The Influence of Foreign Films


Americans are one of the most ethnocentric groups of individuals amongst the modern industrialized nations.  Mind you, we don't take first place in terms of ethnocentric thinking and behavior, that dubious prize most likely would go to the Japanese.  However, we tend to think that we created everything, including all that goes into making Hollywood what it is today.  Not so!  Any honest history of cinema reveals that Hollywood is what it is because we stole and borrowed everything we could from the rest of the world.  The best actors, the best directors, the most advanced ideas often originated in other countries and we took them and pretended they were ours.  This process has been in play since the beginning and continues today.  None of that is meant to demean the considerable contributions Americans have made; rather it is meant to place those contributions in a more revealing light.


I point the above out in order to make sure you see the history of film accurately; however, I also mention it as my way of encouraging you to go out of your way to view foreign films.  Watching foreign films benefits you in a variety of ways.  One, you have a more complete understanding of cinema.  Two, which is even more important, you can erode some of your ethnocentrism through viewing films from other cultures.  All Americans need to understand other cultures.  We live in an increasingly interdependent world system and films can help to bridge the gaps in our understanding and appreciation of other cultures.


The contributions from Japanese cinema are tremendous.  If you have not seen some of Kurosawa's masterpieces then you really have a very limited understanding of what great artistry can appear on film.  "Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) is not only a great film in its own right but the source of a genre that flowed through the rest of the century.  The critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission---an idea that gave birth to its direct Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven, as well as The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, and countless later war, heist, and caper movies.  Since Kurosawa's samurai adventure Yojimbo (1961) was remade as A Fistful of Dollars and essentially created the spaghetti western, and since this movie and Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) inspired George Lucas's Star Wars series, it could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next fifty years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose.  That purpose was to make a samurai movie that was anchored in ancient Japanese culture, and yet argued for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions" (Ebert, p. 400).  Although the focus of Ebert's remarks are on the influence of Kurosawa on American films, hopefully his films also made an equally important impact on Japanese culture in his effort to make it a less rigid society.  One of the great contributions of films from throughout the world is that the best of them tend to be designed to make our societies less rigid, more open to change, more humane.


Scandinavian cinema has also had a significant impact upon American cinema in a variety of ways.  For example the Danish cinema gave us pornography and shocking stories!  "It was from Denmark that Hollywood imported the idea and image of the vamp and the taste for shocking subjects.  Such films as Holger Madsen's The Morphine Takers (1911) and Opium Dreams (1914), banned in several countries in Europe, were sensations in American movie theaters" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 357).  In those early years Denmark was Europe's most prosperous film center and was a rival to Hollywood worldwide.  Today the oldest active film company is in Denmark.


Denmark was not the only Scandinavian influence as Sweden has also made important contributions.  Two of the greatest actresses of all time came out of Sweden---Garbo and Bergman. 


Greta Garbo was born Greta Louisa Gustafsson in 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden.  "The daughter of an unskilled laborer of peasant stock who was often out of work, she grew up in poverty in one of the Swedish capital's shabbiest districts.  When she was 13 her father died and the following year she began work as a lather girl in a barbershop.  She next found employment as a salesgirl in a large department store" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 508).  This, by luck, changed her life as she was chosen to appear in a short publicity film sponsored by the store.  This in time led to modest other roles and gave her the courage to apply for and win a scholarship to the Royal Dramatic Theater training school where she gained skills and contacts that led to her European movie career.  Louis B. Mayer was on a talent hunt in Europe in 1924 and brought Garbo to Hollywood.  When she made her first film for MGM the acclaim was universal and a star was born because of her magnetic personality that appealed to both men and women.  She made a series of great films---Anna Christie (1930), Ninotchka (1939), Anna Karenina (1935), and Camille (1937).  In 1941, at the age of 36, at the height of her success, without giving any explanation, Garbo retired.  She spent the rest of her life as a semirecluse living in Switzerland, the Riviera, and New York City.  When she died at the age of 84 she left an estate worth $200 million.  To this day she continues to a legendary figure in film history.


Ingrid Bergman was born in 1915 and was an orphan since early childhood.  She was raised by relatives.  After high school she enrolled in 1933 at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater School and within a year she landed a leading role in Swedish films and her career took off.  David O. Selznick recognized her talents and recruited her for Hollywood.  She exuded radiance, strength, and vitality and quickly became a star.  She appeared in Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, Notorious, and Joan of Arc.*  The publicity put out by the studio presented her to the public as a wholesome, almost saintly woman and this backfired on them when she deserted her husband and ran off with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini.  This damaged her career as religious groups and women's clubs and even politicians attacked her.  "On the floor of the US Senate she was called 'Hollywood's apostle of degradation' and 'a free-love cultist'" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 122).  These attacks led to her being barred from making Hollywood films for seven years.  Her career was restarted thanks in large measure to her role in Anastasia and she continued to make films until her death in 1982 after a long eight-year battle with cancer.


But it has not just been actresses that have made an impact in the world of cinema.  One of the greatest directors in the world is Ingmar Bergman (no relation to Ingrid).  He was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden, the son of a stern Lutheran pastor who eventually became chaplain to Sweden's royal family.  "Bergman was raised under strict discipline, on occasion spending hours in a dark closet for infractions of his father's rigid ethical code.  The traumatic experiences of his childhood were later to play a significant role in his work as a stage and film director" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 120).  In the 1940s he started directing films but they were not significant ones.  In the 1950s, however, he started winning prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and became famous worldwide.  The film that catapulted him into fame was The Seventh Seal (1957) which dealt "allegorically and agonizingly with the philosophy and metaphysics of humans' relationship to God and their encounters with the idea of death" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 120).  As you can guess from that brief sentence, this was a heavy and serious film and attracted viewers who were interested in more than your typical happy-ending Hollywood film.  Another film he is famous for is Wild Strawberries, which deals with human isolation.  Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander, and Through a Glass Darkly are some of his other well-known films.  "Bergman, for years now a dominant figure in Swedish theater and cinema, is widely recognized as one of the leading film artists living today.  He is among a select few directors who have consistently used the medium of cinema as a creative art of personal expression, and among an even smaller group who have been able to exercise near-complete freedom and total artistic control over their films" (Film Encyclopedia, p.  121).  In many ways, Bergman is close to the ideal role model for anyone who wants to create films.


Listen to some of the dialogue from The Seventh Seal: "My indifference has shut me out.  I live in a world of ghosts, a prisoner of dreams.  I want God to put out his hand, show his face, speak to me.  I cry out to him in the dark but there is no one there."  These lines are delivered by a knight, returning from the Crusades, speaking to Death, who has been following the knight on his journey home.  "Films are no longer concerned with the silence of God, but with the chattering of men.  We are uneasy to find Bergman asking existential questions in an age of irony, and Bergman himself, starting with Persona (1966), found more subtle ways to ask the same questions.  But the directness of The Seventh Seal is its strength: This is an uncompromising film, regarding good and evil with the same simplicity and faith as its hero" (Ebert, pp. 405-6).  "Bergman's spiritual quest is at the center of the films he made in the middle of his career.  The Seventh Seal opens that period, in which he asked, again and again, why God seemed absent from the world" (Ebert, p. 408).  It is wonderful to have a film challenging you to think about one of the most important questions imaginable.  Is God absent from the world?  For Bergman, whose father was a representative of God, whose father locked him up in closets, the question is crucial.  For him God "seemed" absent.  But is He?  Bergman does better at asking the questions than answering them.  That does not weaken the power of his films.  Instead it means that you are left with the responsibility of finding your own answers.  Great films often ask the questions without giving us the answers. 


For myself, I find that God is not absent, that we only think that when we fail to appreciate His omnipresence.  We also think of God as being absent when we think that a present God should control events and eliminate evil.  Yes, I feel his presence: however, I don't see him as responsible for creating or controlling evil.  Evil exists thanks to human behavior.  We make choices and some of those choices are evil.  I would not have it any other way!   No, I do not mean that I like the evil, but I love the freedom of choice and that inevitably opens the door to some amongst us making bad and even evil choices.





*The story of Joan is one that is regularly made into films---as well it should be.  One of the greatest versions of her story on film is The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).  Please note the title's emphasis on passion as that is what made Joan the great figure she was.  She passionately loved God and nothing was more important to her, not even her own life.  The actress that starred in the 1928 version was Renee Maria Falconetti.  She was a celebrated actress and producer of the Paris stage and this is the only film she ever made.  She was born in 1892, made the film in 1928, and then emigrated shortly before the outbreak of World War II to Argentina where she died in Buenos Aires in 1946.  The great film critic Pauline Kael said of Falconetti's performance as Joan that: "It may be the finest performance ever recorded on film."  Joan in real life was cross-examined 29 times and tortured before she was burned at the stake in 1431.  Such passion!  Falconetti was able to reach into that passion and portray it on film.