Thursday, 1 May 2014

"Les Enfants du Paradis" and "Mephisto" head my list of the 25 greatest foreign-language films of all time

When, over the years, I’ve compiled a list of my all-time favourite films (usually in my head while trying to fall asleep), I’ve been slightly surprised by how many of them aren’t American or British. When I was a teenager, the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Frederico Fellini were all the rage. Unfortunately, neither director did much for me, so I developed a bit of a prejudice against foreign films which I only rid myself of by spending far too many afternoons at the Arts Cinema in Cambridge getting to know Russian, German and Japanese pictures and pre-Nouvelle Vague French classics. I first saw many of the films on the following list during those three years when I should have been studying hard.

What do I mean by “great”? Well, I don’t mean that they’re insanely watchable (although many of them are) or that I’d watch them time and time again, or that they’re technically perfect (far from it, in some cases). They’re films that are not clinically designed to evoke one or more simple responses from the viewer: they are not meant merely to thrill or amuse or “take you out of yourself” or leave you looking forward to the sequel. Neither are they primarily propaganda, designed to garner support for social action or war or a particular religious or political system (or, even worse, a specific politician). Of course, there may very well be messages in some of these films, and the political or religious beliefs of the creators may be obvious - but they’re essentially about character, about what makes us human: they make us think, and respond emotionally, and make us see the world differently – they change us, but not in a prescribed way. In other words, the films on my list are art proper – not primarily art as entertainment or propaganda.

Enough philosophy. Here’s the list (in no particular order, apart from No.1):

1. Les Enfants du Paradis (dir. Marcel Carné, 1945)
Simply the greatest film ever released. It has a number of attributes in the minus column: (a) it was shot on a shoestring in impossible circumstances (during the German occupation of Paris), (b) the supposedly gorgeous courtesan the four leading men are fighting over is well past her sell-by date and wasn’t that irresistible to start with, (c) the lead character is, for God’s sake, a mime artist (!!!), (d) everyone in it is French, with the “Frenchness” dial set to 11 (zut allors!), and (e) it goes on forever (3’15” running time). Despite all that, this costume drama set in the 1820s/1830s is the most gloriously romantic, rivetting, visually stunning, life-affirming masterpiece it has ever been my pleasure to sit through (and if anyone knows why my DVD box for the film is now empty, please let me know, or I shall have to buy another copy).

2. The Gospel According to St Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Passolini, 1964)
Stunningly original version of the gospel story. It was filmed in the Italian neorealist style, with Christ as an angry peasant revolutionary, and with amateurs in most of the roles (Christ is played by a 19-year old Spanish economics student, and the older Mary is the director’s mum): despite all that, it is the most thought-provoking, “real” and haunting depiction of the gospels I have ever seen. Magnificent.

3. Wild Strawberries (dir. Ingmar Bergman
Wonderful, feel-good comedy from Scandinavia’s monarch of mirth… yes, I’m joking:

4. The Seventh Seal (dir: Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
See No. 3 above.

5. Ivan the Terrible Pts I & II ( Sergei Eisenstein,
Like all Eisenstein films, it’s propaganda – but, unlike most of them, it transcends its primary purpose to become a psychologically rich and complex work of art.

6. Andrei Rublev (dir: Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
Set in medieval Russia, based loosely on the life of the eponymous icon-painter. Given that it was a film about the importance of religious faith made in the Soviet Union, I think it’s safe to describe the director as brave – insanely so. Obviously, it was banned for years in the USSR. It stunned me when I first saw it at university:

7. Tokyo Story (dir: Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
I wrote about this wonderful film here, where I also wrote about the following astonishing picture:

8. The Passion of Joan of Arc (dir: Carl Dryer, 1928)

9. Ashes & Diamonds (dir: Andrzej Wajda, 1958)
Cool, gun-toting, existentialist Poles resist the Russians.

10. Mephisto (dir: István Szabó, 1981)
The greatest film about the rise of the Nazis, featuring one of the most powerful performances ever committed to celluloid – the shimmering Klaus Maria Brandauer as the actor who sells his soul to the devil, who, in turn, happens to bear a marked resemblance to Hermann Göring.

11. Quai des Brunes (dir: Marcel Carné, 1938)
One of the very first true noir films, featuring the great Jean Gabin and humungous quantities of fog.

12. La Belle et la Bête (dir: Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Stunningly beautiful, visually – a fantastic, sparkling, jewel-box of a film, which I celebrated here.

13. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)
This actually is a wonderfully elegant, sunny, life-affirming comedy of manners directed by Ingmar Bergman. No, really!

14. Le Jour se lève (dire: Marcel Carné, 1939)
Jean Gabin shoots someone and then barricades himself in a room at the top of a guesthouse while the police try to get at him.

15. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (dir: F.W. Murnau, 1922)

16. Vampyr (dir Carl Theodor Dryer, 1931)
Bizarre and deeply creepy horror film made by a Dane in Germany.

17. Metropolis (dir: Fritz Lang, 1927)
Okay, this contains some of the most ludicrously over-the-top acting in the history of cinema, but it is nevertheless one of the greatest works of the creative imagination produced in the 20th Century.

18. M (dir: Fritz Lang, 1931)
Peter Lorre in pant-wettingly terrifying form.

19. The Lives of Others (dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
One of only three films from the last 30 years that make it into the list - and they're all from the Noughties.

20. Seven Samurai (dir: Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

21. Alexander Nevsky (dir: Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)
Another Eisenstein film about a historical figure which transcends its propagandist purpose.

22. Pan‘s Labyrinth (dir: Guillermo del Torro, 2006)
Astonishing, unsettling, brutal, magical Mexican-Spanish masterpiece set during the Spanish Civil War. Don ;t watch the following scene if you're prone to nightmares:

23. Ikiru (To Live) (dir: Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
Based on Tolstoy’s tale, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, this is the almost unbearably poignant story of an elderly bureaucrat who discovers he has less than a year to live. Takashi Shimura is quite brilliant in the lead role.

24. Aguirre, Wrath of God (Dir: Werner Herzog, 1972)
I found this overwrought, vaguely risible and rather unpleasant when I saw it – but it has stayed with me ever since. I’m not a great fan of art as a form of punishment, but there’s a place for it.

25. I’d like to end with a serious animated film, simply because they’ve given me so much pleasure in recent years – and despite the fact that they’re not strictly foreign language, because they are invariably dubbed. It’s a toss-up between Spirited Away (dir: Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) and the Israeli film, Waltz with Bashir (dir: Ari Folman, 2008).


  1. I have been studying your interesting list. Have seen 18 of your 25 films. I have not nicked your copy "Les Enfants de Paradis" although I do have a copy of the script [did you know that Arletty spent the war shacked up with a Luftwaffe officer at the Ritz?] If you nominate that film perhaps you should also consider Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" [1937] and "La Regle de Jou" [1939].
    Lang's "M" contains an incredible performance from Peter Lorre.
    Around the mid-50s Hollywood seemed to lose it ability to introduce and exploit great European acting talent [Garbo, Dietrich, Ingrid Bergmann] and made a mess of several very good Scandinavian and Germanic actors [ Bibi Andersen, Harriet Andersen, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Mads Mikkelsen, Stellan Skarsgaard, Peter Lorre, Oscar Werner, Maximilian and Maria Schell, Klaus Maria Brandauer - Mephisto was good but the 1985 "Colonel Redl" was better - Hardy Kruger, Jurgen Prochnow, Sebastian Koch etc etc].
    The peak of their Hollywood careers seems to be in securing the role of the great villain in a James Bond film - Gerd Frobe [Goldfinger], Mikkelsen [Le Chiffre] and Brandauer [Largo].
    It will be interesting to see what happens to Javier Bardem [another Bond villain] and Christoph Walz [they already have three Oscars between them].
    Other films for your consideration - "Das Boot" [1981] which is a wonderful war war film and two Danish films from 2012 and starring Mikkelsen [ "Royal Affair" and "The Hunt" - both Oscar-nominated]. These are the thoughts of Mouhrino....

  2. Thanks, Mourinho.

    I have the two French classics you mentioned lined up to watch again on my TV (via YouTube). I've never seen Colonel Redl, and must do so. Thoroughly enjoyed "Das Boot" (one of your nephew's favourites) and I haven't seen the Danish films. Lot of catching up to do!