The 100 Essential Directors Part 8: Jean Renoir to Douglas Sirk

From Jean Renior through Douglas Sirk, there may be some choices that raise an eyebrow. While each of the directors we look at today might not be on every cinephile’s list of great directors, they absolutely merit inclusion for their distinct visions and dedication to their craft, some despite their questionable personal lives and politics.

Jean Renoir
(1894 – 1979)

Three Key Films: Grand Illusion (1937), La Bete Humaine(1938), The Rules of the Game (1939)

Underrated: French Cancan (1955) As comparable a color masterpiece as Renoir’s black and white wonder The Rules of the Game, French Cancan is an old-fashioned kiosk poster come to life — a love letter to a Paris of long ago, forged by a remarkable artist. Simply stunning to look at, engaging from opening snake dance to extravagant stage show finale, this is Renoir at his best. Forged from a foundation of old-style Hollywood movie musicals (the plot borrows heavily from 42nd Street, while the look is pure MGM spectacle) with several inventive strokes that are pure Renoir, French Cancan mixes history and hyper-reality to create a singular story of human devotion and theatrical dedication. While there are some elements of truth in the tale of how the Moulin Rouge came into existence (Renoir admits borrowing from the real story to create his film), French Cancan is yet another brilliant example of his mastery of the art of cinema. Renoir, driven from Paris by World War II (he worked in America for almost a decade), wanted to return to native soil and make an “apology” of sorts for his poorly received criticism of the French bourgeoisie (the aforementioned Game). The result is a movie that celebrates as it sentimentalizes the wild, wounded world of entertainers and their trade.

Unforgettable: As the Nazis threaten, the rich go hunting. At its core, The Rules of the Game is a comedy of manners. It mocks the cavalier cluelessness of the French upper class while warning of their future complicity in the Hitler’s invasion of their country. For Renoir, the rise of the Third Reich was a particularly sore subject for the filmmaker and he would craft one of his earliest masterpieces around the pointlessness of war. But with Rules, he satirized the capricious and self-indulgent nature of the “nobles,” arguing that they would rather fiddle away (or in this case, hunt rabbits) while the rest of the nation burned. With its complicated editorial approach and splashes of significant imagery, it stands as the moment when Renoir became a master of the filmmaking form.

The Legend: Imagine being the son of one of the world’s most beloved painters. Now imagine the pressure that comes from your own desire to pursue an career in creativity. For most of his young life, Jean was haunted by his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s legacy. With the family’s place and financial security, he was allowed to indulge in his every whim, even while attending fancy boarding schools that he often ran away from. Incorrigible and yet eager to please, he would constantly look for his famous father’s favor. He would rarely get it. When World War I broke out, Jean was in the cavalry. He would take a bullet in the leg which would leave him with a lifelong limp. After his service, he set out to find his way. His father suggested ceramics. Jean decided to follow his idol, Erich von Stroheim, into the world of film.

In the early ’20s, he began making silents. Their lack of success forced him to sell off some of his father’s painting to pay for his next production. By the 1930s, however, he became celebrated for his social comedies and political dramas. One of his most celebrated, Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) would later become the basis for the ’80s hit Down and Out in Beverly Hills. By 1935, he had allied himself with the Popular Front movement of French left wing thinkers. As Germany came back to power, Jean felt the need to address the disease of war. Grand Illusion (1937) would become an international hit. It was the first foreign film to every receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. He followed that up with La Bete Humaine (1938), another take on the downtrodden, before launching directly into his most pointed attack on the aristocracy, The Rules of the Game 1939).

Many consider this 1939 effort as one of the greatest films of all time, and with good reason. Jean used the old school strategies of his silent days with the new fangled approaches from around the world to make the first truly “modern” movie. As a combination of style and statement, it remains a major cinematic proclamation. The Nazis chased Jean out of Europe, and upon settling in America, he discovered a lack of legitimate projects. While his output was spotty, he stilled produced moments of moviemaking brilliance. Indeed, The Southerner (1945), Diary of a Chambermaid (1945), and The River (1951) showed that he still was a formidable force behind the lens. He returned to Europe with a triptych of terrific Technicolor titles reminiscent of his buoyant birthplace — The Golden Coach (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and Her Men (1956). From then on, he became a kind of chronicler — of his life, the life of his famous father, French cinema of the past and the artform in its modern form. Along with his sizable reputation, Jean left behind a passion for life matched by few. It was a love that transcended the trappings of fame to find a place in the humblest human emotions. Bill Gibron

Alain Resnais

Alain Resnais
(1922 – present)

Three Key Films: Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Underrated: Wild Grass (2009) proves that even well into his golden years, at age 87, Resnais is still in firm control of his distinct vision and continues to explore.

Unforgettable: Though Resnais is a respected auteur, and his work revered by cinephile audiences, he is probably the director on this list who has the most recognizable unforgettable moments, while he still remains one of the least well-known directors on this list, at least to many contemporary film-goers.

The key to Resnais is understanding that his technical bravado is not just some random gag pulled from a bag of tricks; every camera movement is purposeful, every meticulously-edited shift in time impacts the whole picture, every bit of truth dialectically mixed with fiction is meant to evoke emotion, and every word is packed with meaning. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to choose a single moment from one of his films, because literally every moment in a Resnais film is expertly-crafted and unforgettable. This is careful cinema. But in the end, if pressed, I would go with the striking long shot image of figures arranged in tableau vivant in the estate’s garden in Last Year at Marienbad. Resnais’ cutting, abstract use of shadows, the deliberate staging, and innovative sense of cinematic space all reflect the film’s fever-dream quality with a painterly black and white surrealism.

The Legend: Alain Resnais is a stylistic innovator who is rarely given his due, whose close attention to technique and politically-charged content in his own films changed modern filmmaking for the better. Playfully deconstructing key formal filmic tools — narrative, time, and space — through editing, cinematography, and mise en scene, the director is also one of the most versatile to come out of France during his tyro period. Winning an Oscar for the two-reel short film Van Gogh (1949), Resnais is most often associated with the French New Wave movement of filmmakers and contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but also fits neatly into what was dubbed the “Left Bank Group”, which boasted such luminaries as Jacques Demy, Marguerite Duras, Chris Marker, and Agnès Varda (he was the editor for Varda’s La Pointe-Courte). Resnais himself has spoken about feeling comfortable with either label.

Adding to his versatility is Resnais’ effortless blending of cinematic modes into his ouevre, with the seminal, shocking Holocaust documentary Night and Fog holding an important space in his filmography, in which both fiction and non-fiction works are informed by experimentation, memory and time. The interplay between reality and fantasy is a recurring theme for Resnais, no matter what mode he is working within. Not feeling beholden to staying within strict formal guidelines might not seem terribly important today, but in the director’s heyday, mixing these forms of cinema was considered a bold, revolutionary act, which has had direct reprecussions on how movies are constructed today, liberally mixing truth and fiction.

Though his most influential films, Night and Fog, Hiroshima, mon amour, and Last Year at Marienbad were made within a six-year span, Resnais’ dedication to challenging his own legend is evident in later films. The English-language Providence (1977), the spirited My American Uncle (1980), and later films like Smoking/No Smoking (1997), and Private Fears in Private Places (2006), are all stylistically-sound and emotionally resonant, despite the constant claim by English-language critics that his films are cold or distancing for the viewer. If anything, his technical prowess only adds humanness and warmth into the mix by insinuating that the camera, the editing and the other cinematic tools Resnais so richly employs as equally important collaborators of the people and the words. Matt Mazur

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl
(1902 – 2003)

Three Key Films: The Blue Light (1932), Triumph of the Will (1935), Olympia (1938).

Underrated: Impressions of the Deep (2002)

Unforgettable: The famous climactic diving sequence at the end of Olympia, which contains camerawork as graceful and innovative as the divers themselves.

The Legend: Anytime someone talks about Leni Riefenstahl, it is best to get the obvious out of the way. She was a Nazi, a criminal, a propagandist, a liar and a coward. If one is going to defend Riefenstahl, it cannot be for her subject matter. However, if a political movement can indeed have a definitive filmic aesthetic, Fascism is Riefenstahl’s technique, and the fact that modern audiences of her films are simultaneously drawn to and disgusted by her work is a testament to her genius as an artist.

Her two most famous films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, document the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, respectively. The former used the extravagant resources of the Third Reich to portray Hitler as a deity; the film opens with Hitler descending in a plane from above the clouds, and much of what follows shows him speaking on a massive podium, shot from souring cranes that pass over the crowd of thousands of soldiers, moving together in a unified mass. It’s a spectacle that gives you a stomach ache as you’re digesting rather than after. However, its visuals have been copied for film after film, most famously — and, perhaps, successfully — in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Olympia is a different beast. Though much of it seems a rudimentary sports documentary, the sports sequences are full of ecstatic, frenzied editing and camera angles that should be impossible. But it is the opening and closing sequences that reveal what this film is really about: the Fascist obsession with an ideal human form. In the unbearably gorgeous opening, nude athletes flex in slow motion in imitation of Classical sculpture, transposed with images of the acropolis, all set to Wagner. The climactic sequence of Olympia, which reveals the divers maneuvering through the air contains smash cuts so quick, shot from unexpected angles, the divers are made to levitate, hovering between holy and human. These are gutsy moments, and both are no doubt masterpieces of a singular technique, though they’re terribly difficult to defend; they are not quite propaganda, but they are no less sinister, and no less impactful.

Riefenstahl lived a long, infamous life afterwards, during which she was eventually exonerated at the Nuremberg Trials and released two smashing photography books of the Nuba of Sudan, which Susan Sontag famously claimed were as Fascist as Riefenstahl’s films. While she would be the subject of the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1994), she ended her film career with a surprise: Impressions Under Water an underwater documentary so rich and colorful it might take your breath away. Devoid of her characteristic immorality and released on her 100th birthday, the film provides a final example of former dancer Riefenstahl’s life-long pursuit of documenting raw natural beauty and movement on film, even though it was often filtered dangerously through the lens of her own willful, warped ideas about truth. Ideology aside, this makes her strong, distinct directorial vision noteworthy. Austin Dale

Nicolas Roeg

Nicolas Roeg
(1928 – present)

Three Key Films: Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), Insignificance (1985)

Underrated: The Witches (1990) At their core, almost all fairytales are cruel. They cater to the cautionary tale torments of parents and guardians, the desire to warn children away from the given horrors of the rapidly approaching real world. No one was better at this thoroughly modern means of underage education that Roald Dahl, the man responsible for such contemporary classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and this tale of a young boy beset by a gathering coven of frightening female evildoers. Roeg relished the chance to play nasty with the elements of childhood fear, and with the help of Jim Henson and his puppeteers, created an intriguing back and forth between reality and magic. While his former flourishes were always evident (a last act transformation allows his flair to truly flower), The Witches was proof that Roeg had not lost his moviemaking mettle. Instead, he just needed the right outlet for its bizarre bravado.

Unforgettable: The nude swim in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Toward the end of the film, government “fixer” Bernie Casey, a huge, athletic black man, takes a nude swim with his naked blond Caucasian wife. As he rises from the water, glistening and muscled, the couple caresses in a slow-motion embrace meant to make the blood boil in any bigot buying a ticket. Casey’s casual glance toward the camera (and later comments about the children) creates a kind of middle finger to anyone still debating such “should be settled” issues as race and place. It’s pure Roeg — a combination of ideas and incitement, style and a slap in the face that has highlighted his entire career behind the camera.

The Legend: There was never really a time when Nicolas Roeg wasn’t a part of the British filmmaking industry. After a relatively sedate childhood and the mandatory bout of national service, he quickly entered the lowest echelons of the then burgeoning UK scene. He started out as a tea-maker and clapper boy before advancing to editor’s apprentice. He eventually became a camera operator and a second unit cinematographer. It was here where his unusual and often stylized approach was first noticed, working on such endearing titles as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1965) and Petulia (1968). While he excelled at polishing the images being captured, he really wanted to guide them as well, and got his first chance with an unusual project which saw him paired with writer and painter Donald Cammwell on Performance (1968). The story of a gangster (James Fox) who meets up with a pop star (Mick Jagger), it would introduce the rest of the world to Roeg’s complex combination of visual experimentation and emotional rawness.

Yet it was his solo follow-up, 1971’s Walkabout, which truly announced his ascension into the ranks of great UK filmmakers. Performance had not been well received (the studio delayed its release for nearly two years), but few could deny the power in Roeg’s visually arresting Australian travelogue. Even the story, centering around an aboriginal boy who comes across two Caucasian children lost in the Outback had the kind of personal yet prophetic elements that he enjoyed. The heady horror film Don’t Look Back was another brave step in the direction of cinematic deconstruction, Roeg specifically playing with narrative and situational logic in order to achieve a more dream like, reactionary approach. All of this came together in his 1976 masterstroke The Man Who Fell to Earth. Part sci-fi spectacle, mostly coarse social commentary, it proved that, like fellow countryman Ken Russell, this was one auteur that could take on any genre and make it his own. With this string of successful turns, Roeg was able to make any movie he wanted. His decision would seal his fate for the rest of his otherwise illustrious career.

Like Carnal Knowledge in 1971, Bad Timing: A Sexual Obsession (1980) offered a frank and often flummoxing depiction of human relationships and their sometimes brutal physical components. Starring Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell (who would become Roeg’s second wife), it’s surreal juxtaposition of sexual perversion and fragmented storytelling left critics and audiences cold. From then on, the filmmaker would pursue an uneven catalog, from the true life story of a gold prospector Sir Harry Oakes (Eureka! , 1982) to an oddball Dennis Potter Oedipus riff Track 29 (1988). While he did have a “hit” of sorts with his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990), his last two official films — 1995’s Two Deaths and 2007’s Puffball are considered minor and more or less insignificant. Today, again like Russell, he is revered by some, reviled by just as many. In some ways, Roeg’s initial success continues to dog him. Fans want him to merely repeat his early efforts. However, like most great artists, this is one director who always followed his moviemaking muse, wherever it would take him. Bill Gibron

Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer
1920 – 2010

Three Key Films: My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), Love in the Afternoon (1972)

Underrated: The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007). Although he was 87 when it premiered, Rohmer’s final film is alive with the blossom of youth. A pastoral romance set in 5th century Gaul, it follows the star-crossed love of the achingly beautiful title characters through false deaths and masquerades in the dense forests of rural France. It’s delightfully old-fashioned, and distinctly Rohmer.

Unforgettable: Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), the protagonist of Claire’s Knee, leaning over and accidentally touching Claire’s knee. It’s a succinct summary of the desires and temptations that fill Rohmer’s Moral Tales, shot with gentle beauty and coy humor.

The Legend: A subtle, prolific artist with a handful of pet themes, Eric Rohmer was never as flashy or precocious as his French New Wave compatriots. He lacked Godard’s formal fireworks, Truffaut’s allusive energy, or the nonstop experimentation of the Left Bank. But his modest films, trifling as they may initially appear, are bursting with visual and thematic complexity. No one has aestheticized simple conversations quite as effectively as Rohmer, who made them seem naturally cinematic while perceptively reporting on affairs of the heart.

Like many of the other New Wave directors, Rohmer started out as a critic with Cahiers du cinéma, which he edited. He was nearly 40 when he directed his first feature film, 1959’s The Sign of Leo, but he didn’t receive international attention until La Collectionneuse (1967), the third of his Six Moral Tales. The Moral Tales are both the start and the centerpiece of Rohmer’s career; loosely inspired by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), each one is about a man who has pledged himself to one woman but is tempted by another.

This outline sounds like a facile morality play, but the films themselves are multifaceted and expressive. They merge personal conundrums with discussions of philosophy and the arts, simultaneously developing Rohmer’s many interests. The best example of this is My Night at Maud’s, which is essentially one long conversation between the protagonist Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), his friend Vidal, and the vivacious Maud. Shot in wintry black and white, the film interweaves Jean-Louis’s very Catholic moral dilemma with their neverending, digressive dialogue. It understandably remains Rohmer’s best-recognized masterpiece.

Although his characters are often selfish, solipsistic intellectuals, Rohmer reveals surprising tenderness in their stories. Even when his characters are at their most conflicted, the films retain a deep serenity, sometimes aided by the gorgeous cinematography of Nestor Almendros, who shot five of Rohmer’s films. Moving with ease between cute and melancholy, they are, above all, pleasant experiences; it’s our gain that Rohmer kept working diligently and inconspicuously for half a century, equally adept at lavish period pieces and contemporary, no-frills romances. Low-key but vital, his voice persists even now with poignant tales of love and lust. Andreas Stoehr

Roberto Rossellini

Roberto Rossellini
(1906 – 1977)

Three Key Films: Paisan (1946), Stromboli (1950), Voyage in Italy (1954)

Underrated: The Rise of Louis XIV (1966)

Unforgettable: The sudden suicide of the boy in Postwar Germany, emotionally ravaged and unable to comprehend a life without war, at the climax of Germany War Zero (1948).

The Legend: Roberto Rossellini devoted his life to documenting people. These were good guys, bad guys, princes, paupers, nuns and whores, and he put them under a microscope with a wide lens. Every Rossellini character has a context and a sociopolitical meaning, and yet every Rossellini character has his or her own soul. When he became one of the most important figures in Neorealist film, he manufactured a filmic language of storytelling by and for the masses; he put the camera in their hands and assembled masterpieces from their footage — films that were as manipulative and overwrought as a Carravagio and as intimate and subtle and humanistic as an Edward Hopper. These are the films he is most famous for, but Rossellini continued to make films, working in as many styles as stories he told.

When he and Ingrid Bergman collaborated on five films — all of them sensational and all of them almost unseen — he examined the postwar world, thinking forward with astonishing clarity (Francois Truffaut, when writing for Cahiers du Cinema, essentially called 1954’s Voyage to Italy the first modern film). And in the 1960’s, when modernism took over European film, he took a step forward and a step back by moving to television and crafting minimalist, textual historical dramas like his indispensable The Rise of Louis XIV, becoming more and more experimental as his subjects became more conventional. We’re talking about a director who made biopics — on Socrates and Blaise Pascal, no less! — and a travel documentary on India, and all of them are as conservative as they are wildly impressionistic.

How exactly should Rossellini be remembered? What is his legacy? He is an acknowledged master, yet only a handful of his films are widely known, visible and appreciated. Something must be done about this before the work of a passionate, versatile, innovative genius disappears entirely. Austin Dale

Ken Russell

Martin Scorsese

Ousmane Sembène

Ousmane Sembène
(1923 – 2007)

Three Key Films: Xala (1975), Ceddo (1977), Moolaade (2004)

Underrated: Mandabi (1968)

Unforgettable: Ceddo, the Imam forces the community to convert to Islam at gunpoint, just after the Catholic missionary has a hilarious daydream sequence in his empty, make-shift church about leading a massive congregation. What on the surface might be read as an anti-Islam diatribe becomes a powerful condemnation of religion as an immoral excuse for colonial ambition.

The Legend: Chances are very good that you’ve never seen a Sembene film, but it’s not your fault. They’re impossible to see, and difficult to sit through. Known as the Father of African Film, Sembene had a style all his own, crafted around his specific moral arguments and with little foreign aesthetic influence. His films are impossible to compare to anyone else’s, which makes their singular achievements even greater and even more emotionally wrenching.

Sembene’s films are complicated and impossible to properly synopsize. His complicated plots are every bit as important as the political minutiae, the gender commentary, and his constant condemnation of colonialism, and even though none of these ideas are ever subtle, they are frequently ignored. Take Xala, for example. It is the story of a polygamist senator who, upon a third marriage he can’t afford, is cursed with impotence. Over the course of the film, he goes nuts trying to get his virility back, and his dilemma comes to represent his failure as a man: he is a corrupt politician, a failed businessman, a misogynist, and, desperate to become a modern man, submits to colonialism for power and what he assumes is prestige, bragging about how he washes his car with bottled water. The story in a Sembene film is always a parable, but the characters are so compelling and often, so hilarious, that they often get lost in Sembene’s subtle, primitive style. However, upon repeated viewings, the themes in Sembene’s films become so complex, yet so complete, that the films become gifts that keep on giving. Austin Dale

Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk
(1897 – 1987)

Three Key Films: All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), Imitation of Life (1959)

Underrated: The Tarnished Angels (1958) Long out of print in the US, this adaptation of William Faulkner’s Pylon stars Sirk standbys Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, and Robert Stack. It truly is unfortunate that this film has fallen by the wayside as much as it has. One of the only late films by Sirk to be shot in black-and-white, the tragic tale of a barnstormer (Stack) and the people surrounding him was believed by Faulkner to be the greatest filmed version of one of his works. Lacking any of the aspects that have led audiences to accuse Sirk of “campiness” — the occassionally lurid technicolor, seemingly overly pithy scripts, and sweeping orchestral soundtracks — The Tarnished Angels in fact almost might be one of his more accessible works for today’s audience. A re-release is necessary, without question.

Unforgettable: In Written on the Wind, Mary-lee (Dorothy Malone) is a nymphomaniac, who’s every action is meant to entice Rock Hudson’s character. Upon returning home from her latest tryst, she goes upstairs and begins dancing to loud, tempestuous music. Her father, an exhausted, aging millionaire, begins walking up the stairs to discipline her. But the music and sexuality is somehow too much for him, even behind the door of his daughter’s room. He has a heart attack, and falls down the long, winding staircase that fills the foyer of the family estate. He dies, pretty much without question, a victim of his daughter’s sexuality.

The Legend: Although still relatively well-known, the reputation of this German immigrant auteur has been woefully tarnished for years. His most famous and best-remembered work is mis-remembered — or rather, unfairly marginalized — as commercial fodder produced for the “Women’s Market”. Probably his most popular film at this point remains his 1959 remake of John Stahl’s Imitation of Life, and this only because of its wide-ranging scope and tearful ending.

Despite that fact, this director is essential most likely because of the sheer density and openness to interpretation of his most famous films. Although he was incredibly prolific in his years working for the German film industry, the melodramas he made for Universal in the 1950s are what film fans remember him most for. Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, and other works from the same period exist as singularly poetic works of (mostly Technicolor) genius.

When critically analyzing his works, something curious becomes clear. Sirk seems to be either treat purely as a social commentator or a creator of camp classics. While there certainly is a little bit of truth to each claim, it doesn’t really go far enough to explain why he is an Essential Director. The complexly arranged sets and lighting, combined with the vivid, almost expressionist performances by actors for the most part otherwise known for milquetoast roles points towards a fundamental understanding of the human soul, when placed in the cinematic realm.

The idea of what can be done in a filmic space can and should be incredibly flexible; and while a red light in the cabin of Robert Stack’s private plane in Written on the Wind may certainly be treated both as a symbolic object representing alcoholism and a lurid amplifier of emotion, it may also just be meant to show a singular wrongness in the cinematic world. An endless parade of mirrors, lights, and windows always place us between the characters and their problems, at the same time making clear the fundamental difference and affinity between the audience and the film. Thus, self-reflexivity is introduced to the world of the commercial genre film. And they’re entertaining as hell, to. Mark Schiffer