While the medium is galloping towards infinite possibilities, an introspective study of its past is becoming more and more necessary. One significant way in which cinema triumphs as a truly global experience is in upholding its universal character over the ages, and sustaining an all-encompassing intimate fraternity, despite attaining the proportions of a more and more industrial technological exercise.
Twentieth century auteur cinema found its lifeline in the film festivals… a celebration of independent content, fresh aesthetics and substantial experimentation. Because of these film festivals, and a critical movie-watching culture and appetite developing in cities around the world, those were undoubtedly the warmest times in the history of the craft.
Movements like Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave weren’t just artistic propositions, but also social efforts, a building of a community or guild that could communicate more effectively. The auteurs were essentially artists working with individualistic visions, and cinema has done a lot of growing up under their influence. As individual artists, they had strong opinions, inspirations and positions in the movie business.
This list tries to invoke the same intimacy, to celebrate the times and sensibilities by bringing to you a kind of dialogue between filmmakers. The auteurs of 20th century world cinema, introduced by compiling the praises, recommendations and opinions of other filmmakers, are the elements this list primarily presents… in the process, delivering an interactive insight into the inspiring past of the craft.
Just to make the list less chaotic:
1. All English language filmmakers have been excluded. It’s a very large and talkative ecosystem to contain here.
2. All filmmakers whose major work was in the silent era are excluded. Can’t justify this. Just to contract the list.
1. About Fritz Lang
One of the most influential pioneers of truly individualistic cinema was indeed the German-Austrian director, Fritz Lang whose ventures have an encyclopedic significance to this day. Known as the “master of darkness” for his thematic and cinematographic preferences, this formerly underappreciated champion of the German expressionism is an ideal person to begin the list with.
François Truffaut, with Cahiers du cinema, had thoroughly re-evaluated his work and said that his American was underappreciated by cinema historians and critics, who “deny him any genius when he ‘signs’ spy movies… war movies… or simple thrillers”. Fritz Lang was a director for hire in his Hollywood days, and despite the very intellectually infantile nature of some of his projects, he had managed to keep a meritorious mark. This was the sign of an individuality surviving amidst an increasingly commercialized art, and therefore making him an important auteur. Truffaut writes “Fritz Lang, as he was developing, purified his style as Renoir, Hitchcock and Hawks did. Lyricism and humour have way to bitterness and sour criticism. Hardly any effects left except a unique mastery and a technical sureness. Yes, and I dare write that today Fritz Land is greater, and above all deeper, even if he pleases less”.
Luis Bunuel always named Lang as his favourite director. Buñuel’s said about Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod: “I came out of the Vieux Colombier [theater] completely transformed. Images could and did become for me the true means of expression. I decided to devote myself to the cinema”. Years later, at the age of 72, Bunuel would approach Lang for an autograph. He further said- “The films that influenced me the most, however, were Fritz Lang’s. When I saw Destiny (1921), I suddenly knew that I too wanted to make movies. It wasn’t the three stories themselves that moved me so much, but the main episode–the arrival of the man in the black hat, whom I instantly recognized as Death, in a Flemish village, and the scene in the cemetery. Something about this film spoke to something deep in me; it clarified my life and my vision of the world. This feeling occurred whenever I saw a Lang movie, particular the ‘Nibelungen’ movies, and Metropolis”
Jean-Luc Godard had a famous association with the director, mostly for casting him as himself in Contempt, and also for an hour long interview between them, which remains one of the most treasured archives in cinema history.
In the interview Godard says that though Lang was an “older filmmaker”, what strikes him “is your extreme youth, you are always interested in the moments in which things are born, as if they were taking place for the first time. You are always interested in new issues.”
2. About Jean Renoir
French cinema has forever been on the forefronts in the auteur league. And the reason could be condensed in just one name- Jean Renoir, son of one of the greatest French painters of all time. With his great originality, wit, humanity and musical effectiveness, he can be considered the greatest filmmaker of all time.
Francois Truffaut called him the “world’s greatest filmmaker”, and said about him- “I think Renoir is the only filmmaker who’s practically infallible, who has never made a mistake on film. And I think if he never made mistakes, it’s because he always found solutions based on simplicity—human solutions. He’s one film director who never pretended. He never tried to have a style, and if you know his work—which is very comprehensive, since he dealt with all sorts of subjects—when you get stuck, especially as a young filmmaker, you can think of how Renoir would have handled the situation, and you generally find a solution.”
Eric Rohmer, another champion of the French New Wave said about Renoir- “Renoir is something else; he represents another current. Renoir is no longer at all existentialist. But he’s modern. More expressionist than impressionist. […] There’s a Brechtian side to him as well, a certain didacticism, but much more deeply buried. I might have been opposed to Brecht as a film critic, and none of Brecht’s ideas, in fact, have come to the cinema, except perhaps through Renoir. You mustn’t look for Renoir’s modern-ism in the same place you find it in Antonioni or Wenders: it’s com-pletely different; it’s unique, inimitable. Renoir is the least theatrical of all the filmmakers, the one who goes the furthest in his criticism of the theatre and, at the same time, the one who is closest to the theatre.
It’s a total paradox. It’s the paradox of film, which is an art without being an art, performance without being performance, theatre without being theatre – which rejects theatre, in fact. For me, in this sense, Renoir is the greatest of them all; I can see his films over and over and always find something new, and just the fact that his importance has not yet been recognised proves to me that he is in fact the greatest.”
That the French New Wave would be inspired by Renoir is almost obvious. But he further reached out to remote talents in the world.
Satyajit Ray found a mentor in Renoir whom he assisted when the latter visited Calcutta for shooting The River. Ray was inspired by many of Renoir’s remarkable qualities. “A feeling for nature, a deep humanism with a preference for the shades of grey, a sort of Chekovian quality; and his lyricism and the avoidance of clichés.” Ray describes his encounter with the giant- “I was full of admiration for him, and I looked up to him. Sometimes one is disappointed on meeting an artist one admires, because as a person he turns out as someone you can’t warm to, can’t get close to. But Renoir was such a wonderful man- deep, gentle, humorous.”
Jean-Luc Godard, discussing two categories of filmmakers said “The first make circular films; the others, films in a straight line. Renoir is one of the few who do both at the same time, and this is his charm. “
Upon his death, Orson Welles called him “the greatest of all directors”
Robert Altman who was said to be a stylistic successor of Renoir praised his best known film with the words- “The Rules of the Game taught me the rules of the game.”
Martin Scorsese said about the genius- “I remember seeing Renoir’s films as a child and immediately feeling connected to the characters through his love for them.”
Mike Leigh, who is known to be the contemporary maker closest to Renoir’s sensibility, said “I consider Jean Renoir to be my only master.”
3. About Luis Bunuel
A surrealist to the core, one of the pioneers of that school of art from 1920’s Paris, this immortal man of imagination and structural insanity gave cinema not only an area, but a reason to experiment wildly. Communicating with the subconscious with hypnotic pictures of sublime fantasy, he is probably the father of everything queer and psychedelic about the films.
Luchino Visconti, himself an auteur of celestial proportions, said- “I think today there are too many directors taking themselves seriously; the only one capable of saying anything really new and interesting is Luis Bunuel. He’s a very great director.”
François Truffaut made an analysis of his work, saying- “Luis Buñuel is, perhaps, somewhere between Renoir and Bergman. One would gather that Buñuel finds mankind imbecilic but life diverting. All this he tells us very mildly, even a bit indirectly, but it’s there in the overall impression we get from his films.”
Orson Welles had a high regard for his themes- “Jesus, it’s all true. He’s that kind of intellectual and that kind of Catholic [. . .] A superb kind of person he must be. Everybody loves him.”
Michael Powell was a true admirer of his work- “My master in film, Buñuel was a far greater storyteller than I. It was just that in my films miracles occur on the screen.”
Wes Anderson whose approach to detailing the film has a striking resemblance with that of Bunuel said- “Mike Nichols said in the newspaper he thinks of Buñuel every day, which I believe I do, too, or at least every other.”
The beloved Jane Campion said “Buñuel is my first deep love in cinema. He is the adult that pulled the plug on the human art of pretending. He blazes through the hypocrisy at the heart of our bourgeois lives mercilessly—no one is sacred, no ideal or moral is spared. He is perfectly modern, bold, and clear. I found myself laughing in joy and amazement. He understands human nature while refusing to sentimentalize it.”
Pedro Costa, himself known for delivering wonderful social critiques was impressed by Bunuel’s work- “Luis Buñuel always reminds us of what we’re constantly losing in this rotten society.”
Pedro Almodovar said “I really recognise myself in his films. For me, he is a real master.”
4. About Robert Bresson
Robert Bresson, apart from being an immensely influential creator from the early years of individualistic cinema, was the greatest embroiderer of spirituality and simplicity in the medium, with his serenely religious mirrors of human conditions.
Jean-Luc Godard said about this genius- “Bresson is to French cinema what Mozart is to German music and Dostoyevsky is to Russian literature.”
Andrei Tarkovsky said- “Bresson is a genius. Here I can state it plainly — he is a genius. If he occupies the first place, the next director occupies the tenth. This distance is very depressing. When I am working, it helps me a lot to think of Bresson. Only the thought of Bresson! I don’t remember any of his works concretely. I remember only his supremely ascetic manner. His simplicity. His clarity. The thought of Bresson helps me to concentrate on the central idea of the film. Robert Bresson is for me an example of a real and genuine film-maker… He obeys only certain higher, objective laws of Art.”
Louis Malle said- “There’s something in the way Bresson makes films which puts me in mind of a certain French tradition that comes from Racine. I don’t really think that I was influenced by Bresson, but I would say that I wish I had been.”
5. About Roberto Rossellini
The pioneering neorealist is an immortal landmark for his breathtakingly inventive treatment of the rawest of content and opinions. He probably still remains the unsurpassed expert of subtle philosophical expression in the movies.
Jean-Luc Godard probably made the most subtly exalting comment on this genius he admired greatly when while talking about the qualities of directors, he said- “Socrates, Rossellini I mean, who creates philosophy.” He further said- “Rossellini is something else again. He alone has an exact vision of the totality of things.”
Martin Scorsese thoroughly introduces us to the man’s revolutionary body of work with the words- “He changed cinema three times. First, he and Vittorio De Sica started what was called ‘neo- realism.’ Then, with his wife Ingrid Bergman, he made a series of intimate, almost mystical stories like Stromboli and Europa ’51. Europa ’51 is about two people in a car–it’s what became the New Wave of cinema in the ’60s. At the end of his career, he directed a series of didactic films for Italian television– he always felt a duty to inform.”
The legendary visionary Federico Fellini, who often stated that he learned the craft while assisting Rossellini said- “I liked Rossellini’s way of filmmaking, like a pleasant journey, an outing among friends. It seems to me that was how it all started.”