European films have always been slower paced than American films, a reflection of our respective lifestyles. Americans are more on-the-go, never settling in one place for too long, and thus our films tend to match that action. Europeans usually prefer to do more wandering about their daily lives, taking their time to enjoy their espresso at a cafe with a cigarette instead of placing a mobile order at Starbucks to dash away with. I know this is a stereotypical view, but I’ve been to Europe a few times now, and this stop and smell the roses mentality is commonplace.
European films then, don’t rush through anything. They take their time with the stories, the characters, even the camerawork itself. We should learn from that. Slow doesn’t mean unexciting or static. In fact, quite the opposite can be true, as European films prove.
We could also stand to be more original: having studied film for a few years now, I can’t name a single franchise in Europe. I’m not sure I could even name a film series that started with one film, and then just kept going until it had long exhausted its original premise. American films however, regard this as common practice. Too often Hollywood has placed more value on money making than storytelling, trying to milk an idea for all it’s worth because audiences liked it the first time, they can be made to like it again.
European films tend to stand by themselves. There’s a story, and you tell it. That’s it. Beginning, middle, and definitive end. That’s how films are supposed to work, right? Dear Hollywood, I know making money is important, but take notes. Audiences are aching for new, original content. And maybe some stories that are less fantastical – so many American films involve extensive world-building, and not just elaborate production design that sets the tone of the film, but literally creating entire worlds of make-believe.
Obviously, we’re in a bit of a special time, so there’s no harm in a bit of escapism, but we should aim to produce more films that tell stories of everyday life. Look how well “Marriage Story” did. Better yet, look at “Miss Juneteenth,” which is on many a ‘best films of 2020 so far’ list. These reflect on real life and relationships; Subtle moments that can hold so much more power than a slow motion, glass-shattering jump out a window from some action figure.
European filmmakers have known this for a very long time, and they have largely continued to stay on that path.
In its early days, Italian cinema saw a neo-realist movement emerge, led by the brutally honest and beautiful “Bicycle Thieves,” (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica. This film was and continues to be a hugely influential contribution to cinema – a low-budget, understated, real story that was masterfully told. “Bicycle Thieves” follows a father searching for his stolen bicycle in war-torn Rome, which is critical for the survival of his young family. Without the bike, he loses his job, and any hope he had with it. We spend nearly the whole 89 minutes on the streets of Rome with the father and his son, who have both worked hard to keep their family afloat. Fear and helplessness surround the both of them as they desperately search for the bike. The film received an honorary Academy Award in 1950 for most outstanding foreign language film and was hailed as the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine in 1952.
Later down the line, Germany put out an experimental film called “Run Lola Run” in 1998. While it is indeed an action-centered film, the simplicity of the idea ensures that it isn’t overdone: a woman has 20 minutes to acquire 100,000 Deutschmarks to save her boyfriend’s life. The only “action” here involves very possible, somewhat realistic scenarios – a woman sprinting through town, down stairs, up stairs, through parks, maybe getting hit by a car, frantically trying to get the money to save her boyfriend. “Run Lola Run” proves you don’t have to be James Bond or Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne to be an action star. You don’t have to climb walls or buildings or jump off bridges. Time is the enemy in this story, and it proves to be a tough opponent.
nother tactic of European films is to comment on the darker moments in the region’s history – either uncovering secrets or exposing parts of the culture that governments would rather you not see. The 2006 film “The Lives of Others” is one excellent example. Set in 1984, it follows an agent of the secret police in East Berlin as he conducts surveillance on a writer and his lover. The agent suspects that behind the facade of a model citizen is a man disloyal to East Germany. This film is a slow burn, but a tense one that keeps you on your toes. It gives us contemporary Americans a glimpse inside the daily life of citizens under authoritarian regimes, and even shows us a little heart from those we would least expect. “The Lives of Others” won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2007, and is a timeless tale of love, empathy, and freedom.
Even more recently, Turkish-French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven brings to light some of the uglier aspects of conservative Turkish culture in her 2015 film “Mustang.” In a remote village in Turkey, five young orphaned sisters live as prisoners in their own house, with their grandmother and uncle ruling their every move with an iron fist. The girls are taken into town to be shown off to potential suitors, so they can be married off as soon as possible. Ergüven argues that navigating womanhood is hard enough without your family (and culture) stifling your freedom and spirit. As a young woman, this film felt like a punch in the gut. It hurts to know that others think they can control the bodies and the will of these girls. Ergüven’s point was well made: “Mustang” was nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards and received a near perfect 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
All of this isn’t to say that I don’t like or appreciate American films and filmmakers. I have respect for a great many of them, and there are some truly extraordinary stories and works of art that have been released throughout our history. Many of my favorite films are American-made, and I too fall victim to the world of franchises – the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Lord of the Rings – I get it.
Maybe slow and steady doesn’t always win this metaphorical race, but Hollywood can certainly learn something from taking the expensive, CGI-infused, loud, and explosive action sequences down a notch.