Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980
Reviewed by Diane Nemec Ignashev


by András Bálint Kovács. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 428 pp., illus. Hardcover: $55.00 and Paperback: $22.50.

In , Fellini’s acerbic critic, Carini, complains that cinema (in 1963) lags fifty years behind the other arts. In Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980 András Kovács offers a new take on how cinema not only caught up, but also “found itself in a distinguished cultural position within Western culture, with filmmakers able to consider themselves the eminent representatives of Western culture.”

In Kovács’s scheme, the “-ism,” within which cinema achieved maturity was “late modernism.” Two modernisms? Borrowing his definition from Clement Greenberg, Kovács underscores Greenberg’s identification of “modernism globally with one general trait: aesthetic self-reflection.” Cinema, Kovács explains, underwent two encounters with modernism. “During at least the first sixty years of film history, one could not reasonably speak about a cinematic tradition whatsoever.” In its first encounter, in the 1920s, cinema “reflect[ed] on artistic or cultural traditions outside of the cinema.” Only once it invented its own tradition did cinema become self-reflective. This occurred, Kovács elaborates, during its second encounter with modernism—“late modernism”—which was “not even an entirely inherent cinematic process[, but] cinema’s response to the postwar modernist wave in drama, literature, music, and the arts…. Cinema as a cultural tradition was first invented by the auteurs of the French New Wave.”

Enter the art film as the vehicle of European cinematic modernism. “As cinema approached other modern arts… a special institutional practice of making films came into being: commercial art cinema.” To distinguish commercial art cinema from commercial entertainment movies and the avant-garde, respectively, Kovács prefers formal criteria to esthetics or intentionality. “When we speak of ‘art films’ as opposed to ‘commercial entertainment films,’ we are referring not to aesthetic qualities but to certain styles, narrative procedures….”

Having defined his art historical terms, his time frame, and his neoformalist approach in Part I, in Part II Kovács turns to modern cinema’s formal “procedures” per se “as they depict the main esthetic formal principles [of modernism]: abstraction, subjectivity, and reflexivity.” His method is descriptive, not normative, and minimally reductive. Drawing on 241films (charted by country and year in the book’s appendix), in seven chapters he maps the “basic formal variations of modern cinema in the 1960s and 1970s” in terms of “[n]arrative, genre, visual style, and general compositional principles.” Get out your pencil. In Part II, Kovács challenges readers accustomed to Chapter X – Country Y—Epoch Z accounts of film history to put aside geography and chronology in favor of formal criteria. Modernism, he reiterates, was an international movement that knew no extra-esthetic boundaries, a concept he demonstrates convincingly as he maneuvers freely across Western, Eastern, and Central Europe, with occasional side trips to Japan and the Americas.

In Part III, Kovács recombines the ideas of Part I with the criteria described in Part II to tell the “stylistic history” of modern cinema, beginning with its roots in film noir and neorealism. He first restates his thesis about cinema’s two encounters with modernism, this time focusing on those periods’ different positionings of director, work of art, and viewer. In early modernism, he argues, films like Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera constructed a direct relationship between the work and the viewer, circumventing the director. In late modernism, the auteur emerged as chief mediator between the work and viewer. Kovács then reviews film criticism’s construction of the concept of auteur in the 1950s as the epistemological source of late modernist cinema’s self-referentiality. Next follows a description of the distinctive formal features of new cinema in the 1950s, principally narrative strategies borrowed from film noir and Hitchcock that “fuse human acts, represented in narratives, with the representation of mental processes or of stories of human acts that develop into tales about pure mental processes.” In other words, rather than arguing that the new cinema represented a rejection of classicism and neorealism, Kovács locates late modernist cinema’s early self-referentiality in forms borrowed from neorealism and classicism that make the viewer conscious of the auteur (and her/his subjectivity). To illustrate, Kovács concludes Part III by revisiting the films of Roberto Rossellini, who, although he himself rejected modernism as an idea, “created a form that showed [other directors] a certain way of transcending neorealism” into modernism.

Part IV, Kovács’s “esthetic history of… modern forms, their development, and their mutual influences,” is essentially a history of auteurship. These four chapters follow a common outline: introduction to the period in art historical and cultural-political terms; description of distinctive formal strategies during that period; close analyses of key films drawn from diverse traditions to demonstrate, in conclusion, how their (often quite diverse) formal compositional strategies derive from common modernist principles. In his first chapter, on “The Romantic Period, 1959–1961,” for example, Kovács isolates the “disappearance of image depth” as a formal strategy that was “a consequence of a deeper phenomenon of one of modernism’s fundamental trends, which aims as disrupting the organic relationship between characters and their environment.” He traces this formal feature and accompanying disruption of the relationship between characters and their environments through films by Antonioni and Rossellini, Bergman, and then Bresson, Godard, and Kawalerowicz. He concludes by way of the lone individual (read the lone auteur) with a short tangent on how modern cinematic Romanticism destabilized classical forms (like deep focus) so as to express subjective auteurial attitudes much in the same way as nineteenth-century literary Romantics played with classical norms to express their subjectivity. Moments like these, when Kovács’s erudition puts cinema studies in their larger art historical context, set Screening Modernism apart.

Ensuing chapters—“Established Modernism, 1962–1966,” “The Year 1966,” “Political Modernism, 1967–1975,” and “The Death of the Auteur––mark the rise, peak, and wane of auteur cinema. Not surprisingly, Kovács cites Fellini’s as signaling cinema’s maturation into “established modernism”: “All three essential principles of the modern film were represented in in a very special mixture: subjectivity in the form of a highly personal, even overtly autobiographic story; critical reflexivity in the sense that film mediates over the use and the powers of filmmaking…; abstraction in the sense that the story is entirely ‘mentally based….’” What is surprising are the connections Kovács then draws among otherwise very disparate films that all share a debt to Fellini: “Beyond its artistic qualities, its self-reflexive and all-embracing character made the archetype of the modern filmmaker’s subjective vision… and inspired at least five important films about film: I am Curious Yellow (1966), Wajda’s Everything for Sale (1967), Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), and Wenders’ The State of Things (1982).”

In his final chapter Kovács maps the decline of modernism in the mid–1970s as a productive impulse in European art cinema. He dates the “The Death of the Auteur” with The Mirror (1975) by Andrei Tarkovsky, the first of late modernist auteurs to die and one of three auteurs addressed in his earlier chapter on “The Year 1966,” where Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Bergman’s Persona, and Antonioni’s Blowup were shown to mark the summit and turning point in late modernism’s development. Back in 1966 all three films, despite their many differences, had affirmed the modernist creed that the significance of the work of art lay in its own existence, outside of which there was nothing. “Nothingness is the only metaphysical category modernism accepts.” In 1974 with The Mirror, Kovács argues, Tarkovsky violated the modernist contract by attempting to transcend nothingness. Peter Greenaway, whose The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) Kovács compares to Antonioni’s Blowup, took the opposite approach, denying the very existence of nothingness. “In Blow-up [sic] nothingness is behind the picture, in The Draughtsman’s Contract nothing else is behind the picture but another picture.” Postmodernism in Kovács’s scheme is a rejection of the nothingness that makes something of the work of art.

Kovács refrains from speculating on why this evolutionary step occurred in the history of cinema, precisely because––remember his original presentation of cinematic modernism?––the reasons lie beyond cinema proper in the history of art. Still, Screening Modernism would have benefited from an epilogue that discussed the transition from modernism to postmodernism with the same detail as was afforded the transition from neorealism and classicism to modernism. Which brings me to a larger frustration with the book––the editing. Kovács’s material and the train of his thought are complex enough not to be obscured by inconsistent chapter subheadings, font styles that blur outline levels in chapters, and sentences littered with grammatical errors. Any book that can explain Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie as intelligently as Screening Modernism deserves more help making sense of itself than Kovács got from his editors. (Judging by online reviews, the Hungarian version of this book is more colloquial and easier to read.)

For its faults, though, Kovács’s book lives up to its promises, and more. Screening Modernism will not only enhance your understanding of the French New Wave and German New Cinema; it will jog your conceptualization of developments to follow––from US “indie” film to Iranian New Cinema and China’s Fifth Generation.

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Diane Nemec Ignashev is a Professor of Russian and Liberal Arts at Carleton College, where she teaches film history and media studies in addition to Russian film history. She is currently completing a compendium to Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark.