When asked about realism, the great neo-realist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini once said, "I'm a filmmaker, not an aesthete, and I don't think I can give an exact definition of realism." Perhaps nobody can, but Rossellini did add, in an interview to be found in the book Realism and the Cinema, that it was "a response to the genuine need to see men for what they are, with humility and without recourse to fabricating the exceptional; it means an awareness that the exceptional is arrived at through the investigation of reality." Andr Bazin, the critic with whom realism is most commonly associated, would be inclined to agree. In a key article called 'The Evolution of the Language of Film', Bazin believed that realism was formally coming of age. "Depth of field is not just a stock in trade of the cameraman like the use of filters or of such and such a style of lighting." Deep focus cinematography, according to Bazin, allowed the filmmaker to keep the background and foreground of the shot in equal focus and was "a capital gain in the history of film language."
Other key critics of the post-war years became exponents of realism. Siegfried Kracauer said that if we accept Nanook of the North, The Battleship Potemkin and Paisa as art we must also accept that they are "deeply steeped in camera life." "...In defining them as art," he said in The Theory of the Film, "it must always be kept in mind that even the most creative film maker is much less independent of nature in the raw than the painter or poet; that his creativity manifests itself in letting nature in and penetrating it." This isn't the world of idle capturing; this comes from acute observation. As Bazin insisted, "realism in art can only be achieved in one way - through artifice." The point is that the artifice reveals the world: it doesn't hide it.
This is an artifice that has little to do with the glamour industry of Hollywood, nor the ideological insistence of the Soviet filmmakers of the twenties, no matter if Bazin invokes William Wyler and Welles, and Kracauer Eisenstein. They want to extract from the films what they need to further their argument for realism: in Bazin it is Wyler and Welles' interest in depth of field in films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Citizen Kane; in Kracauer, the found realities of Potemkin.
Another key defender of realism in the post war years was Cesare Zavattini, the most significant scriptwriter in the neo-realist movement, who saw in it the exposing of injustice. "If this love for reality", he said in an article called 'Some Ideas on the Cinema', "for human nature directly observed, must still adapt itself to the necessities of the cinema as it is now organised, must yield, suffer and wait, it means that the cinema's capitalist structure still has a tremendous influence over its true function". This is a revolutionising not just of form and content, but also of society: perhaps especially of society when we think of the aesthetically hardly radical but socially deeply meaningful Zavattini scripted film The Bicycle Thieves.
What is interesting about realism, and in some ways a justification for it, is how it can serve so many ends. For the Catholic Bazin it was underpinned by theological purpose, for Rossellini the aesthetic freedom to find one's form out of amorphous reality, for Zavattini, to show the social injustice in the world. Realism was indeed, like formalism, a broad church, yet sheltering within it were loosely humanist concerns. As Rossellini said, "I find whatever is astonishing, unusual and moving in men..." This is undeniably not art for art's sake - a problem often endangering formalist notions.
However, in the early moments of Germany Year Zero, Rossellini offers a matter of factness (what Bazin would call the fact-image) incorporated within concerns broader than the material reality which he so carefully depicts. Doesn't formalism creep in? It is present in the music that operatically opens the film, and in the sweeping panning shots of the city matching the film's score. But what is this grandiose introduction serving; can it generally then eschew formalist sweep for nitty-gritty realism? Rossellini follows a young German boy as he digs graves, steals some coal and makes his way back home through the rubble-strewn streets. The detail is important here, for Rossellini wants to explore the boy's naivety in the face of appalling reality: how the two come together to create a monstrous act. Influenced by the ideas of a Nazi teacher who doesn't believe in weakness, the boy ends up killing his father - but will his conscience leave him alone after this dreadful action? Can Rossellini find "what is astonishing, unusual and moving..." in the young boy's deed? Bazin, in an article on the film published in the magazine Esprit, believes he does so by avoiding what most films would do: "it would be easy, even normal, most of the time, for the script and the acting to introduce us into the innermost recesses of his conscience." Instead the film masterfully captures the boy's feelings through the externals of the environment, "Rossellini's aesthetic clearly triumphs in the final fifteen minutes of the film, during the boy's long quest for some sign of confirmation or approval..." As Bazin adds "the kid walks and walks, searching here and there among the ruins; but, one after the other, people and things abandon him." Bazin's point is that many filmmakers would insist on short-hand to address the boy's crisis of conscience - realism if you like allows for long-hand: for the slow process of self -realization to come through. This is how "the astonishing, moving and unusual" is achieved, not especially through the more bombastic opening.
Neo-realism influenced films internationally throughout the fifties. Bunuel's Los Olvidados showed Mexican street kids; Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy followed the youthful life of its poor protagonist, and Youssef Chahine's Cairo Station focused on the milieu around its title. There was a liberating aspect to realism; that films could be made without expensive crews and with elaborate sets: the street could be a justifiable mise-en-scene.
Perhaps a theoretical apparatus is only as good as the empirical reality it serves. Over the years many critics have taken Bazin to task for what they perceive as his naivety towards the language of film, but the ideas proposed by Bazin and others have had an immense impact. This is also true of another lurch towards realism in recent years: the theoretically much less bolstered yet nevertheless hugely influential Dogme movement. Conjured up by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in the mid-nineties and called the 'Dogme95 Manifesto', a couple of other Danish filmmakers joined the gang: Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring. Was this a serious filmmaking movement or an elaborate joke? Vinterberg said "the rules took twenty five minutes to write, and that it was all a great laugh". Yet that needn't hide the seriousness behind the project. What von Trier and Vinterberg devised were ten rules for a return to realist filmmaking in the wake of CGI Hollywood block-busting. Here are some of them: "shooting must be done on location"; "sound must never be produced apart from the image", "the camera must be hand held", "the film must be in colour", "the director must not be credited". The film also had to be in 35mm format, but often they shot in video and transferred onto film. That many of the rules were broken by the first films that were released by the movement in the late nineties - The Idiots, Festen, Mifune - nevertheless didn't stop it having an immense impact.
Everybody was thinking of going back to basics, with even Spielberg considering directing a Dogme film. It also coincided with numerous filmmakers looking for a grainier, more immediate aesthetic. La Vie Revee des Anges came out of France in 1998, the same year the first Dogme films were released: The Idiots and Festen. The following year Rosetta was shown at Cannes, and this hand-held exploration of a young woman's search for employment and purpose won the top prize, the Palme d'Or. The same year The Blair Witch Project became a hit, a micro-budgeted horror flick made with a couple of video cameras. Film viewers across the spectrum were willing to sacrifice high production values, it seemed, for low-budget directness. There were also directors who were used to making films on celluloid who were happy to film on video. This was true not only of von Trier, but also filmmakers who for many years were used to working on film. Agnes Varda made The Gleaners and I, a documentary that was as much about Varda's relationship with the video technology as the people she was interviewing: she was as confessional and intimate as her subjects. Ken McMullen's fine film, Art, Poetry and Particle Physics, explored the topics without, as McMullan says, "having to worry about the financial, legal or technical apparatus involved in major motion pictures." As he has the great writer and art critic John Berger talking to a couple of particle physicists, he knew that it wouldn't have worked with other technology, "it would have been impossible to film John Berger in a controlled or contrived environment. He was only prepared to come unprepared and without preconceptions."
This may have taken us quite far from theories of realism, but chiefly what we're looking at today is a classical notion of realism theorised by Bazin and others, and the evolution of the language of film that Bazin, who died in 1958, could not have predicted. For Bazin, in his articles on the evolution of the language of film, film was still the operative word. Recently writers like D. N. Rodowick in The Virtual Life of Film, Richard Combs and Raymond Durgnat in an essay on Dogme 95 in Film Comment, Chris Petit in the same magazine, and a Wallflower book on New Digital Cinema by Holly Willis, have all mused over Bazinian questions in a new way.
If for example Bazin thought that deep focus was vital, the digital image often lacks the resolution for background clarity and thus looks for realism elsewhere. As Combs and Durgnat believe, there seems often to be a contradiction in this aesthetic. It seems to focus attention on the specifics, but lacks the clarity to do so and becomes a formal device. "According to [Dogme cinematographer Anthony] Dod Mantle, the coarseness of the technique is mainly what we'd be looking at." In such an approach realism becomes self-consciously aware of the means of production as the filmmaker doesn't hide the budgetry constraints. Our response to the image is authenticated not only by what appears in front of the camera, but also how that content is presented. When D. N. Rodowick insists that digital cannot do duration, part of this would reside in the lack of depth of field. If you hold on a shot for several minutes and have several planes of information, this makes the long take more informational than if you only have a shallow field to work with. Maybe the digital technology will resolve this problem with ever more advancements in High Definition, but in the meantime realism seems to be doing something rather different than the Bazinian. It is these differences we can usefully discuss.
© Tony McKibbin