The 30 Most Fearless Movie Directors of All Time (Part 1)
By its very nature, the profession of director calls for a combination of unique qualities. To bring the vision to screen in the fullest capacity, the director must be a leader, an artist, a tactician, a politician, a motivator, an economist-the list can go on and on. Few combine all those traits in equal measure, but a director must be able to display at least some degree of skill in those areas at any given time-and many others.
Fearlessness is the quality that will serve him/her well. The director is always faced with struggle to create a work of art in the envisioned way. It takes a lot of courage to overcome own limitations and ways. It takes even more to overcome external pressure, be it from the nervous studio execs or an oppressive government.
In this list, I will include film directors who displayed lack of fear in their lives and were willing to fight for their art (and rights of artists everywhere). Since it can be a lengthy one, we will limit it to those who were fearless creators and innovators, and those who defied outside pressure best and most consistently.
As it’s a known fact that some of our readers are also versed in cinema, we would be interested in who you consider to be a fearless director, so feel free to leave constructive comments. If a director you may deem to be fearless is not included here, fear not-more is yet to come.
1. Luis Bunuel
Governments, public opinion, religion, reality-Bunuel took them all on, and came out a winner.
Although surrealism is firmly connected in public’s mind with Salvador Dali, Bunuel’s early friend and collaborator, it was Bunuel who consistently displayed the dedication to its spirit. While Dali went into self-aggrandizing showmanship, Bunuel worked hard to challenge reality and bring the subconscious to light. It all began with their first short, “Une Chien Andalou,” with its legendary shot of the eye being sliced. The effect upon the public was startling and shocking.
It is surrealist’s sacred duty to offend, and the two Spaniards in Paris succeeded with flying colors. “L’age d’or” continued the fine tradition. Bunuel was able to make one last film in Europe, the shocking documentary “Land Without Bread,” before being forced to relocate to America after Franco took over in his native Spain (Bunuel was a cultural attaché of the Republican government). Being hounded out of stuck-up U.S., he wound up in Mexico.
Mexican cinema at the time was one of costumed melodramas. But Bunuel raised it to a new level, starting with “Los Olvidados.” And continued to do so until mid-60’s, churning out deliciously subversive gems. He only took a brief sojourn to Spain, where he got an olive branch from the Francoist government and a chance to make a film. He responded with “Viridiana,” which managed to offend everyone he meant to offend, and then some.
In the last, “French,” period of his career, Bunuel took on reality itself, but in a more subtle way. “Belle de jour,” “The Milky Way,” and, especially, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” challenge the established mores and notions. There, the logic is that of a dream, and the seams of reality are loose or vague. Like most of Bunuel’s works, they’re also hilarious and entertaining.
Bunuel is primary example of an artist that stayed true to his vision until the end.
2. Andrei Tarkovsky
As far as artistic courage is concerned, Tarkovsky has few rivals. The reason his body of work is so small is the fact he absolutely refused to compromise, whether with the notoriously oppressive Soviet system, or Western film-for-profit module.
Much has been made of his defiant decision to stay in the West, after he received no guarantees from the Soviet government that he’ll be allowed to return abroad. But that was his only purely political gesture. Before, he simply fought for the right to express self artistically. His struggles began with the now-legendary “Andrei Rublev,” which was shelved for about 5 years by the post-Khrushchev government. From that point on, the System always viewed him with suspicion, even though his films were pure art and never touched upon political themes.
Tarkovsky earned his right to make films the way he wanted, but it came at a price. People who knew him all his life were unanimously stunned to see a jovial and charming young man turn into an ascetic zealot of his vision. Endless fights have that effect.
Sadly, this fearlessness may have contributed to his early demise. “Stalker” is an acknowledged masterpiece and one of the most fantastic films ever made, but to film the incredibly atmospheric Zone, Tarkovsky took his crew to an ecologically dangerous location, resulting in premature deaths of most of the main cast and crew members.
After moving to the West, Tarkovsky stayed true to himself. “Sacrifice,” his last film, is unmistakably his, from first to last frame. In the few short years he had left, Andrei Tarkovsky refused to bow to financial dictum, and remained himself until the very end.
3. Jafar Panahi
Undoubtedly, the Iranian cinema scene is the most accomplished and artistic in the entire Middle East. The Persian cultural tradition is rich and rewarding, and the artists working in the medium of film continue to impress (so far, there has been three distinct “New Waves” since the 60’s, each introducing a unique visual style).
However, this cultural tradition and fascinating location comes at a price. The censorship of the Islamic Republic of Iran rivals that of Shah’s regime, and places numerous restrictions on the artists. Any attempt to present something not in line with official vision, or to express self freely, can usually bring hardships and unwanted attention to the director.
Jafar Panahi continues to need all the hardiness he achieved as a combat cinematographer in his prolonged conflict with the Iranian government. The controversy for him began with his first feature, the Kiarostami-penned “The White Balloon.” The deteriorating relationship between Iran and US caused the Iranian government to attempt to withdraw the film as Iran’s submission for the Academy Award and to ban Panahi from traveling to Sundance Festival.
His troubles grew with his third feature, “The Circle.” The government was fine with Panahi showing the world through the eyes of children, but not with him depicting what happens when they (particularly, the girls) grow up. Panahi illegally submitted it to the Venice festival, where it won the Golden Lion, while being banned at home for being “offensive to Muslim women.”
Once government pegged him as a troublesome element, Panahi was closely observed. That didn’t stop him from sending his next film, “Crimson Gold,” to Cannes Festival without official permission, or from making “Offside,” yet another film critical of treatment of women in Iran. Panahi heeded no reprimands or advices to leave Iran, which finally resulted in him being arrested and, in 2010, sentenced to six years in prison, as well as a 20-year ban on making films, giving interviews, or traveling outside of Iran.
The sentence was changed to house arrest and limited mobility, but the defiant Panahi continued to make films (helped with advance of digital media), helming four since the ban began (including 2018’s “3 Faces”) and proving again and again that courage still exists in our times.
4. Werner Herzog
A man and artist of the Extreme. Herzog famously said “Filmmaking is athletics over aesthetics,” and backed that statement with his life and work. Whether it’s nature, circumstance, or human limitations, he braved it.
Let’s concentrate on his most brazen acts. He started the right way-by forming his production company with no money or formal training. As a documentarian, he traveled far and wide, be it chasing mirages in the desert (Fata Morgana), or trekking to a volcanic island on the brink of eruption (La Soufrere), or else taking an escaped POW back to the jungle whence he fled (Little Dieter Needs to Fly).
His fiction films are also exercises in daring and bravery. In “Heart of Glass” he placed his cast under hypnosis, while in “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” he cast Bruno S. (who spent most of his life in mental institutions) as a man who had to be reintroduced to society after living his life in total isolation. The crowning achievement of his endurance is making “Fitzcarraldo,” a film about a man who dragged a steamboat through the jungle…by Actually dragging a steamboat through the jungle!
But nothing challenged Herzog more than the unpredictable force of nature that is Klaus Kinski. Together, they made 5 films-and, according to Herzog, “Every grey hair on my head I call Kinski.” The most telling event in their tumultuous cooperation happened on the set of “Aguirre,” where Kinski threatened to quit, only for Herzog to threaten to shoot first him and then self.
Roger Ebert said it well-“Herzog has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting.”
5. Sergei Eisenstein
Few filmmakers embodied the spirit of Revolution like Eisenstein did, and fewer still are as influential on the art form of film itself. It was good that he seemed to have been blessed with boundless energy and courage-he needed those.
Breaking out of theatre, where learned so much from the equally legendary Vsevolod Meyerhold, Eisenstein used the still-new form to fully and completely express his ideas, those of “montage of attractions” and “typage” concerning the performers. Although he was given freedom with form experimentation in the giddy 1920’s era, “Strike” and “Battleship Potemkin” were initially misunderstood. But abroad, they shocked and awed audiences, especially “Potemkin,” and overnight made Soviet cinema a force to be reckoned with.
Eisenstein made another silent masterpiece, “October,” which is arguably stronger and more assured than “Battleship Potemkin,” but was already beginning to experience troubles that were to become so prevalent for him in the rest of his life. It was (at first, only from some circles) accused of being formalistic. In the next decade, Soviet government would place a death grip on controlling the form as well as content of films.
Eisenstein briefly got out of Stalin’s control, when he went on his triumphant tour of Europe and America. But in Hollywood, he encountered dictators of a different kind. The studio system wanted him to direct an adaptation of Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” but balked at his vision of presenting the roots of tragedy itself, demanding, in Eisenstein’s words, “a cheap story of crime and love between boy and girl.” He set out to Mexico, and was in the process of making a jarring and lush cinematic song that is “Que Viva Mexico!” when Stalin ordered him back to USSR. The iron curtain closed behind him.
The atmosphere to which he returned was much different. Party, ruled by Stalin with an iron fist, asserted control over everything, including the creative forms. Eisenstein learned about it the hard way-his “Bezhin Meadow” was stopped mid-production, and destroyed. Considering that Eisenstein got black pox from it (when going through antique church props), and with wounds of “Mexico” still fresh, one can only imagine his feelings about it. In the horrible atmosphere of 1937, Eisenstein was all but forced to retract and apologize with a gun to his temple.
By party’s demands, he made his most accessible film, “Alexander Nevsky.” There, he kept his restless spirit of experimentation confined to music, inventing “vertical montage,” where he combined imagery with Prokofiev’s rousing score. During the war, he made a two-part biopic on Stalin’s hero, Ivan the Terrible. Part I got official commendation and awards, but Part II was shelved, ordered reshot in places, and Eisenstein was summoned to Kremlin to receive orders from Stalin himself.
And yet, through such micromanagement courtesy of one of the most brutal dictators the world has ever known, Eisenstein continued his work. His articles, both published and unpublished, brim with ideas. He never did resume reshooting Part II of “Ivan the Terrible.” And as war began, Eisenstein committed a feat of true courage. His mentor, Meyerhold, was by then long arrested and executed. As the Germans advanced, there was a risk of his archive being permanently lost. Eisenstein got a truck, loaded the archives, and took half of it to a dry well at his country house, while scattering the other half among his own archive.
All this pressure, naturally, had effects, and the great Eisenstein expired from heart attack at the mere age of 50. But his work and spirit live on.
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