For Kracauer, the realist tendency begins with the very first cinématographes of the Lumière brothers. Kracauer opposes the Lumières' realism to the "formative" tendency of their contemporary Georges Méliès (1861–1938), but he also insists that the Lumière films are not just documentaries. Many of these short films, such as L'Arroseur arrosé, were staged performances. Still, Kracauer was making a "medium specific argument" in that the Lumières not only invented cinema but exploited its specific attribute: to record and reproduce the world around us.
Bazin traces the origins of the realist tendency in fiction films to the works of Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957) and F. W. Murnau (1888–1931), films that he opposed to the more formalist works of Soviet cinema and to the polished works of 1930s Hollywood. Murnau began his career as one of the leading innovators of German expressionism, directing the classic Nosferatau, eine Symphonie des Grauens ( Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror ) in 1922. Despite its melodramatic quality, Tabu relied on non-professional actors, including Tahitians in important roles, location shooting, and a sparse use of titles. In addition, Murnau weaves into the plot the economic reality and colonialist exploitation of the pearl trade.
While Murnau was filming Tabu in the South Pacific, a movement known as "poetic realism" began to take shape in France. Starting in the early 1930s, films such as Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934); Marie Epstein's La Maternelle ( Children of Montmartre , 1934); Jean Renoir's Toni (1935), Le Crime de Monsieur Lange ( The Crime of Monsieur Lange , 1935), and La Bête humaine ( The Human Beast , 1938); Julien Duvivier's Pépé le Moko (1937); and Marcel Carnés Le Jour se lève ( Daybreak , 1939) constituted one of the most successful movements in European cinema. Poetic realism may be seen as realist in its refusal of some of the conventions of Hollywood (most notably the happy end), its strong sense of place (which included both location shooting and the sets of designers such as Alexandre Trauner [1906–1993]), its tackling of the social questions of the day (such as unemployment, poverty, and alcoholism), and its depiction of the lives of the working poor. As early as 1930, Jean Vigo (1905–1934), director of L'Atlante , had called for a social cinema that would reject both the Hollywood romance and the "pure cinema" of the avant-garde and instead be "continuously replenished by reality" (p. 60). The skipper of a river barge, Italian immigrant workers, laundresses, mechanics, a melancholy sand blaster, were the subjects of poetic realist films. The actor Jean Gabin (1904–1976) was in the paradoxical position of having become the most famous male star of French cinema in large part thanks to roles where he played downtrodden and ill-fated workers. Poetic realism may sound like a contradiction in terms, but for its advocates and practitioners the French movement exemplified realism's basic tenet that creating new, lyrical forms of representation was the best way to create new forms of visibility and new ways of thinking about the world.
Certainly this credo was one of the forces behind Italian neorealist cinema. As different as the Italian neorealist movies were, films such as Roberto Rossellini's (1906–1977) Rome, città operta ( Rome, Open City , 1945), Paisà ( Paisan , 1946), Germania anno zero ( Germany Year Zero , 1948), and Europa '51 ( The Greatest Love , 1952), De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952), Luchino Visconti's Ossessione ( Obsession , 1942) and Terra trema ( The Earth Trembles , 1948), and Alberto Lattuada's Senza pietà ( Without Pity , 1948) all clearly belonged to and helped reignite the realist tendency in post–World War II Europe.
With few exceptions, Italian neorealism set its characters in the historical and economic reality of postwar Europe: Germany Year Zero shows us the effects of Hitlerism on a young boy in a rubble-filled Berlin. De Sica's Sciuscià ( Shoe-Shine , 1946) builds its plot around the American occupation of postwar Europe. The very plot of The Bicycle Thieves is driven by the poverty of postwar Italy. If Antonio Ricci, the main character of The Bicycle Thieves , is so distraught when his bicycle is stolen, it is because this bicycle is the key to his livelihood. In this movie, De Sica and his screenwriter Zavattini (1902–1989) insisted upon giving us the figures we need to understand the poverty affecting Antonio: we hear that a bicycle costs 6,500 lire and that Antonio receives 6,000 lire for the first two weeks of work. Italian neorealism was an intensely materialist mode of filmmaking.
Some scholars have argued against understanding Italian neorealism as a radical break with the past. After all, Cinecittà, the famous studio where some of these films were shot, was inaugurated by Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1937, and the Alfieri Law of 1939, which granted government subsidies to filmmakers, was still in effect after the war. Furthermore, De Sica, Zavattini, and Rossellini all got their start in the film industry under the fascist regime, and some of their films still have recourse to the standard techniques of melodrama that dominated pre-1944 Italian cinema. Still, it is difficult to confuse neorealist films with the high society dramas that preceded them. Neither the so-called telefoni bianchi ("white telephone") films nor, for that matter, the Hollywood films that replaced them on Italian screens after the war, had much patience for economic depression and gloomy outsiders. Neorealist films quite consciously set themselves in opposition to more mainstream cinema, a tendency metaphorically expressed in the scene in The Bicycle Thieves when Antonio never quite manages to do his job of putting up Rita Hayworth publicity posters.
French director, screenwriter and actor, Jean Renoir is one of the most original filmmakers in the history of French cinema. A poet of realism and a master of artifice, a revolutionary and a classicist, he is a key figure in the history of European modernism. Renoir has influenced filmmakers as varied as François Truffaut and Robert Altman, Satyajit Ray, and Wes Anderson.
Though he made some ten silent films, Renoir hit his stride with the arrival of sound. The savagely witty Boudu sauvé des eaux ( Boudu Saved From Drowning , 1932) was a biting satire of the duplicitous French bourgeoisie. With the creation of films such as Toni (1934), Le Crime de Monsieur Lange ( The Crime of Monsieur Lange , 1936), and La Marseillaise (1938), Renoir participated in the struggle for workers' rights that culminated in the Popular Front in June 1936. But even at their most political, Renoir's films are also meditations on artistic performance. He often preferred actors trained in the music hall tradition and his films often include a theatrical representation of some sort. Even as politically committed a film as The Crime of Monsieur Lange , which depicts the creation of a worker's collective, centers around a fantasy cowboy melodrama titled Arizona Jim . La Grande illusion ( The Grand Illusion , 1937), starring Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim, remains Renoir's most widely seen film. A condemnation of war, this film also reveals Renoir's ideas about the role of performance in the construction of national and social identities.
With La Règle du jeu ( The Rules of the Game , 1939) Renoir created one of the great works in the history of cinema. Often cited as a masterpiece of realism for its use of dolly shots, depth of focus, and outdoor photography, Renoir's film is a complex portrait of a society ruled by social masks and illusions. It was an incredibly bold film to make on the eve of World War II.
Exiled from Nazi-occupied France in 1940, Renoir made several films in Hollywood, including The Southerner (1945) in collaboration with William Faulkner. In India after World War II, Renoir filmed The River (1950), which although it has been criticized for its colonialist point of view, nevertheless, is intent upon showing the complexity of human relations caught in a moment of national upheaval.
Nana 1926, La Chienne ( The Bitch , 1931), Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), Toni (1934), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), Une Partie de Campagne ( A Day in the Country , 1936), Les Bas-fonds ( The Lower Depths , 1936), La Bête humaine ( The Human Beast , 1938), La Grande illusion ( The Grand Illusion , 1937), La Règle du jeu ( The Rules of the Game , 1939), The Southerner (1945), The River (1951), The Golden Coach (1953), French Can Can (1955), Elena et les hommes ( Elena and Her Men , 1956), Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir ( The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir , 1970)
Bazin, André. Jean Renoir . Edited with an introduction by François Truffaut. Translated by W.W. Halsey II and William H. Simon. New York: De Capo, 1992.
Bergan, Ronald. Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise . Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1994.
Braudy, Leo. Jean Renoir, The World of His Films . New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Faulkner, Christopher. The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Renoir, Jean. My Life and My Films . Translated by Norman Denny. New York: Atheneum, 1974. Translation of Ma vie et mes films (1974).
It is not just the glamour of Hollywood that Italian neorealism defied. This movement also challenged the laws of verisimilitude that dominated commercial cinema. The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D both rely upon the thinnest story lines. About Umberto D , Zavattini said that he had wanted to make a film about nothing. In Germany Year Zero there is no plot to speak of, and viewers can only speculate about the motivation for Edmund's suicide at the end. Plot is not entirely absent from these films, but they all de-emphasize the logical sequence of events in order to develop the characters' discovery of the material reality that surrounds them.
The realist tendency, while international in scope, develops within national cinematic contexts. Certainly this is the case with the British New Wave and social realist cinema. British realism, which harkens back to the documentary movement of the 1930s, has flourished from the 1950s to the present in films as varied as Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), Poor Cow (Ken Loach, 1967) and Career Girls (Mike Leigh, 1997). These films tend to have relatively low budgets and to share such qualities as an emphasis on location, the use of unknown and non-professional actors, an intention to educate, and a focus on marginal characters and social problems. For all their differences, Ken Loach's (b. 1936) made-for-TV film Cathy Come Home (1966) and Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) have in common the desire to show the faces of individuals that had been kept off the screens of Britain up to that point: a woman and her family pushed into poverty and homelessness in Cathy Come Home , and the son of South Asian immigrants in love with a British punk in My Beautiful Laundrette . These claims to a privileged relation to reality have been contested, however. Scholars have criticized British social realism of the 1960s for its masculine, patriarchal point of view.
The idea that cinematographic realism is tied to political struggle has inspired national cinemas emerging in the wake of European colonialism. The Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene (b. 1923), for instance, perceived his work as a tool for representing the new African reality, seeing film as a mirror for self-understanding and empowerment. In place of the Hollywood and French jungle melodramas through which colonialist ideology imposed itself, Sembene made pared-down films in which characters are set in the economic and social reality of contemporary Africa. Films such as La Noire de … ( Black Girl , 1966), Xala ( Impotence , 1975), Guelwaar (1992), Faat Kiné (2000), and Moolaadé (2004) are not strict realist works. Sembene often includes elements of melodrama and even musical comedy that might irk purists. But the films' sparse style, their open-ended plots, their refusal of standardized forms of cinematic production, and especially their intense social criticism, situate them within the realist tendency.
The same desire to counter colonialist representations motivated the early realist work of Satyajit Ray (1921–1992) in India. According to what has now become legend, during a trip to London, Ray saw some 90 films in two months. Of all the films he saw, De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves left the greatest impression and pushed Ray to start making his own, based on the credo that "the filmmaker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica and not Cecil B. DeMille, should be his ideal." And so, in films such as the "Apu Trilogy"— Pather Panchali ( Song of the Road , 1955), Aparajito ( The Unvanquished , 1956) and Apur Sansar ( The World of Apu , 1959)—Ray's camera reveals the daily life of a family struggling against poverty in post-independence India. His straightforward style shared neorealism's openness to the everyday world.