While various national cinemas strove to shed their reputation as "working-class" entertainment, Soviet cinema of the 1920s strove to strengthen and deepen the connection between cinema and the workers. The Soviet leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin himself considered cinema to be the most important art form—specifically because of its ability to attract and speak to the proletariat. As a consequence, Soviet cinema focused directly on drawing audiences out of "false consciousness" in order to make them class conscious, and to energize the socialist revolution. Filmmaker Dziga Vertov's (1896–1954) concept of the kino-eye theorized how the technology and aesthetics of cinema could expand human perception and consciousness. Director Sergei Eisenstein's (1898–1948) ideas of dialectical montage were also founded on attempting to broaden the mind's comprehension of the social order instead of simply acquiescing to the ideological precepts of either monarchy's "divine right" or the demands of capitalism. Unlike the typical Horatio Alger story that focused on individual heroes, Soviet films tended to focus on group protagonists—the crew of the Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925), or the villagers in Zemlya ( Earth , 1930). Unfortunately, by the 1930s, the regime of Josef Stalin (1924–1953) mandated a shift from a cinema that consistently challenged audiences to think for themselves to a cinema of "Socialist Realism" that championed the working class but attempted to keep workers docile and obedient.

Although Soviet silent cinema was the most obvious counter-argument to Hollywood's celebration of capitalist materialism, a number of German kammerspiel films in the 1920s, such as Der Letzte Mann ( The Last Laugh , 1924) and Die Freudlose Gasse ( The Joyless Street , 1925), acknowledged the disparity between the haves and the have-nots in a country dealing with rampant inflation and poverty after World War I. The rest of Europe and the United States was hit with economic hard times when the Depression began as the decade came to a close. The sudden collapse of stocks, credit, and jobs shook many people's faith in capitalism. Although the Hollywood studios usually support the status quo that helps keep them empowered, Hollywood films of the early 1930s were at times shockingly critical of capitalism. Exposés like Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) depicted the failure of the American Dream, usually showing the system of law and government working for big business and against the common citizen. The rise of gangster films glorifying life outside the law also had audiences empathizing with rebellion against the establishment.

Such criticisms in Hollywood films waned by the mid-1930s and the start of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal (1933). A limited expansion of socialist ideas (social security, farm subsidies, work programs) created a new sense of optimism in the United States, and Hollywood films capitulated by reviving the Horatio Alger narrative. Most prominently, the films of director Frank Capra (1897–1991)—notably Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)—have become iconic in their upholding of the American Dream. Even the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's (1902–1968) The Grapes of Wrath (1940) shifted from a depiction of the failure of American capitalism to a story that glorified the determination of the American family. Late 1930s Hollywood films were a return to escapist fantasy—literally, in films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Wizard of Oz (1939)—helping audiences forget their woes. A similar pattern emerged in Europe. Alexander Korda (1893–1956) produced high-class costume epics in Britain. A "cinema of distraction," with sophisticated ladies and their white telephones, became prominent in Italian, German, and French cinema. One of the few trends in 1930s European cinema that regularly depicted the underclass was French Poetic Realism, although many of these films tended to tell stories with an air of romanticized fatalism rather than incisive analysis.

Documentaries in the latter half of the Depression also worked to support the opinion that the established system could solve economic hardship without needing a revolution. US documentaries such as The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938) acknowledge the crisis, but end with a rousing tribute to American know-how. The British documentaries of John Grierson's (1898–1972) GPO Film Unit also tended to support the strength and success of the Empire and its industries in films like Song of Ceylon (1934), Housing Problems (1935), and Night Mail (1936). In their own way, Nazi German news-reels and documentaries, such as Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will , 1935), also asserted that national strength would overcome economic suffering, even as they also blamed such hardship on Jews and communists.

To a certain extent, the outbreak of war throughout Europe and Asia diminished the discussion of class issues, as diverse strata came together to fight the enemy. Films about the war in a number of countries often showed characters from various backgrounds working side by side in shared cause. Maiagaru Jonetsu ( Soaring Passion , Japan, 1941), In Which We Serve (UK, 1942), and Bataan (US, 1943) are representative of this trend. After the war, though, awareness of economic disparity grew in many countries. Italian filmmakers in particular began documenting the hardships in recovering from the war through a series of fictional films shot in an almost-documentary style that was soon referred to as neorealism. Throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Italian neorealist films like Ladri di biciclette ( Bicycle Thieves , 1948) and Umberto D (1952) covered the struggles of the disenfranchised. By emphasizing long takes, long shots, and depth of focus, everything on-screen in a neorealist film seemed equally important, instead of Hollywood's use of close-ups and shallow focus to force attention on the glamorous lead actors. The international acclaim that these films received led to strains of neo-realism in other countries, such as West Germany ( Die Mörder sind unter uns [ Murderers Among Us , 1946],) Mexico ( Los Olvidados [ The Young and the Damned , 1950]), and Spain ( Muerte de un ciclista [ Death of a Cyclist , 1955]). In the United States, social problem films such as Force of Evil (1948) or film noir such as Double Indemnity (1944) also critiqued the greed and desperation of individuals trapped by their social standing. By the end of the 1950s, British film (as well as theater and literature) moved away from stories of the posh upper-crust to tales of the working class. The "kitchen sink realism" of films like Look Back in Anger (1958) and

b. Salford, England, 20 February 1943

Mike Leigh's films consistently focus on the British class system, particularly the working class. Often, issues of class are intertwined with concepts of gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity as well. Many critics link his work back to the "kitchen-sink realism" of British cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Others, though, point out how Leigh emphasizes the performativity of life (possibly due to his background in theater), often by exposing the Secrets & Lies (1996) that people hide behind their public facades. In this way, concepts of class identity (as well as other forms of identity) are exposed as social constructions. Most particularly, this is expressed through the characterization of individuals who have forsaken their working-class backgrounds—as in High Hopes (1988), Secrets & Lies , and Career Girls (1997).

After his first theatrical film, Bleak Moments (1971), Leigh worked almost exclusively in television for the next fifteen years. Films such as High Hopes and Life Is Sweet (1990) reintroduced him to film audiences. His films match his TV work in following the everyday events and actions of ordinary or marginalized people. The sense of realism is often accomplished through a lack of fancy camerawork or editing, and through sudden swings from comedy to trauma and back again. Also, protagonists are not always likable—particularly in Naked (1993), about a truly Angry Young Man railing at all of society—and often are shown displaying contradictory reactions.

Rather than pontificating on the ideological implications of the average worker's plight, Leigh's films dramatize the efficacy of socialism through stories of communities learning to support each other (or of the tragedy of individuals cast adrift). Leigh's working method also emphasizes group effort; he develops scripts with his cast in an improvisational atmosphere before setting the dialogue down in stone (a technique that also helps the sense of realism). As microcosms of working-class communities, families figure strongly in Leigh's films, as in Life Is Sweet , Secrets & Lies , All or Nothing (2002) and Vera Drake (2004). Familial relationships create much of the friction within these narratives as gender roles, generational viewpoints, and economic aspirations collide. Yet the families are shown working to overcome those disputes—and they often come together to withstand oppression from outside forces. Even Leigh's high-gloss biography of musical theater songwriters Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy (1999), pictures the duo as a professional family that alternately squabbled with and cared for each other. Leigh's use of family dynamics makes it easy for most viewers to sympathize with the characters, even when they display unlikable qualities. Combining such dynamics with moments of laughter and tears, Leigh's films use emotion rather than rhetoric to portray the lives of the working class.


High Hopes (1988), Life Is Sweet (1990), Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), All or Nothing (2002), Vera Drake (2004)


Carney, Ray. The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World . Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Jones, Edward Trostle. All or Nothing: The Cinema of Mike Leigh . New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Movshovitz, Howie, ed. Mike Leigh: Interviews . Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Sean Griffin

Mike Leigh.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) depicted the hardships and frustrations of working class youth.

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