of post-colonialism and multi-culturalism already touched upon. In all these areas, the idea of the nation and the emotions associated with nationalism have gained new currency since 1989 and the end of the Cold War, without thereby imposing themselves in the manner of the 19th century nation state, or its critique by classical Marxism. On the contrary, it is the crisis of the nation state, transforming itself within the new political framework of the European Union, and being transformed by the demographic and de-territorialising forces of globalisation, that demands a re-assessment of the kinds of loyalties, affiliations but also the conflicting allegiances that bind individuals to their community, territory, region, language and culture, including film culture. A closer look at the idea of the state and the nation, as circulating in the political and historical realm, indicates that the weakened allegiance towards the nation state, so often perceived in the overall context of a lamented loss of civic virtue and refusal of solidarity, is a very contradictory phenomenon, because it is in fact underpinned by new imaginaries of belonging. In this context, the adjective “national” functions both as a catch-all and a temporary place holder, showing its porous fabric in the very gesture of being invoked. But like the family, the nation is a constant battlefield of contending claims and urgent calls for change, yet shows itself remarkably resilient, indispensable even, because questions of identity, allegiance, solidarity and belonging just do not go away.

The obvious question of the role of the media in these changes is posed, but only pursued insofar as it affects the cinema, its place in the new identity politics, but also its self-differentiation vis-à-vis television. From the cinema television took over the social function of addressing its audiences as the nation, a role which in turn drastically changed in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving both cinema and television to redefine their respective modes of address and social imaginaries. The essay on “British Television through the Looking Glass” registers the culture shock of a medium adapting itself from a public service remit to a mainly commercial service provider with, as I claim, decisive changes for our notion of society and the nation. The conclusion reached is that the “national” in European cinema functions since the 1980s at best as a second-order reference, and might well need to be redefined if not replaced altogether. With it, the concept of the “historical imaginary” may also have to be abandoned, less on methodological grounds, but because of the altered socio-historical context (consumer- culture) and media intertext (the increasing dependence of European cinema on public service television). They had made questionable the idea of the nation to which “national cinema” owed its theoretical articulation.

The third chapter draws the consequences of this insight, retaining the focus on national cinema and the auteur as second-order categories. It shifts perspective, however, by suggesting that these labels, and the practices they name, have for too long been abstracted from the historical ground on which they have grown, flourished and in the present conjuncture, re-aligned themselves. This historical ground, I argue, are the European film festivals. Notably those of Venice, Cannes, Berlin, and Rotterdam (at least until the 1990s, since when they are joined by other festivals, such as those of Toronto, Pusan, Sydney and Sundance) have between them been responsible for virtually all of the new waves, most of the auteurs and new national cinemas that scholars often assiduously try to define in essentialist, constructivist or relational terms, though rarely pointing out the particular logic of site, place and network embodied in the festival circuit, which so often gave them the necessary currency to begin with.

The other transformation that the chapter on film festivals tries to name extends the emphasis on site, place and network to include film production. Parallel to the festival site as the place for the discovery of new filmmakers and the moment where individual films acquire their cultural capital also for general audiences, it is location that makes European cinema perhaps not unique but nonetheless distinctive. In particular, cities and regions have superseded auteurs and nations as focal points for film production. Madrid, Marseille, Berlin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, but also the Ruhr Valley in Germany, the Midlands in Britain or the Danish village of Hvidovre have become peculiar post-industrial filmmaking hubs.9 New media industries have played a key role in enabling certain regions to renew their economic base and reinvent themselves, by moving from traditional industries of producing goods to providing services. Areas once known for shipping, mining or steel production now advertise themselves as skill and enterprise centres for media industries. Cities market themselves on the strength of their photogenic locations or historical skylines, combining high-tech facilities with picturesque waterfront urban decay. Thus, another way of making a case for a distinct European cinema would be on the basis of such “location advantages”, in the double sense of the word, as the conjunction of different forms of EU-funded urban redevelopment and new film financing schemes, coupled with a policy of using specific locations which have changed their economic character and their historical associations. Here, too, I present in outline some of the reference points that indicate interesting if also quite contradictory adjustments to globalisation which typify Europe without necessarily distinguishing it radically from other parts of the world.

The final chapter in this section draws some of the consequences for a definition of European cinema from the fact that Europe is usually considered as a special kind of topographic, geopolitical but also demographic space. (Western) Europe’s wealth and prosperity over the past fifty years sometimes masks the degree to which it has always been made up of distinct regions, different ethnicities and tribes, many of whom have only relatively recently been brought together into nation-states. These in turn have for 150 years made war with each other, before deciding after yet another catastrophe in 1945 and once more since 1989 to forge the institutions that allow these different regions, languages, cultures, convictions and ethnicities to live in peace. Yet all the while, new demographic movements, at first from the former colonies, then from Southern Europe as cheap labor and finally as refugees, migrants or sans papiers, often persecuted at home, or looking for a better life of opportunity and prosperity, added to the mix that called itself the European Union, but which in fact began turning itself into a Fortress Europe. While the first generation of immigrants were mostly too engrossed in the struggle for survival, their children – the second generation – often took to more specifically cultural, symbolic and aesthetic forms of expression and affirmation of identity. Those marginalized or disenfranchised among the ethnic minority groups tend to give expression to their sense of exclusion by resorting to the symbolic language of violence, destruction and self-destruction. But others have also turned to the arts and voiced their aspirations and sense of identity-in-difference as musicians, writers and artists, with a substantial number among them taking up filmmaking. France, Britain and Germany in particular, have seen a veritable filmmaking renaissance thanks to second and third-generation directors from “minority” ethnic backgrounds: names such as Abdel Kechiche and Karim Dridi, Udayan Prasad and Gurinder Chadha, Fatih Akin and Thomas Arslan can stand for a much wider film-making as well as film-viewing community that crosses cultural and hyphenates ethnic borders. In “Double Occupancy” this particular configuration of multi-cultural filmmaking is regarded as typical for the new Europe, at least in the way it can be located at the fault-lines of a very specific European history of colonialism, re-settlement and migration. However, the chapter also sets out to delineate a concept that is intended, at least provisionally, to succeed that of the “historical imaginary”, by suggesting that the mirror-relations and forms of “othering” typical of a previous period may be in the process of being superseded, as identity politics through boundary-drawing gives way to general recognition of co-habitation, mutual interference and mutual responsibility as necessary forms of a new solidarity and sense of co-existence. Here, many of the films that have had public success or received critical attention in recent years show themselves in advance of the political repertoire of ideas about European unity, by offering sometimes remarkably astute, moving and often also very witty comments on post-nation subjectivities and communities. In other words, while films such as AMELIE, DOGVILLE, TALK TO HER, RUN LOLA RUN, TRAINSPOTTING, HEAD ON OR GOODBYE LENIN may seem too auteurist, too commercial or too typical for a given national cinema to count as “European”, there is, I am suggesting, another way of reading them as precisely, “New European”, in light of certain political scenarios and economic strategies actively pursued by the European Union, its politicians, pragmatists, visionaries but also its critics. They give a new urgency to filmmaking in Europe, which distinguishes it from television, as well as making it part also of world cinema – a perspective taken up in the concluding chapter of the collection.

Europe, Hollywood and “The Rest”: The Ties that Bind and that Divide

The essays between the opening section and the conclusion follow to a large extent the trajectory thus charted, examining landmark figures of European authorship, the ever-present and much-resented impact of Hollywood, Europe’s own others, and the post-colonial, post-historical legacies. Thus, the section which follows the re-appraisal of national cinema and the emergence of a European cinematic space turns its attention to the Europe-Hollywood-Europe divide, emphasizing the extent to which this usually binary relation of buried antagonisms and resentment actually functions not only as a two-way-traffic, but acts as an asymmetrical dynamic of exchange, whose purpose it is to stabilize the system by making both sides benefit from each other, paradoxically by making-believe that their regular and ritual stand-offs are based on incompatible antagonisms. As in politics so in matters cinema: what unites Europe and America is more than what divides them, not least of all because each needs the other: the insistence on the division often strengthens the underlying dynamism of the system of alliances.

This macro-study is followed by a more micro-analysis of a range of films and filmmakers who could be called independents, if the term still had much meaning, but whom I have grouped together as “films without a passport” – stateless, in-between, one-offs, happy accidents or near disasters, forming new spaces of collectivity and solidarity, and thus symptomatic for the “margins” and the different kinds of metabolism they invoke for the circulation and consumption of European film culture. The films named and discussed in the first sub-section about West European filmmakers and émigrés have to stand for a myriad of others, so that the selection is indeed more arbitrary than what is suggested by my claim of a deeper underlying representativeness. The second sub-section, dealing with films from Eastern Europe, wants to give a sampling of the possible ways in which East European film history may eventually be written together with and as an integral part of West European film history, without simply “adding” names, titles, styles and countries. Instead, their “accession” is a further reason why the entire landscape of European cinema has to be re-mapped. This evidently cannot be done in this collection, although the essays on festivals, on site, space and place have hopefully suggested some conceptual tools that might make it possible. To the three more recent essays on Konrad Wolf, Slavoj Žižek and on films that have come out of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, I have added an older essay on the unjustly neglected Dusan Makavejev, one of the more prescient Yugoslavian directors who acutely sensed both the strains within the Federation when most in the West had little sense of the disasters to come, and of the Western eyes already then felt to be upon the directors from Central Europe.

European Cinema: History and Memory

Makavejev’s invocation of the Russian Revolution also makes a convenient transition to the following section “Europe Haunted by History”, in which a number of issues are being touched upon which, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, have given European cinema – at least in retrospect – a remarkable unity of preoccupation if not of purpose, across victims and perpetrators, occupiers and occupied: the “working through” of the history of fascism, Nazism and of collaboration, acquiescence and resistance to these totalitarian regimes. What came to the fore was the subjective, often fascinated and even more often traumatized eye cast upon the period, castigated as nostalgic and retrograde by some (la mode retro: Jean Baudrillard), and considered a necessary catharsis and coming to terms by others (“let’s work on our memories”: Edgar Reitz). While in France, Germany and Italy the concerns were with fascism or the Nazi occupation, in Britain the nostalgic/traumatic core was the loss of Empire, and the so-called heritage film as its compensatory supplement.

The concern with the colonial and postcolonial past was, until the 1990s, mainly reserved for Britain’s relations with the Indian sub-continent and the West Indies. Since the 1990s it has surfaced in France as the return of its North-African colonial legacy, but there has also been a dimension of oblique and indirect communication between continental Europe’s post-colonial attitude and Latin America, with a German and Italian inflection. On the one hand, it figures itself across a possibly “literary” heritage derived from Borges, Marquez and magic realism. On the other hand, it can also be read as a displaced identification of European filmmakers with Third Cinema as a proxy confrontation with Hollywood, at a time when the direct antagonism seemed to some directors neither accurate nor productive. In the chapter on “Hyper-, Retro- and Counter-cinema”, I have picked Werner Herzog (I could have mentioned Wim Wenders’ globe-trotting films) and Francesco Rosi (I could have chosen Gillo Pontecorvo), in order to confront them with Raoul Ruiz and Ruy Guerra, in a sort of oblique, indirect dialogue. Their films foreshadow thus the turn of both art cinema and Third Cinema into “world cinema” avant la letter, which seemed an appropriate note on which to close the historical part of the collection.

These different shifts and re-alignments come together in a final chapter, in which I entertain the proposition – often expressed in the negative – that European cinema has become, in view of its declining impact and seeming provincialism, merely a part of “world cinema”- that category under which all kinds of cinematic works, from very diverse temporarily newsworthy or topical corners of the globe are gathered together: the “rest”, in other words. My argument will be that, first of all, the category world cinema should be used and understood in its full contradictory sense, which includes the fact that these films, judged by the global impact of Hollywood or Asian cinemas, are precisely not world cinema, but a local produce, a token presence in the rarefied markets that are the film festivals or brief art-house releases. But I also want to make a virtue of the seemingly cynical or condescending euphemism that such a label implies, by suggesting a more post-Fordist model of goods, services and markets – made possible not least by the very different forms of distribution and circulation that the electronic media, and notably DVDs, the internet and other types of physical and virtual networks provide.10 In this context, world cinema does indeed attain a positive significance, and furthermore, it may turn out to be a new way of understanding European cinema in its practice over the past twenty years or so, and define for it a terrain that it can usefully and productively occupy in the decades to come.




Erich Pommer’s Cinema Europe effort effectively ended with the negotiation of the Parufamet agreement, which however, proved disastrous for Ufa, the company he headed as production chief. As Tom Saunders has pointed out, creating a united front against the Americans was in any case impossible, seeing how much European cinemas depended on American films: “For companies like Ufa which had partnerships with American firms, friendliness toward Hollywood had very concrete dimensions: they were not prepared to repudiate American liaisons in favor of either a vague European film community or specific, more limited agreements.” Tom Saunders, “Germany and Film Europe,” in A. Higson and R. Maltby (eds.), Film Europe Film America: Cinema Commerce and Cultural Exchange (Exeter University Press, 1999), 174.


The best known representative of this position is the economist Tyler Cowen, Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). See also his “French Kiss-Off: How Protectionism Has Hurt French Films, Reason, July 1998; accessed March 2005 at: 9807/fe.cowen.shtml


Details can be found on the Media website


Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 3-7.


Michael Tanssig, Mimesis and Alterity (New York: Routledge, 1993). Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994), in which the Greek-French sociologist, according to the publisher’s information “offers a far-reaching analysis of the unique character of the social-historical world and its relations to the individual, to language, and to nature”.


“Two Decades in Another Country”(American Studies conference, University of East Anglia, 1971), “Primary Identification and the Historical Subject” (Milwaukee Conference, 1980), “Film History and Visual Pleasure: Weimar Cinema” (Asilomar, 1982), “Germany’s Imaginary America: Wenders and Handke” (The Clark University- Luxembourg Conference, 1985), “Looking into a Two-Way Mirror” (The Mershon Center, Ohio University, 2002), “Our Balkanized Gaze” (Film Studies Conference, Yale University, 2003).


Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema” Screen vol. 30 no. 4, Autumn 1989, pp. 36-46.


A list of occasions and places of first publications for the essays can be found at the end of the volume.


“‘It can be so depressing here in winter,’ says our driver, Danish film director Lone Scherfig, as she parks up in the muddy trail outside her office cabin. ‘But it’s even worse when people put flowers out. It looks like a concentration camp!’ This place is Filmbyen, or Film Town, in the Danish suburb of Hvidovre, a thriving movie village that, in its six years, has revolutionised the local economy. One might argue that it has achieved even more. Since November 1997 this has been the central base of operations for Lars von Trier, perhaps the most influential film director working in Europe, and his company, Zentropa Productions.”, Damon Wise “No Dane no Gain”, The Observer, 12 October 2003.


On the new world communities of cinephiles, see Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener (eds.), Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005).