The cinema in Europe and Asia of the 1950s was in many ways changing more profoundly than the American cinema of the same era. Filmmakers were beginning to find their own national voices, in some cases as they began to break away from colonial rule. Improved distribution patterns also gave the international cinema greater visibility than ever before, thanks to the proliferation of film societies, museum screenings, and 16 mm non-theatrical prints of movies that could now reach a wide and enthusiastic audience worldwide.
Japan after World War II was a nation in ruins, with an Allied occupation government and a populace confused and dismayed by the Emperor’s sudden insistence that he was not, in fact, a deity. As Japan began to rebuild, it rapidly threw off much of its military past and soon became an industrialized nation, adopting many of the customs and values of the West. Filmmaking, too, became more Westernized. Akira Kurosawa directed his first movie with the actor Toshirô Mifune, Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948), and then Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949), a stark policier; both films signaled the future development of Kurosawa’s mature style. Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950) was the first major Japanese production that broke out of its native country and into Western consciousness. It demonstrated to audiences that there was a vast literature of cinema in the world that had not yet been made available to the public, and further, that new national cinemas were creating some extraordinarily exciting work that should not, and could not, be ignored.
The story is told from four conflicting points of view, each in turn calling into question the veracity of the other accounts. With Mifune, soon to become one of Japan’s major stars, as the bandit Tajomura, Rashômon is a film about the unreliability of human memory and the uncertain quality of justice when all versions of a story are ultimately self-serving. Stunningly photographed and edited, Rashômon was Kurosawa’s breakthrough in the West, and the term “the Rashômon effect” has now become a standard phrase describing cases in which differing eyewitness accounts cannot be reconciled.
Kurosawa followed Rashômon with Ikiru (To Live, 1952), in which a lowly clerk, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), discovers that he is dying of cancer and is forced not only to face his mortality but also to interrogate the meaning and value of his life. Kurosawa’s next venture, Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954), was an action vehicle that contained enough heart-pounding violent spectacle to become one of the first Japanese movies to be remade in America, as The Magnificent Seven (1960, directed by John Sturges). Kurosawa’s most successful period as a director was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with a series of brilliant works such as Kumonosu jô (Throne of Blood, 1957), a retelling of Macbeth, starring Toshirô Mifune as an overly ambitious warlord who is cut down by a hail of arrows that reduce The intimate drama of family life, seen from the perspective of a tatami mat, in Yasujiro Ozu’s Banshun (Late Spring, 1949).
Yasujiro Ozu, who had long established himself as a great director, kept up his leisurely pace of domestic dramas with Banshun (Late Spring, 1949), Ochazuke no aji (Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, 1952), and Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953), all shot in his signature sparse style. Kenji Mizoguchi created the period drama Saikaku ichidai onna (The Life ofOharu, 1952) and followed it up with perhaps his most famous film, Ugetsu monogatari (Tales ofUgetsu, 1953), a dreamlike ghost story in which two ambitious and greedy potters go off in time of war to sell their wares, leaving their families behind. Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) becomes romantically involved with a malevolent female ghost, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô), while Tôbei (Sakae Ozawa) dreams of becoming a samurai. Mizoguchi’s deeply moving historical drama Yôkihi (Princess Yang Kwei-fei, 1955) is a tragic tale of a doomed royal love affair, shot in gentle pastel colors that evoke the hues of a Japanese screen print. Together, Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi are three of the key Japanese directors of the early to middle 1950s.
Sweden, which had largely escaped the most vicious depredation of World War II, emerged with a progressive, near Socialist political structure and a strong sense of national identity. Ingmar Bergman was becoming a one-man film industry, single-handedly putting the Swedish cinema before the public in a series of deeply allegorical films, beginning with the brutal drama Kris (Crisis, 1946), which he wrote and directed, and continuing at the rate of roughly a film per year until the late 1960s. Bergman, the son of a Lutheran minister whose discipline of the young boy was exceedingly strict, was tormented from his earliest years by issues of morality, conscience, belief in God, and personal responsibility, and these themes soon surfaced in his work as a filmmaker.
In 1948, he directed the typically bleak Musik i mörker (Night Is My Future), about a young man who is blinded while in the military. Fängelse (The Devil’s Wanton, 1949), about the suicide of a prostitute, was followed by numerous other somber works, including Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika, 1953), the story of an illicit summer romance that ends in tragedy, and Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953), an allegorical tale of sexual passion in a tawdry, third-rate circus. Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955) was an atypically lighthearted sex comedy, which first heralded Bergman’s breakthrough to mainstream international audiences. Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957) stars Max von Sydow as the medieval knight Antonius Block, who is visited by Death (Bengt Ekerot). The figure of Death wants to take Antonius to the next world, but the knight makes a bargain with him, and the two play a game of chess that will determine the knight’s fate. Shot in stark black-and-white by the great Gunnar Fischer, The Seventh Seal ’s central question, whether or not God exists, informs the structure of the entire work, as a variety of other characters drift through the movie either denying or endorsing belief in Divine power.
In such works as Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957), Ansiktet (The Magician, 1958), Nära livet (Brink of Life, 1958), and Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring, 1960), Bergman created a world that was at once sensuous and treacherous, developing a stock company of actors such as Max von Sydow (who later had a long career in American films), Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and especially Liv Ullmann, who would fall in love with Bergman and have his child during a long relationship in the 1960s. Gentle, assured, and deeply reflective, Wild Strawberries focuses on a retired professor, Isak Borg (director/actor Victor Sjöström, in his last role), who agrees to accept an honorary degree on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation from the University of Lund. Professor Borg sets out by car to his destination, driven by his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), and along the way they meet a variety of people—some from the professor’s past, some just traveling on the road, like himself—who cause him to examine his life in a new light. Set in the nineteenth century, The Magician is one of Bergman’s most mysterious works, as the illusionist Albert Emanuel Vogler (von Sydow) travels with his troupe to a small Swedish village, where the town’s officials meet him with skepticism.
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