Cinema is nothing if not a global enterprise. Especially today, just about every country on the planet has the capability of turning out brilliant and innovative films.
More inspiring films are coming out of countries from the Middle East (2011’s A Separation, Iran), Africa (2005’s Tsotsi, South Africa), and South America (2001’s City of God, Brazil) than ever before. And who can predict what marvelous films the rest of the world will proffer in the future.
The current state of global cinema would not be possible without the pioneers of cinema in these nations. From the first days of cinema in the late 1800s on through today, these ten nations have led the way, producing countless revolutionary films, groundbreaking filmmakers, as well as insights into film theory and advances in filmmaking equipment and techniques. Cinema owes its illustrious history to these nations.
Like many of the nations that managed to make this list, they required a visionary filmmaker to come along and set the stage for their country to develop its cinema. For Sweden, that man would be Ingmar Bergman.
Unrelated the (arguably) more famous Ingrid Bergman (also a Swede but did most her work in England and Hollywood), Bergman is the renown Swedish director responsible for The Seventh Seal, Persona, The Virgin Spring, and Wild Strawberries.
All of his films are deeply philosophical, and require multiple viewings in order to fully appreciate. All told Bergman has a whopping 29 films in the Criterion Collection. Seventh Seal and Hour of the Wolf are examples of the influence of expressionism and noir, but Bergman of course put his unique perspective on the film. Both films star Max von Sydow, another Swede who went on to do great things in Hollywood.
But before Bergman, another great that deserves mentioning is Victor Sjöström. Without his work on great silent films like The Phantom Carriage, Bergman’s success would never have been possible. Sjöström was even the star of Bergman’s Strawberries. The best Swedish film in recent years was Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Who knows where his career could go from here? And hopefully he might revive the rest of Sweden’s potential genius filmmakers with him.
There is something of a belief in us that great art often comes from great struggle. Some even say that great struggle is necessary for great art. This certainly seems to be true in film. Many European nations offered many great works following the devastation that was World War II. Poland was certainly devastated by the Nazis and certainly made some great contributions to the cinema.
Poland features a quartet of brilliant filmmakers: Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Zulawski, and Roman Polanski. All three began their careers just after the War, and used the chaos of post-war Poland to spark their genius.
Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds gives a stark depiction of life during this time, which peace and war, occupation and freedom coming and going just like love affairs. Coming a bit later (’71), Zulawski’s Third Part of the Night likewise depicts the barbarism of the Nazis and the in-this-case failed attempts to get on with life for the Polish people.
Other directors channeled their stress about life after the war into their films in other ways. Before he left for England and the US, Polanski made Knife in the Water in his native Polish, a film about a love-triangle, the tensions therein comparable to post-war Poland.
Zulawski’s best film, Possession, use the post-war chaos to create some of the best editing ever utilized in this bizarre but captivating film.
Kieslowski didn’t produce his best work until late in his life with his Three Colors films, which center around a Polish immigrant adapting to French society. But he did manage to make A Short Film about Killing, most shows his abhorrence for the death penalty and, by extension, much of the horrors of the Nazis and the War.
The struggles of the Polish people to move on from the war continue to unfold on screen; Ida, which just won the Oscar for best foreign film, concerns a Polish nun learning about her family’s history with the Nazis.
Bollywood! Well, actually, “Bollywood” only refers to the Hindi-language films based out of Mumbai. There are other films made in other languages around India that are not part of the Bollywood system. That being said, Bollywood is the world-leading part of Indian cinema, its greatest influences being its elaborate and lovely song and dance numbers.
There had been musicals in other parts of the world before Bollywood, but not with anywhere near the same flair and excitement. These sequences have influenced recent Western films like Moulin Rouge! and Chicago. The most celebrated performer to come out of Bollywood would be the exquisite actress Aishwarya Rai (now Aishwarya Rai Bachchan after her marriage).
Outside of the song and dance numbers, the great filmmakers to come from the country are Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray, with their works constantly considered required viewing for any film connoisseur. Ray has six films in the Criterion Collection, and these don’t include perhaps his best known films, the Apu Trilogy, which includes Pather Panchali.
If Japanese cinema can begin and end with Kurosawa, then British cinema can begin and end with Hitchcock. His films encapsulate so much of the British cinema that it is hard to see any British film made recently that does not owe a great deal to Hitch. Hitch’s films first saw acclaim in the mid ‘30s, with The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Of course he went on to make such greats as The Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and many more. He currently has nine films appearing in IMDb’s Top 250 films, the most from any director. He is often called the master of suspense, the inventor of the thriller, and many similar such titles. And he deserves them all.
Britain of course has had many other phenomenal filmmakers in its history, such as David Lean, Nicolas Roeg, Carol Reed, and more recently Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan.
Despite this impressive list, UK sits at number 7 on the list because many of them did their best work in Hollywood, with mostly American actors, writers and sets. So can it be said that their work is part of the British national cinema? Does a director’s place of birth really determine the nationality of a film?
There are however traits of British performers that can be considered to be qualities of other performers from the UK. The Monty Python guys set the table that is the particular British style of comedy, and ex-Python Terry Gilliam has continued in the great British tradition of science fiction begun by many novelists like Arthur C. Clarke, Gene and others.
Stanley Kubrick would be one counter-example, an American-born filmmaker who did the bulk of his work in the UK. Even if all the directors mentioned above, and countless more actors and writers, did their work in the States, the contributions to cinema of the British people cannot be ignored.
Like Russia, Germany is a country that owes most of its influence on global cinema to the silent era. Coming out of the Expressionism era in painting, many directors sought to bring that same sensibility to the big screen, and they did to great effect.
The classic example of German expressionism, with its long black shadows and harsh lighting, would be Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Other important films from this era would be F.W. Murnau’s films Nosferatu and his take on Faust, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi behemoth Metropolis, Boese’s The Golem (before it was swallowed into obscurity by the Nazis for its Jewish themes), and the works of G.W. Pabst.
It was Lang’s later works, such as M, and the works of Germans who moved to Hollywood, like Billy Wilder and William Wyler, who transitioned Expressionism into Film Noir, whose immense influences are still easily seen today.
After World War II, German cinema really took a hit. The Nazis, particularly Joseph Goebbels, turned the German Cinema into a propaganda machine, and the industry never really recovered.
Considering what wonderful works German filmmakers created in the early, it is arguable that Goebbels is the greatest enemy to cinema in its history. No one knows to what amazing heights the German cinema could have risen had not Goebbels and the Nazis so crippled it.
Germany is slowly recovering. The most well-known German filmmakers since the War are Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. Fassbinder’s films were beautiful and often powerfully depressing, and reflected the forlornness of post-war Germany.
Werner Herzog is one of the most important documentary filmmakers of all time, and his early fiction films had similar themes of absurdity and a lack of hope that Fassbinder’s had.