Europe in 25 films: the critics’ choice | Film

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Back in 2017, I was asked to contribute a short piece about British cinema to a book entitled Goodbye Europe. The book was a collection of essays, inspired by the recent referendum, offering a series of different perspectives on the thorny subject of the UK’s relationship to Europe, and “what the idea of Europe means to Britons and others living here”. In my essay I argued that, to all intents and purposes, there was no such thing as a “British film” per se – in an age of increasingly international co-production, national boundaries are no longer a defining feature of cinema. Moreover, if you read any interview with a film-maker at the cutting edge of UK cinema, the chances are they will refer to themselves and their work as “European”.

Take as typical these words from Carol Morley, director of The Falling, as she prepared to embark upon a film project in the US: “I’ve always been fascinated by the films the German émigrés made in America, which to me are so very European,” Morley told me. “Film language is universal, and I hope my films transcend boundaries. But recently I saw someone describe [my work] as ‘weird’, so maybe the correct term should be ‘weird European’!”

I loved that phrase – “weird European” – and it came back to haunt me as the Observer set about compiling this collection of 25 films that are essential viewing in these tumultuous times. In the era of Brexit, it seems more important than ever to engage with, and feel part of, the rich heritage of European cinema, in all its strange and wonderful manifestations. Whatever the ramifications of current political and social upheavals, it’s clear that film-makers (and film fans) in the UK are part of a wider tradition of borderless cinema that needs to be celebrated and explored, now more than ever.

It’s worth stating at the outset that this isn’t intended as some form of competitive countdown. We are not claiming our selection to be a list of the “best” European films ever made. Nor is it an attempt to create a critical canon that singles out the finest achievements in Euro-cinema. On the contrary, this is a personal selection made by five Observer film writers (Simran Hans, Wendy Ide, Guy Lodge, Jonathan Romney and myself) highlighting movies that we consider to be important, or affecting, or innovative – films that have struck a chord. Together, they give a flavour of the dazzling breadth of European cinema, offering a tiny snapshot of a vast cinematic landscape.

We’ve tried to make the list as diverse as possible, both in terms of where and when they were made, and in the stories that they tell. These titles cover a century of cinema, with the earliest dating back to 1922, while our most recent choice comes from 2017. Some hail from countries, such as Russia and Turkey, that are only partially in Europe, yet all represent a facet of what we consider to be European cinema – whatever that may be.

Although historians are divided on the exact birthplace of moving pictures (Leeds, Paris and New York variously feature in differing accounts), Europe has always been a vital force in the evolution of cinema – artistically influential, even when economically overshadowed by larger industries. Just as European émigrés shaped the face of Hollywood, so stylistic movements from German expressionism to Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave continue to reverberate throughout popular global cinema. Glancing through this collection of extraordinary, challenging, world-changing films, it’s easy to see why.

Nosferatu

(FW Murnau, 1922, Germany)

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in FW Murnau’s Nosferatu.



Max Schreck as Count Orlok in FW Murnau’s Nosferatu. Photograph: Ronald Grant

This 1922 chiller is a milestone of German expressionist cinema. Subtitled Eine Symphonie des Grauens (a symphony of horror), FW Murnau’s film stars Max Schreck as Count Orlok, whose vampiric presence put the fear of god into film fans in the age before sound. Images of Orlok’s undead shadow ascending a staircase and clawing at his victim’s heart rank among the most haunting (and most parodied) moments in cinema. Despite its classic status, Nosferatu had a rocky start: British censors initially refused it a certificate after legal complaints by Bram Stoker’s estate, claiming it to be an uncredited and unauthorised adaptation of Dracula – which, of course, it was. Many copies were destroyed, though Nosferatu – like its anti-hero – survived. MK

The Passion of Joan of Arc

(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928, France)

Poster for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.



Poster for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

It is the face that everyone remembers: that unstinting close-up of the tear-riven visage of French actress Maria Falconetti, maintaining agonised composure as her Joan of Arc is consumed by flames before a braying mob. Aped and echoed countless times on camera – not least in Sinéad O’Connor’s video for Nothing Compares 2 U – it is a scene that rewrote how faces could be explored and exploited on screen. The last silent film by Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer, it largely eschewed traditional master shots for a dazzling range of expressive, character-probing close-ups: no historical biopic has ever felt quite so unnervingly intimate. GL

L’Atalante

(Jean Vigo, 1934, France)

Dito Parlo and Jean Dasté in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante.



Dito Parlo and Jean Dasté in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Jean Vigo, who died aged 29, only made four films, but his tiny oeuvre remains an inspiring landmark in European cinema. His only full-length feature is an entrancing essay in modernist romanticism, rooted equally in realism and the language of dreams. L’Atalante is a canal barge, captained by naive Jean (Jean Dasté), newly married to Juliette (Dita Parlo). The course of true love doesn’t run smooth, on water or on land, not least thanks to an unruly contingent of cats and to the disruptive presence of crewman Le Père Jules – played by Michel Simon, one of the most irreducibly raw, joyous and anarchic presences in screen history. JR

I Vitelloni

(Federico Fellini, 1953, Italy)

Franco Fabrizi and Leonora Ruffo in Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni.



Franco Fabrizi and Leonora Ruffo in Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni. Photograph: Peg Film/Cite Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Fellini’s wilder visionary flights are not to every taste, but one of his most enduring works is this early rites-of-passage story. The “big calves” of the title are a group of young men in a seaside town, finding it harder to grow up than they expected. Among them are feckless romancer Fausto, joker Alberto (played by Alberto Sordi, soon to be a huge comedy star) and thoughtful Moraldo, the director’s autobiographical stand-in. At once tender and pitiless towards the contradictions of traditional Italian masculinity, I Vitelloni was a major influence on the young Martin Scorsese. The “leaving home” sequence at the end is one of the most poetic moments in Fellini’s work. JR

Peeping Tom

(Michael Powell, 1960, UK)

Carl Boehm in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.



Carl Boehm in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Photograph: Ronald Grant

A cautionary tale about the unhealthy relationship between voyeurism and violence, Michael Powell’s psycho-thriller (from a script by Leo Marks) is a dangerous film about the dangers of watching films. Carl Boehm is the shy young man whose camera has become a deadly weapon, capturing the faces of his victims on film at the moment of their death. Critics loathed Peeping Tom on its first release, branding it “appallingly masochistic and depraved” and calling upon distributors to “flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer”. In the wake of such outrage, the film dropped out of circulation until Martin Scorsese championed its restoration and re-release. With its lurid Eastmancolor hues and daringly confrontational POV camera work, this remains a startlingly uncomfortable experience. MK

Rocco and His Brothers

(Luchino Visconti, 1960, Italy)

Annie Girardot and Alain Delon in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers.



Annie Girardot and Alain Delon in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers. Photograph: Allstar/Astor Pictures

Italian film-maker Luchino Visconti is best known for sweeping melodramas that focus on the upper echelons of society. A member of the Italian communist party, but born into a noble Milanese family himself, his preoccupation with class makes perfect sense. Still, I find the operatic Rocco and His Brothers his most bluntly moving work. A meddling mother and her five sons swap Italy’s rural south for industrial Milan in a bid for a better life. An upsetting love triangle emerges between brothers Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon, never more gorgeous), and a clever, fiery call girl named Nadia (the fabulous Annie Girardot); its denouement always makes me cry. SH

Persona

(Ingmar Bergman, 1966, Sweden)

Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.



Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Persona is often described as stern Swedish moodmeister Ingmar Bergman’s definitive film – topping his other works in Sight & Sound magazine’s most recent greatest films poll. But that’s not to say it is his most typical: his fluidly amorphous dual character study was a radical departure from his previous work, literalising its Jungian psychology by splintering and merging its two female characters – a frail, suddenly mute stage diva and her young carer – to inextricable, disorienting effect. Today, it feels as bracingly experimental as then, awash with disruptive, disconnected imagery that calls the camera’s own perspective into question: half a century later, it remains an object of fascination and dissent among theorists. GL

Daisies

(Věra Chytilová, 1966, Czechoslovakia)

Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová in Věra Chytilová’s Daisies.



Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová in Věra Chytilová’s Daisies. Photograph: Filmove Studio Barrandov/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Věra Chytilová’s merrily anarchic Czech New Wave wonder is both a “screw you!” to the joyless efficiency of collectivisation and an impish dismantling of the patriarchy. Set in Prague, it sees two decadent pranksters in matching polka dot outfits engage in so-called bad behaviour (the world has gone bad, so they might as well). Marie I and Marie II are masters of the dine and dash, seducing sleazy older men before leaving them with the bill. They slice up phallic objects for fun, and orchestrate a libertine food fight, trampling trifle intended for politicians. Frankly, it’s inspirational. SH

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973, West Germany)

El Hedi ben Salem and Barbara Valentin in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.



El Hedi ben Salem and Barbara Valentin in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Photograph: Tango Film/Rex/Shutterstock

A prolific and unflinching film-maker who was most at home on the fringes of 1970s West German society, Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid tribute to Douglas Sirk with this portrait of love against the odds. The result is a glorious hybrid: a story of a romance between a widowed cleaner (Brigitte Mira) and a Moroccan man 20 years her junior (Fassbinder’s then partner El Hedi ben Salem), it has the director’s trademark sharp edges, its characters marinated in disappointment and bigotry. But there is also tenderness to this Munich-based melodrama, a belief that love really can heal the scars of the past. WI

Céline & Julie Go Boating

(Jacques Rivette, 1974, France)

Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto in Jacques Rivette’s Céline & Julie Go Boating.



Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto in Jacques Rivette’s Céline & Julie Go Boating. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

The often unsung experimenter of the French New Wave, Rivette wrote this delirium of a film in collaboration with his cast, notably leads Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier. They play two women – a magician and a librarian – who meet one balmy Paris summer and throw themselves into a joyfully free-associative adventure, trying to save the young prisoner of a haunted house. Very loosely inspired by two Henry James stories, it is a delirious mix of hippy-era feminism, goofy mysticism, slapstick comedy and Borgesian time-twisting, as well as a serious contemplation of the mysteries of cinema, and a love letter to the “phantom ladies” of silent-era serials. JR

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

(Werner Herzog, 1974, West Germany)

Bruno S. in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.



Bruno S. in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

Herzog connects with the spirit of German romanticism as he explores the cause célèbre of a young man apparently raised in captivity, emerging into the daylight in 1828 a stranger to both language and the outside world. As a professor attempts to educate him, society finds its own attitudes judged by this seeming exemplar of that 19th-century archetype, the “noble savage”. Beautifully shot by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, this is one of Herzog’s most atmospheric works, but its claim to immortality is the inspired casting of an unknown as Kaspar – street musician Bruno S, whose singular vocal rhythms and body language make for a performance like no other. JR

Swept Away

(Lina Wertmüller, 1974, Italy)

Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini in Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away.



Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini in Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away. Photograph: Allstar/Medusa

Rarely has a great film been as unjustly tarnished by a remake as Italian writer-director Lina Wertmüller’s lavishly sun-varnished, idea-spilling social satire. In 2002 it was infamously and abysmally rehashed by Madonna and Guy Ritchie, with its sly political commentary and poetry (beginning with its full title, Swept Away… By an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August) gutted. It is time its reputation was reclaimed, not least since much of the rhetoric in its love-hate war of ideologies, between a haughty capitalist lady of leisure and a spiky communist deckhand on her yacht, sounds as applicable to 2019 as it did to 1974. GL

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

(Chantal Akerman, 1975, Belgium/France)

Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.



Delphine Seyrig in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The late, great Chantal Akerman broke new ground with her hypnotic three-and-a-half hour response to the suffocating drudgery of domestic life. Using long takes and symmetrical, straight-on medium shots, Akerman pays close attention to the gestures of Jeanne’s routine over the course of three minutely observed days. She cooks and cleans, takes a bath, brushes her hair, welcomes men into her bedroom in the afternoons. The cycle continues, until it doesn’t. When I first watched the film, endurance gave way to anger and, later, awe – the duration forces the viewer to recalibrate the way they anticipate drama. The effect is one of ever-present foreboding that builds in the chest and begins to clog the throat; it’s the feminine condition as cinema. SH

The Travelling Players

(Theo Angelopoulos, 1975, Greece)

Theo Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players.



Theo Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players. Photograph: Artificial Eye

Both in its running time – three and three-quarter hours – and the scope of its sociopolitical themes, this is a substantial work. A ragtag bunch of itinerant actors tour Greece, scraping together a subsistence living. The languorous camera captures a crumbling provincial Greece between 1939 and 1952. The second world war and its aftermath loom large in a sprawling story, which also weaves in references to mythology. Audacious in its approach, and in the demands it makes on the audience, The Travelling Players is one of the most important works of Greek cinema. WI

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

(Ermanno Olmi, 1978, Italy)

Giuseppe Brignoli, Maria Grazia Caroli and Luigi Ornaghi in Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs.



Giuseppe Brignoli, Maria Grazia Caroli and Luigi Ornaghi in Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm opined in 1999 that “no other Italian film-maker of world stature has been as neglected as Ermanno Olmi”. This Palme d’Or-winning epic about hard lives in late 19th-century Lombardy uses non-professional actors speaking in the distinctive Bergamasque dialect, drawing us into a tough and unforgiving world of births, weddings and deaths; of religion and feudalism; of support and slaughter. It is a profoundly humanist work, but one which is not afraid to get its hands dirty in depicting the unsentimental realities of rural life. As Mike Leigh observed: “Directly, objectively, yet compassionately, it puts on the screen the great, hard, real adventure of living and surviving from day to day, and from year to year, the experience of ordinary people everywhere.” MK

Stalker

(Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979, Soviet Union)

Anatoly Solonitsyn in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.



Anatoly Solonitsyn in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

In 2017’s stylish comic-book fightfest Atomic Blonde, one of many lavishly choreographed shootouts takes place in a modernist East Berlin cinema playing Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s terrifying, spiritually tortured sci-fi nightmare: as real-life violence throws the screening into chaos, you wonder if the disruption might have come as light relief to the audience. The heady Russian formalist’s most narratively straightforward film, it also might be his most philosophically and atmospherically dense. Following a misfit writer and a professor as they are led through a hostile no man’s land in pursuit of a mysterious, wish-granting room, it plays like The Wizard of Oz set to a death march; gallows humour occasionally bleeding through its ominous musings on society and human nature. GL

A Lonely Woman

(Agnieszka Holland, 1981, Poland)

Maria Chwalibóg in Agnieszka Holland’s A Lonely Woman.



Maria Chwalibóg in Agnieszka Holland’s A Lonely Woman. Photograph: Telewizja Polska

A Lonely Woman is not Agnieszka Holland’s most famous film. However, shot in 1981, just before martial law was imposed in Poland and the film-maker fled her own country for France, it is one of her most enduringly political (so much so that it was banned in Poland). An unblinking, hard-edged portrait of austerity and survival under communism, it centres on single mother and social outcast Irena (Maria Chwalibóg). A disabled man named Jacek (Bogusław Linda) offers her the erotic taste of freedom, but its cost requires a brutal compromise. SH

Beau Travail

(Claire Denis, 1999, France)

Denis Lavant in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail.



Denis Lavant in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. Photograph: Sm/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Very loosely based on Billy Budd, the Herman Melville novella, Beau Travail is a masterpiece that showcases Claire Denis’s gift for visual storytelling. The backdrop, a remote French foreign legion outpost on the Horn of Africa, serves as a stage for a stylised ballet of masculinity in crisis. The abrasive Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), a legionnaire of antisocial nature, takes against the easy charm of new recruit Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin). Training exercises, viewed through the reminiscence of Galoup, take on a loaded, almost homoerotic tone. A hymn in praise of male beauty, it explores the conflict in this austere military environment between comradeship and a deeper form of attraction. WI

Songs from the Second Floor

(Roy Andersson, 2000, Sweden)

Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor.



Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor. Photograph: Artificial Eye

This glumly hilarious collection of surreal vignettes could only be the work of Sweden’s Roy Andersson. His unique vision focuses on the moment at which the banal tips over into the bizarre. Locked long shots emphasise the meticulous composition of the frame, and the colour palette runs the gamut from cold porridge to wet concrete. There is very little dialogue, and yet each scene, from the horribly botched magician’s trick to the man who refuses to be fired from his job, speaks volumes. Delicate threads hold the seemingly disparate episodes together to build a portrait of a crumbling society that has resorted to superstition and ritual. WI

Fat Girl

(Catherine Breillat, 2001, France)

Anaïs Reboux and Roxane Mesquida in Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl.



Anaïs Reboux and Roxane Mesquida in Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

When I think of Fat Girl, I think of a little girl in a lime green swimming costume applying sunscreen to her pudgy arms and legs. Catherine Breillat’s film is about the bond between sisters – two warring sides of the same soul (eat your heart out, Elena Ferrante). There are consequences when 12-year-old Anaïs sees her 15-year-old sister lose her innocence (we watch this through Anaïs’s eyes, in excruciating real time). “My first time should be with nobody,” she declares in retaliation; it is a cruel irony that Breillat grants her wish. The film remains heart-bendingly shocking, violent, disturbing and audacious – a provocation, determined to challenge mythologies about virginity and romance spread by the history of cinema. SH

Talk to Her

(Pedro Almodovár, 2002, Spain)

Geraldine Chaplin, Leonor Watling and Rosario Flores in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her.



Geraldine Chaplin, Leonor Watling and Rosario Flores in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. Photograph: Sony/Allstar

There is little consensus on the question of Pedro Almodovár’s greatest film – some plump for the all-out heart assault of All About My Mother, others prefer the early, rowdy ones – but his 2003 Oscar winner is, for this critic’s money, his most complete work. Bridging his affinities for open-hearted melodrama, wittily queer experimentation and ravishing art within art, this intricately structured tale of two men bonding over the comatose women under their care is emotionally complex and morally conflicted in its delicate handling of thorny gender constructs and bodily boundaries. Viewed in a post-#MeToo environment, it only feels more audacious and essential. GL

Uzak

(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002, Turkey)

Mehmet Emin Toprak in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak.



Mehmet Emin Toprak in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak.

Turkish writer-director Ceylan has become more expansively novelistic in recent films such as Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree, but his breakthrough feature is all about caustic concision. Uzak – meaning distant – is an odd-couple drama about a jaded intellectual photographer who finds himself playing host to an unemployed cousin. Melancholic and philosophical, but also acidly comic, it is a subtle, compassionate dissection of male malaise and class tensions, as well as a bitter-sweet love letter to Istanbul, photographed magnificently by Ceylan himself. And it contains a delicious poker-faced gag about using Tarkovsky films as a cover for watching porn. JR

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

(Cristian Mungiu, 2007, Romania)

Laura Vasiliu and Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.



Laura Vasiliu and Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu’s
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Photograph: Saga Film/Allstar

Pretty much the archetypal film from the Romanian New Wave, this Palme d’Or-winning drama is austere, naturalistic and, despite the unpromising subject matter, as gripping as any thriller. The setting is the end of Ceaușescu-era Romania, a labyrinthine maze of red tape and corruption. Two female students, room-mates at university, must negotiate this nightmarish world in order to procure an illegal abortion for one of them. Mungiu’s deliberate pacing exerts a sense of mounting dread; the fiercely unsentimental approach makes for a bruising, yet utterly compelling viewing experience. WI

Girlhood

(Céline Sciamma, 2014, France)

Karidja Touré and Idrissa Diabaté in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood.



Karidja Touré and Idrissa Diabaté in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Following 2007’s Water Lilies and 2011’s Tomboy, Céline Sciamma’s brilliant tale of young girls living the Paris banlieue life (originally entitled Bande de filles) forms the third chapter of an accidental “trilogy of youth”. Karidja Touré is marvellous as Marieme, perfectly embodying the awkward tensions of someone torn between childhood and adulthood, driven to the margins by her age, her gender, her race. With its street-smart casting (Sciamma auditioned non-professionals recruited from malls and train stations), Girlhood speaks the language of its characters with wit, fluency and insight. A sequence during which the gang dance in stolen dresses to Rihanna’s Diamonds is utterly sublime. Throughout, it is Sciamma’s affection for these characters that shines through, a bitter-sweet admiration of their strengths and complexities. MK

On Body and Soul

(Ildikó Enyedi, 2017, Hungary)

Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul.



Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul.

Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi won the top prize at the Berlin film festival for this eerie, disorientating love story about two withdrawn outsiders who find themselves inexplicably sharing the same woodland dreams. The story is set against the brutal backdrop of an abattoir, where the star-crossed couple meet. Endre (Géza Morcsányi) is the slaughterhouse manager who keeps his emotions close to his chest; Mária (Alexandra Borbély) is the quality controller, newly arrived at the plant, who seems to fear physical contact. Despite the harshness of their environment, the pair develop an unexpected relationship that scratches at the edge of transcendence. Scenes of beauty and horror, joy and sadness, life and death are juxtaposed with a poetic dexterity that is wholly disarming and quite mesmerising. MK

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