While terrific boutique labels like the Criterion Collection have done wonders to educate the film watching public on many of the heavy hitters of 1960’s European cinema like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, there are still large swathes of the decade that are relatively undiscovered by Western audiences.
The French nouvelle vague has reached household name status among movie buffs, even some of the most ardent cinephiles have yet to dip their toes in to the Czech New Wave, Eastern Europe’s equally thrilling answer to France’s movement. Speaking of France, not everything the country’s filmmakers produced was tied to the New Wave.
Less formally daring, yet no less exciting work was being done by Jacques Becker, as he displayed with 1960’s prison break drama Le Trou. Georges Franju also followed up his terrifying Eyes Without a Face with the pulpy and endlessly entertaining superhero precursor Judex. The 1960’s were perhaps the most exciting time for European cinema, but not necessarily for the reasons we’ve come to expect.
1. Le Trou (The Hole) (Jacques Becker, 1960, France)
It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to claim that the French had a stranglehold on the procedural sub-genre in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. We had Jules Dassin’s slick heist caper Rififi in 1955 and Robert Bresson’s spare, existential drama A Man Escaped the following year. The peak of the procedural was yet to come, however.
Jacques Becker’s masterpiece Le Trou, like A Man Escaped, finds us back in a French prison but instead of solo endeavor, Becker focuses on a group of prisoners in shared cell and their methodical, inventive attempts to escape. The tension is palpable and wholly organic as the men create elaborate dummies to fool the guards on their nightly rounds, or chip, chip, chip away at the concrete floor of their cell all while facing the very real problem of disposing of the broken chunks of rock without being noticed.
Beyond the tension, though, what makes The Hole truly intoxicating are the formal choices Becker and cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet make. Whereas some prison break films may employ one or two extended montages to showcase the escape process,
Becker turns the nuts and bolts of the escape in to high drama itself, employing numerous extended close-ups of every aspect of the ordeal. However, unlike Bresson’s equally great film, Le Trou packs an intense, exciting punch all the way through the climactic escape attempt.
2. The Cremator (Juraj Herz, 1969, Czech)
There’s a case to be made for the Czech New Wave – the cinematic movement brought about by a number of Czechoslovak filmmakers’ general disapproval with the Communist regime – is every bit, if not more, thrilling than its French counterpart. While Godard and Truffaut were experimenting with form Milos Forman and Vera Chytilova were breaking down political social barriers all while employing visual and narrative tactics that were just as radical as those of the French masters.
Perhaps no film of the era better exemplified the Czech New Wave ideals of radical statements gotten across through even more radical means is Juraj Herz’s The Cremator. Herz’s film tells the story of Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský), the manager of a crematorium that is simply attempting to live his life in Prague with his wife and two teen-aged children when an old friend puts a bug in his ear that Karl just can’t shake.
The Cremator works so well because it oscillates seamlessly between full-fledged psychological horror (we perceive peril for those we come to care for but how real is it, exactly?) and riveting character study (Karl is a wholly unique individual; he is obsessed with death and believes that cremation relieves earthly suffering.). To delve any deeper in to the sociopolitical implications of the narrative would be to spoil the (macabre) fun.
3. Judex (Georges Franju, 1963, France)
If there’s one thing that seems to have been lacking from French cinema in the 1960’s – at least in what of it has managed to gain a following internationally in the years since – it’s pulpy crime fiction in the vein of the 1920’s and 30’s serials like Fantomas. Georges Franju did his part to fix that with Judex (and the more well-known Eyes Without a Face), his lively tale of a masked hero who seeks revenge on an unscrupulous banker.
Judex and the serials it pays homage to have been described as early prototypes for the superhero genre we all know today. While, almost certainly a compliment, that notion is also far too reductive. See, while the comic book films that dominate the modern day box office strike a tenor of safe normalcy early on and reside comfortably there for their duration,
Franju’s film almost lulls the viewer in to a sense of familiarity before cranking the insanity up several notches through a series spellbinding set pieces (Judex’s entrance to a cocktail party in a disturbing life-like bird mask – my lifelong avian phobia undoubtedly exacerbated things – is mesmerizing and head scratching in equal measure) and plot intricacies that somehow manage to stick together quite well.
Above all else, Judex is pure escapism goodness, something that has both the fantastical and mysterious nature of all great pulp fiction down to a tee.
4. Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, 1961, France)
The lone documentary on this list, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s existential exploration is the granddaddy of cinéma vérité filmmaking. An engaging look in to the hopes and dreams of a disparate cast of characters, Chronicle of a Summer couldn’t be more simple in premise: Rouch and Morin pose the question “Are you happy?” to a number of working class Parisians.
In turn, the respondents take the opportunity to reflect on a wide variety of topics, all of which they feel intrinsically tie in to their own personal happiness (or lack thereof). A young man laments his mindnumbing factory job and a group of people (who had appeared previously in the film, individually) discuss the ramifications of the Algerian war.
Perhaps most compelling, however, is Holocaust survivor’s retelling of her harrowing story as she walks through the streets of Paris. Each story is moving and thought-provoking in equal measure. Each man and woman’s reflections works to turn the camera back on to us, the audience, as we realize that yes, we’re grappling with the very same issues as the Parisians of 50-plus years ago.
5. The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has, 1965, Poland)
While the prolific and astounding films of Andrzej Wajda have managed to go down as some of Poland’s most esteemed cinematic works, it’s important to recognize Wojciech Has as a craftsmen of the highest order. His vaguely surrealist, time-disorting films haven’t quite gained the international following of Wajda or even Andrzej Zulawski but they every bit as rich in verve and filmic detail.
Based upon Count Jan Potocki’s early 19th century novel “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa,” an epic story-within-a-story work spanning several decades, Has’s film, while it offers up a basic narrative framework, it shares Potocki’s vision of regaling the audience with a wide variety of interconnected tales that sprawl, seemingly out of time, in, around, and over themselves and each other.
The baseline of the narrative involves the discovery of a book detailing the story of a Spanish officer’s father, Alphonse Von Worden and his journeys through deserts and townships, wherein he meets numerous intriguing characters that in turn tell him their own stories. Has’s film is every bit as confounding as it sounds.
Characters show up in multiple stories, stories which on the surface have no other connecting tissue; Has (and by extension, Von Worden) floats in and out of stories with little rhyme or reason. Yet, taken as a whole, the thing is mesmerizing. Composer Krzyszstof Penderecki’s riveting score of Spanish guitar, double bass, and natural sounds pervades every scene, lending the experience a decidedly mystical quality.