This page as PDF

Film Authorship



A filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman would seem one of the most obvious candidates for the term auteur, as someone deemed worthy to be the equivalent of an author of a novel. His themes are usually very personal, even to the point of focusing on aspects of his numerous marriages and relationships, and he often casts in leading roles one of the women with whom he’s been involved. He also writes his scripts, thus eliminating Gore Vidal’s huffy claims that the author should be the person who at least puts pen to paper and writes the darn thing. But we’ll ignore Vidal’s belief that, for example, The Best Man, adapted from Vidal’s play, shouldn’t have been a Franklin J. Schaffner movie, as the marquee suggested, but a Gore Vidal play filmed. If a film owes most of its worth to the script, then the critics who coined the phrase politique des auteurs in the fifties in France, would say then it’s not a work of authorship at all.

For a film to be auteurist it must first and foremost be a piece of visual art, so filmmakers who would often work from apparently mediocre source material – filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Robert Aldrich – would be respected for what they did visually with that source. So let’s return to Ingmar Bergman and accept that though he makes personal films, that he writes his scripts and sticks his own lovers in his work, what makes Bergman a great auteur is his vision: how he films, and how he films, in particular, faces.

Often in cinema the close-up is a reaction, a sort of cinematic exclamation mark that clearly signals something significant. This can come in the form of the reaction shot, so that when, say a meteorite is hurling itself towards earth, the film will cut to shocked looking faces, or, again, if somebody socially deviates from the norm, there is someone on hand to give the accusatory glance of disapproval. It’s also often used in tense shot/counter-shots where a couple are arguing and the tenser the argument the closer to the face the camera moves. Sometimes there are filmmakers who will hold on a face almost as a gag: the Sergio Leone westerns are good on exploring a face amusingly for any hint of treachery, greed or malice.

But has anybody explored the face with such mastery as Ingmar Bergman? He’s the sort of director who will cake a face in make-up just so that we can see it even more nakedly: so that the make-up brings out just under the surface all the broken pores, laugh lines and raised moles that a scrubbed face would paradoxically half-hide. Bergman knows that make-up is all very well for hiding discoloration, but can’t do much with raised bumps, indentations and wrinkles, as we can see in the face of one of the sisters in The Silence. What Bergman will show is a face with a living history – it is not a reactive face, the sort of face we’ve proposed above, but a reflective one. Sometimes this face will be reflective actively, as when we see Liv Ullmann in Saraband looking at photos at the beginning of the film. Sometimes it will demand the reflections of others, as when Erland Josephson’s character in Cries and Whispers looks at Ullmann’s face and describes how it has aged, commenting on each line and wrinkle and suggesting its history.

On other occasions, though, Bergman will show us a face that we look at and reflect upon, as with one of the sister’s in The Silence. This isn’t to say Bergman films only faces, of course not. But if we’re looking for the key to his work, and what distinguishes him from other filmmakers it helps if we start with his use of many close-ups.  In Persona, for example, there is a scene famously showing the two faces of the leading actresses disappearing into each other, and frequently he offers exchanges that aren’t just arguments, but fundamental battles of identity.

In Bergman selfhood is always a precarious thing, and it’s as though he wants to move so close to the face that he obliterates its distinguishing features, and brings out merely its flaws. It’s there in the scene from The Silence where the ‘attractive’, healthy sister nevertheless looks much less beautiful than she would do if she had been given a conventional medium shot or close-up. Bergman himself believes that “Our work begins with the human face…The possibility of drawing near to the human face is the primary originality and the distinctive quality of the cinema.”  Finally his authorship lies in just how much further he goes in using the close-up than just about any other filmmaker.


There are always a few close-ups to be found in Werner Herzog’s work, but during his great period from the early seventies to the mid-eighties, he gives the impression of remaining visually aloof. As critic Manny Farber believed in Negative Space, “he keeps his camera detached, emotionally as well as actually distanced.” This distance is because in Herzog’ work man is usually more an element of his environment than of society, and it is as if his camera style doesn’t need the conventions of cinema which are often social conventions: after all, when we think of the establishing shot, medium shot and the close-up do they not so often resemble our own relationship with other people? How comfortable would we feel if someone immediately invaded our space without giving us the time to survey, judge etc. the appearance and behaviour of the other in advance?

For Herzog though the purpose is to find “images that will sit deeply inside us”, so he’ll think nothing of holding an extended long shot that would ostensibly lead to a specific shot of a character’s actions. But Herzog’s happy to hold the shot so that we’re not thinking of the social aspect (the move towards a closer view of the character), but of the wider world of which man is just a part. When at the beginning of Aguirre, Wrath of God, he shows us the astonishing Andes mountains, they are too breathtaking to pass for an establishing shot, if we accept that usually what we expect from the establishing shot is merely the precursor to the anthropocentric, people centred image. In Aguirre, Wrath of God we get a series of establishing shots of the Andes before we get to see a character’s face.

We can perhaps suggest then that if Bergman is an auteur chiefly for the way he films the visage, Herzog is significant for the way he makes metaphysical the establishing shot. He wants the establishing shot to sit deeply within us: so deeply that we don’t ‘look forward’ to the medium shot and the close up the way we might in most films.  Of course Herzog has to find landscapes that justify this elongation of the establishing shot, and he’s one of the world’s great peripatetic filmmakers. A number of his films have been set in the Amazonian jungle – fiction films like Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, as well as the documentary, Wings of Hope. But he’s also searched out Australia for Where the Green Ants Dream, the US for Stroszek and Africa for Cobre Verde and the documentary Fata Morgana. He even showed up several years ago in a mock documentary about searching for the Loch Ness Monster.

Herzog isn’t just a filmmaker of pretty pictures; there’s an underpinning ethos to his work that might best be described as the anti-social fixed idea. Frequently he focuses on characters that have some crazy mission they’re determined to follow through on no matter how impossible the task will seem. We might think of the titular character in Fitzcarraldo who’s determined to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazonian jungle; or Herzog himself in the documentary Le Soufriere, where the director and his cameraman determine to go up to the mouth of a volcano that is soon to explode.

We might also think back to Dersu Uzala, and wonder if Kurosawa’s film could have been Herzog’s. If it couldn’t it lies in Dersu’s simplicity: he’s at one with nature and survives through it. Though at the end of Dersu Uzala the trapper briefly tries to integrate into civilization, this is like a coda; for Herzog the contrast is usually very present. Herzog’s theme is, to borrow from Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, and frequently he shows the contrast between a natural world and a civilized one, with the latter too devoid of chance, risk and spiritual possibilities to alleviate the souls of his often tortured characters and documentary subjects. That Herzog moves between the two forms – fiction and documentary at will – suggests as well that there is little between the two of them: that he is simply and consistently interested in exploring being, no matter if it is true that the documentaries are often more intimate and less austere in their framing.


Lars von Trier is an auteur in a paradoxical mode. Early in his career – in films like Element of the Crime and Europa – he was a filmmaker of careful compositions and beautiful lighting who directed the actors in such a way that they were expected to fit into the design, not generate it. And then around the mid-nineties, when he made Breaking the Waves and went on to make The Idiots, he seemed to be looking for a new form, a form that would work much more from the performers, and that any careful composition and lighting would constantly dissolve around the needs of the actor. From the constrained acting of his early films to the unconstrained acting of some of his later ones, von Trier seems interested first and foremost in formal experimentation. As he himself says, he wants every image to have an idea behind it. He doesn’t want to put the camera in the most obvious place for the dramatic action to develop, but wants either the camera to dictate the space for the action, or to assume the space is open to further possibilities than the given notion of a set. So in Element of the Crime and Europa the scenes are very much set based, and only a certain type of performance can come out of the constrained setting. Thus usually the performances would be stiff, regular and portentous, with an air of fate hanging over the characters as they accept they’re trapped within a world so obviously created by the filmmaker.

In these two early films you hardly feel the characters can breathe so claustrophobic and enclosed is the von Trier universe. In Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, though, the worlds are opened up to create the impression of realism missing from the earlier works, but he offers other devices that make the films nevertheless still self-conscious. In the seventies set Breaking the Waves he includes fixed frame digitally enhanced inserts at the end of each section of the film, accompanied by a seventies song blaring out on the soundtrack. In The Idiots the filmmaker interviews the characters who briefly set up a ‘spassing’ commune in the film, turning it into a film within a film.

So whether the film gives the impression of formalism or realism, for von Trier the most important thing seems to be the generation of an idea, of a conceit. Most of his films have a hypothetical dimension, as though an idle thought gets turned into a film, and then out of the idle thought comes something very serious. So for example in The Five Obstructions, von Trier gets a sixties filmmaker Jorgen Leth to remake his own The Perfect Human, but with von Trier putting particularly horrible obstructions in his way, including Leth having to eat a huge, luxurious meal in the slums of Calcutta. In another film that von Trier cooked up but didn’t direct, The Exhibited, he turned the whole Big Brother idea on its head, by putting a group of people together in a house and, after giving them a quick character summation, allowed them to improvise thereafter. The only problem is there are lights which go off and help dictate their actions, and a connecting sub-plot to ants in New Mexico who are influenced by and then influence their behaviour.

Von Trier is one of film’s great hypothesisers, setting in motion conceits and seeing where they will lead. We might be reminded here of a comment by the Chilean emigree filmmaker Raul Ruiz when he says: “maybe one of a kind films are monsters, except that I find their monstrosities much closer to our lives than the normative narratives” in the film industry. Von Trier’s The Idiots has often been received as a monstrous, offensive film, but few deny it also is in many ways one of a kind. (One critic claimed it was the only Dogme film that could pass for avant-garde.) Von Trier, whether working very loosely inside a genre or not – with Dancer in the Dark a perverse musical, and Breaking the Waves a semi-realist melodrama – might not appear to have the unifying elements of many more conventional auteurs. But maybe the term just isn’t elastic enoughfor the daring Dane. Von Trier, in trying constantly to create his own forms, is surely a mischievous, searching original.


Michelangelo Antonioni brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s great comment that man is distracted by distraction from distraction. Let’s take a scene from Blow Up where we see David Hemmings’ swinging sixties London photographer going into the antique shop he’s thinking of buying, and buys a propeller that he suddenly gets energetically interested in and just as readily seems to lose fascination with. Then after driving through the streets of London he meets up with a friend whom he shows some pictures too, pictures he’s taken inside a dosshouse. He tells his friend that he’s bored with living in London, and this comes shortly after he’s announced he wants to buy the antique shop in this self same city. Moments later a man approaches outside the window of the pub, and Hemmings, telling his friend he’ll just be a moment, follows him outside, watches the man get in a car and gets in his own and drives off. He doesn’t tell his friend, nor does he tell the waiter from whom he’s only a few moments before ordered food. Each line, each narrative movement, feels a bit like a non-sequitur, as if Antonioni wants to suggest a loosely meaningless swinging sixties through a character who is constantly being distracted by the next event.

But where most filmmakers – like, say, Richard Lester with his Beatles films made a year or two before, A Hard Day’s Night, Help – wanted to capture the energy of the era, Antonioni looks at the potential meaninglessness. This is in many ways an Antonioni constant: he’s drawn to characters and situations where meaning can’t be taken as given. In The Eclipse the central character splits with her long term boyfriend and takes up with another man but believes she wishes she could love a little more or a little less: she’s caught in a state of extreme indecision. In The Passenger, the central character David Locke talks about how people disappear every time they leave a room.  Early in L’avventura a woman disappears and the boyfriend and her best friend embark on an affair as they half-heartedly go in search of her.

Some could argue that Antonioni’s films are themselves meaningless: that they are a symptom of the very problem he analyses. But that is too easy: it’s as if, much more, he’s found a form for examining the problem of meaninglessness, a form that doesn’t altogether ignore narrative, but doesn’t take it for granted either. If a character has a problem accumulating meaning in their life, would a filmmaker not be ignoring the very problem if they forced a story upon that character?

But Antonioni doesn’t search for meaning only through rethinking narrative. He also does so by rethinking cinematic style. It’s not uncommon for the director to offer camera shots that seem to be about more than following a character’s actions, so that we’re left to wonder not just why a character doesn’t seem to be following through on a preceding decision, but why Antonioni has chosen not to follow specifically the character’s movements. In a key scene at the end of The Passenger, the director’s camera drifts from the bed that Locke lies on, and moves towards the window. The camera passes through the window and then folds back again and we see the character lying dead on the bed – the camera completely ‘missing’ this important narrative development.

A third important aspect is evident in some of his colour films, where he plays around with colour to create an uncanny atmosphere. In Red Desert he painted the fruit grey, and in Blow Up, the grass a different shade of green. When we combine these three elements, the eschewal of conventional narrative, a camera that does not obsessively follow story and character, and a colour scheme that is just off naturalistic, we have a visionary filmmaker at work and, of course, an auteur.


Mike Leigh is obviously a much more conventional filmmaker than Antonioni, but there is nevertheless a distinctive Leigh world. He combines a realist shading into expressionist mise-en-scene that heightens the realism without creating anything untoward. If we take Timothy Spall and his wife’s apartment in Secrets and Lies we see how exaggeratedly perfect everything happens to be, how grotesquely upwardly mobile the wife insistently presents herself as. Leigh often takes class difference as his theme, and frequently class difference within the same family, exploring it by exaggerating each class in terms of accent, mores, property and interior design. An important line in Leigh’s work might be a comment from High Hopes “a place for everybody and everybody in their place.”

But not everybody in Leigh quite fits into their place, and the director’s work is a shrewd examination of the problems that arise. Frequently his younger characters are neurotic and or belligerent – be that Jane Horricks’ bulemic in Life is Sweet, the surly Phil Daniels in Meantime, or the masochistic Johnny in Naked. Then there are his married women who are often socially insecure: like Alison Steadman’s character in Abigail’s Party, Alfred Molina’s wife in Meantime, and Spall’s wife in Secrets and Lies.

If we can see auteurist elements in Leigh’s use of mise-en-scene and thematic characterization, we can also notice it in Leigh’s dialogue. Frequently his characters talk in clichés, and there is a Pinteresque sense of language not quite serving a person’s expressive needs. Everything said carries an air of sub-text, but not necessarily a sub-text deliberately withheld, but a sense that the characters have never quite found the language to express themselves. Where the filmmaker with whom he’s often twinned, Ken Loach, frequently offers dialogue that is pithy and funny, and characters express themselves fluently in their own idiom, in Leigh the characters seem almost stranded by language. This can create the sort of tension we notice in Secrets and Lies where the characters seem to be arguing without quite arguing. The series of comments Brenda Blethyn’s character offers to Spall’s Wife, and Spall’s wife to Blethyn, create a social static that usually suggest a messy scene is about to take place.

There is little violence in Leigh’s films, yet there is a tension connected to the nervous systems of his characters. They are ready to collapse, breakdown, cry or crack-up, and often do: Johnny, Horrick’s character, Molina’s wife, Blethyn’s daughter here, the daughter in All or Nothing. Bringing together various elements we sense that he is a marvellous examiner of English insecurity arising out of everybody having their place but nobody quite fitting into it. Asked whether he’s a political filmmaker, he insisted: absolutely. It’s in that key comment about one’s place, perhaps, and its manifestations in various areas of his art, that the political lies.


©Tony McKibbin