European Cinemas; & Violence, Prejudice, Crime

Tony Mason | Published in History Today
  • European Cinemas: European Societies 1939-1990
    Pierre Sorlin – Routledge, 1991 - viii + 247 pp. - £9.99
  • Violence, Prejudice, Crime: Films Of Social Conscience In The Silent Era
    Kevin Brownlow - Jonathan Cape - xxvi + 579 pp. - £55

Before the age of television the cinema was the one sector of the amusement industry that could truly be labelled entertainment for the masses. At the peak of its popularity in Britain in 1946, 1,600 million seats were sold. In Germany and Italy the record was 800 million in 1955 and 1956 respectively. The French cinema sold 400 million seats in 1947, its best year. Yet by the end of the 1980s the decline was so complete that the total attendance in all four countries was less than 400 million a year. But films were still being made and the cinema, like the osprey, had become a protected species, sponsored by big business and television and shielded from the full irnpact of the market by the state.

In the Europe of the 1980s an average of 350 films a year were made. At least two thirds failed at the box office. Even in Britain 480 films were produced in the 80s, only 200 less than in the 1950s though in the same period the audience had declined by 93 per cent. All of these facts are to be found in Pierre Sorlin's book. But he is not very concerned with facts. As he writes, 'it is in images that most people's aware- ness of their situation originates, and that is the reason why images, distorted though they are, are significant documents for historians'.

Sorlin is interested in how often particular representations of particular objects were offered to the cinema audience. Images shape perception and knowledge. Endless repetition of the same images, for example, is likely to reinforce conformity among those exposed to them. Familiar pictures become accepted as reality itself. Sorlin believes that films have something to tell us about short or medium term changes in society. Images reproduce what existed previously in the world but was not acknowledged as worth noticing. In order to explore these notions he concentrates on the cinema of four western European countries between 1939 and 1990 - Britain, France, Germany and Italy, and focuses on particular themes or issues. Separate chapters compare representations of the Great War of 1914-18 in the films of the four countries: the handling by film makers of resistance to fascism: the impact of and responses to Hollywood by European film makers in what he calls the Golden Age: the challenge to Hollywood during the watershed decade of the 1960s and beyond, and the changing image of the city in film.

The result is an interesting book, though rather like some modern films it is likely to bewilder the unwary. There are fascinating and lucid vignettes about the difference between the classic and the modern movie: the use and meaning of the car in films: the changing representation of women. But it is a book in which some of the parts are more impressive than the whole. This reader remained unconvinced that film could provide historians with insights about society which they could not obtain by other means. What do the biggest hits of the cinema uniquely tell us about the contemporary world? Sorlin is aware of the hazards in trying to make a direct connection between the filmed image and social change. In the end it was not entirely clear whether he thought he had done it.

Kevin Brownlow has a walk-on part in Sorlin's book because in 1964 he finished a controversial film, It Happened Here, about life in Britain following a successful German invasion in 1940. Far from all the British being united against the common enemy the film suggests that there would have been many British collaborators. This was not a popular film but, according to Sorlin, a sign that western Europe was ready to take another look at resistance in which the idea of consensus would be seriously questioned.

Brownlow's book is the final part of a trilogy on the silent cinema on which he has worked for over twenty years. The Parades Gone By was published in 1968 and The War, The West, and The Wilderness in 1979. Now comes a sumptuously illustrated exploration of films of social conscience in the silent era. Chapters on censorship, sex, drugs, prohibition, crime, political corruption, women's suffrage, prisons, poverty, foreigners and the struggles between capital and labour follow in breathless succession. Brownlow clearly demonstrates that although most of the films themselves have not survived, a close study of the trade press, fan magazines and daily newspapers together with occasional interviews with the people involved, shows that the social conscience film did exist.

This is an important contribution to both the history, and the preservation, of the films of the early period of the silent era. Whether social historians more generally can learn much from these films must be open to doubt. Brownlow was particularly excited by his discovery, in a private collection, of a film made by strikers during the Passaic textile strike of 1926. The film was made in order to raise money for the strikers and is that particularly difficult animal, a mixture of newsreels and reconstructions. For Brownlow, the faces in the film 'belong to another world... ancient, gnarled, peasant faces. The presence of these almost old people from Central Europe... gives the film a poignant sense of reality no reconstruction could achieve'. For the labour or social historian, it is fascinating to have it hut can it do more than add a footnote to the history of the strike? Can film help us to get at those historical parts other sources cannot reach?

  • Tony Mason is author of Sport in Britain (Faber & Faber, 1988).
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