Film within Film - Self reflexivity in European Auteur Cinema

Master's Thesis, 2003

44 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Many thanks to all those who helped with this dissertation, academically and personally, especially

- the support from Germany: Andreas Hientz, Paavo Ondreka, Klaus Pellkofer, Martina Reith and all my friends in Sindelfingen, Mainz, all over Germany and in Europe

- my parents Roland and Klara Tobisch, my grandmother Klara Hujber, and my brother Martin Tobisch

- my supervisor Prof.Dietrich Scheunemann for the help with my project and Prof.John Orr, for inspiring me to write on “Self-reflexive-Cinema”

- the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Bonn for financial support

A very special thanks goes to Dan Yacavone and Andriana Vasilopoulou. Without them I could not have done this dissertation.


Before the Renaissance, the name of the artist was of minor importance, as was his personal style. Art was produced anonymously in workshops, where skilled craftsmen created pieces of art in the same way others would produce furniture or clothing. The Renaissance not only marked the waning influence of church and religion on arts. In addition, due to this secularisation, the artist would - for the first time - become aware of himself as an “artist”. Therefore the Renaissance movement can in some ways be seen as the birth of the artist´s “self-consciousness”. It is not surprising that the name and the style of an artist gained great importance roughly at the time that painters like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Duerer had transcended the mass of gifted, but relatively unknown artists. It was Duerer who would be the first artist to eternalise himself with a self-portrait, which actually shows him as an artist. The self-portrait became a significant means of reflecting oneself as an artist and very often refers to a crucial event in the life or career of the creator. A countless number of artists, Da Vinci, Rembrandt or Van Gogh the most famous of them, have chosen to portray themselves, establishing a long tradition of the self-portrait in visual arts.

Although there were shortly after the invention of filmmaking in 1896 films about filmmaking – the first film to be set in the film milieu is “Making Motion Pictures” (1908) - the filmmaking world in these early days of cinema is only used as a setting for comedies, but not as a means of reflection on cinema. Gradually, however the motion picture discovered itself as a subject and more and more movies with a filmic backdrop are produced. One of the common plots of the time involved a girl from the country who would win a trip to Hollywood and by chance became a film-star. Other films showed what happened when many stars had climbed the Hollywood hills: after the rise follows the deep fall. The history of motion pictures, the life of the stars in the “dream-factory”, as well as that of the professionals surrounding the industry (producers, directors, writers etc.) became a recurring subject of the movies. Critics like Patrick Donald Anderson have even described these films as an own genre.[1] However, it is evident that, although they promise to give a view behind the scenes it is mostly self-admiration and not a critical look at the film-business that is characteristic of these films. As Alex Barris notes: “Not surprisingly, the vast majority of movies dealing with Hollywood and moviemaking bore no more relation to reality than did the majority of Hollywood movies that dealt with life, love, war, crime, or for what matter, the biographies of noted persons”.[2] In addition, the situation of the director – the person who is supposed to have the final creative responsibility for a film - was not unlike the status of an artist before the Renaissance. The director was a member of the production team, but the producer and financer of the film had more decision-making power, often even in creative terms, compared to the director. Often, the director was more a supervising craftsman and only a few managed to escape the anonymity of the studio system. In some cases, the price that they had to pay for this freedom was a struggle to get financing for their later films, as was the case with Orson Welles, or even worse, in the case of Erich von Stroheim, that they had to stop directing films because they could not find any financing.

In the 1950’s, a critical counterbalance against commercial Hollywood cinema emerged in Europe with “Neorealism” and the birth of the “Nouvelle vague”. The neorealist filmmakers of Italy rejected the illusionist approach favoured by classical Hollywood cinema[3] and opposed it with a cinema of social consciousness, focusing on stories of the common people shot on location. The neorealist cinema, the tradition from which Fellini emerged was less personal in a sense, since Neorealism encouraged the director to not let his personal concerns and style override the story. When Fellini rejected Neorealism, he introduced a more personal style into his work.

The critics from the “Cahiers du cinema” who would later become the filmmakers known as the “Nouvelle Vague” had an ambivalent relationship to American cinema. The group preferred a personal style of filmmaking, embodied by Orson Welles, Erich von Stroheim, Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks, who where considered “American Auteurs”, but rejected Hollywood’s commercialism.[4] In their concept of the “Politique des Auteurs”, the young critics postulated the romantic idea of the artist as an “auteur”(= French for author), who is the creative mastermind in the filmmaking process, giving the film a personal, distinctive finger-print. The unique authorship of the director would be expressed through the individual style his films exhibited. Even in more commercial films made within the Hollywood system, by Fritz Lang for example, the Cahier critics would spot the traces of an auteur. A true auteur, in their opinion would struggle against the studio system and its imposed restrictions. For the “Nouvelle Vague” auteur-directors would also write their own scripts, as opposed to the films made in the French “Tradition of Quality”, where screenwriter and director would collaborate.

Thus, it is no surprise that with the rise of the European Auteur cinema the “film about film” and the filmmaking process experienced an innovative revitalization.[5] Because of their love for certain periods of American filmmaking (especially the “film noir” of the 1940’s), the European critics-turned-filmmakers would reflect on these films they had grown up with, as well as on their own positions as filmmakers. In comparison with earlier films, which merely use the film-setting to tell a conventional story that could be easily told in another milieu, the 1960’s Auteur cinema marks the start of a genuine self- reflexive cinema. Here, the exploration of the filmmaking world is also combined with references to film history, a critical look into the mind of the filmmaker and an analysis of the mechanisms of commercial cinema.

This paper will undertake a close examination of the films of three great cinematic “Auteurs” - Federico Fellini, Jean - Luc Godard and Wim Wenders - which deal explicitly with the process of filmmaking.

Federico Fellini’s “8 ½“ mainly focuses on the director in crisis and with the feeling of being unable to create. Full of dream sequences, “8 ½” also raises the question of reality versus fiction, a discourse running throughout the whole film, which is not clearly resolved. For Fellini, film history as such, except for a few allusions to his own work is less important. In Jean Luc Godard’s “Le Mepris” however, it is. By casting the German director Fritz Lang, Godard uses an exemplary figure of world cinema. This film about filmmaking emphasises the conflict between the artistic and commercial concepts of cinema, which is paralleled with the Odyssey tale and the decline of the marriage of the films newly hired screenwriter. “Le Mepris” also explores the ways in which people prostitute themselves to benefit financially, within the film, as well as outside of it, in the person of Jean Luc Godard himself.

Wim Wenders, one of the key figures of New German Cinema, a movement similar to the “Nouvelle Vague” in some ways, is of another generation than Fellini and Godard. In his film “Der Stand der Dinge” (1982) he literally commutes between the two poles of his filmmaking, Europe and the US. The film begins in Portugal, where a film crew is forced to stop shooting and ends at the place where all the great cinema myths arise, Hollywood. Wenders’ film is an attempt by a young filmmaker to find a stable creative position in unstable times. (Wenders had just experienced great difficulties in making “Hammett” (1982) in the US). In “Der Stand der Dinge” this is exemplified by the direct inclusion of his own thoughts about European and American filmmaking, images and stories, and black-and-white and colour film stock, opposites that are not harmoniously resolved at the end. Among the three films discussed Wenders’ film within the film is the only one not completed, suggesting an unsure future for the cinema.

In examining these three films, I shall focus on the following aspects:[6]

- In what way does the film reflect on the history of motion pictures (references to it)?
- What attitude does the filmmaker have concerning the artificial-illusionist elements of his profession/product?
- How does the filmmaker deal with the narrative and filmic conventions of his profession?
- What does the film tell us about the film director’s artistic and working style. Does “life imitates art” in these films?
- To which extent can autobiographic elements be found in these films and can any parallels between the director in the film and the director of the film be drawn?
- How can the film be classified in the oeuvre of the director? Does it mark the end of one phase of his work and/or lead into a new one?
- How is the “film within the film” plot accomplished?

Finally, all three films will be compared with each other with regard to the above mentioned questions which will then lead to a final assessment of the self-reflexivity , explored in these films.

Federico Fellini: “8 ½” (1963)

In all stages of the development of “8 ½” (idea-script-shooting) there is an autobiographic notion within the film, proving its very personal character. Its main subject is the self-portrait of the artist as a director in crisis.

Fellini has said, that he first had the idea for the film for about 6 years before it was made, which dates back to 1957,[7] after he had just developed a narrative treatment, “Journey with Anita”, which was never made into a film. In this treatment which later became a script, we meet for the first time a character called Guido, who displays clear similarities to Guido Anselmi, the main protagonist of “8 ½”. A famous and successful writer[8], “Journey with Anita’s” Guido also feels empty and joyless. Other parallels include an erotic farmhouse sequence (which might be seen as an early sketch for the Harem sequence in “8 ½” which also takes place at a farmhouse) and the fact that the hero is torn in between his wife and another woman. (In “8 ½” Guido will be involved with a number of woman). Although Fellini did not answer John C.Stubbs questions,[9] concerning the script’s autobiographical content, it is evident.[10] The death of Fellini’s father a year ago shaped the script. Guido’s “Journey with Anita” leads him to the seaside town of Fano, in the vicinity of Rimini, Fellini’s hometown, where he visits his terminally ill father. Fellini acknowledged that he was not quite ready to put parts of his life experience on the screen and he abandoned the projects “Journey with Anita” in November 1957 as well as “Moraldo in the city” another screenplay with autobiographic content.[11] After his scandal-success with “La dolce vita” in 1960 however, he came back to the autobiographical subject and his Guido character and outlined a first treatment of 8 ½ in a letter to his friend and co-worker Brunello Rondi in October 1960. It is the story of a man “who has to interrupt his usual rhythm of life, because of a not to serious disease”[12] and goes to a spa. But instead of relaxing, he has to deal with various pressing problems. Both his wife, with whom he lives in a tormented relationship, and his good-natured but slow-witted mistress visit him. At certain points a mysterious, extremely beautiful girl appears, to whom Guido feels attracted. He meets with a variety of other characters including a bishop, a telepathist couple, and some old friends. In addition to this “reality” level there is fantasy level, filled with dreams, imaginings and memories of the hero: Guido has an encounter with his dead father in a cemetery and the “Saraghina” episode represents his first sexual experience. And there is the famous Harem sequence, also imagined and mentioned here for the first time. Almost everything described in this letter can be found in the final film. The fact that Fellini located the story in a spa again proves that he already intended to include autobiographical material in “8 ½” at very early stages of its development. During the summer of 1960, Fellini and his wife went to a spa in Ischia. The director needed a “rest cure”, and it was at this moment, when things were at a low ebb for him, that the idea of a new film came into his mind. As he told John Gruen:

“I was in limbo, taking stock of myself. I needed to reconcile my fears. I asked myself the usual questions: “Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going? I felt I needed to answer to countless questions. And that is when the idea took root. Thus a journey into the inner self. It would be a summoning of dreams, recollections, forgotten feelings and shadow doubts, and a kind of eternal quest for self-knowledge and acceptance. It would be a catalytic film – for myself, for the actors involved and I hoped, for the people who would see it.”[13]

The self-description Fellini gives here sums up Guido’s state of mind in “8 ½”.

Until the shooting began in May 1962, there was always uncertainty as to whether the movie would really be made. It is the same sort of uncertainty surrounding Guido’s project, the science fiction film, he prepares to begin. Working together Fellini and his co-authors Ennio Flaino, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi were not able to produce a finished script as they had done on several previous films. “8 ½” was a “bella confusione” and this was actually proposed as a title for the film by Flaino. With only a vague idea of the film, further preparations for it were made: sets were built, actors were chosen and everyone was waiting for the shooting to start. Fellini, however suffered from a serious “director’s block”, much like a writer’s block and completely lost his confidence of being able to direct the film. He locked himself up in his office and began to write a letter of resignation to his producer. Before he finished the letter, his technical crew invited him to a party. In the middle of the grips and technicians, who toasted him and his “masterpiece”, Fellini regained faith in his ability to make “8 ½”:

“I didn’t go back to the office where my half written copout letter was waiting for me (…) I told myself I was in a no exit situation. I was a director who wanted to make a film he no longer remembers. And lo and behold at that very moment everything fell into place. I got straight to the heart of the film. I would narrate everything that had been happening to me. I would make a film telling the story of a director, who no longer knows what film he wanted to make.”[14]

With this comment, Fellini revealed the core of the movie he was about to make, as a closer examination of “8 ½” will show. His film is centred on the figure of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), who is unable to make his due to a paralysing midlife crisis, which he tries to overcome by telling lies and inventing fictions about himself. There is almost no scene in which Guido’s point of view does not dominate the film. Already in the first sequence we have a metaphor for his situation. We see a man trapped inside his car during a traffic jam. Suddenly smoke begins to fill the car. Suffocating, he tries to open the doors, kicks against the windows, but they remain closed. Eventually he escapes through the sliding roof and flies into the sky. The free flight is an illusion: two men (later we will recognize them as agent and press agent of Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), the emerging star Guido wants for his movie) have captured him with a rope and draw him back to earth. The whole setting of the scene is fantastic and unrealistic and when we see a man waking up, we know that the preceding scene was his nightmare. Not until now it is revealed that this man is Guido, a filmmaker who is taking a cure while working on a new movie.

At this point there is still a clear-cut distinction between the “reality” and the “fantasy/memory” levels of the film, but gradually this distinction line will diminish and by the end the viewer can no longer definitely say what is reality and what is fantasy anymore. While Guido attempts to prepare his film, his personal problems multiply. His mistress (Sandra Milo) visits him and then Guido invites his wife (Anouk Aimee), but neither can he relax nor make progress with the preparations for the film. His creativity seems to be exhausted. His creativity seems to be exhausted. Instead of dealing with the root cause of the problems – his inability to accept himself with all his flaws and weaknesses – Guido journey escapes into dreams, fantasies and childhood memories that come to dominate the film. Guido’s remembrance of his childhood is clearly connected to Fellini´s own. Like Guido, he was educated in a catholic school run by monks and a prostitute named Saraghina (Eddra Galle) lived in the area where Fellini grew up: The farm is a reconstruction of the house of Fellini´s grandmother, where he spent his vacations as a child and, like Guido’s his relationship with his mother was also marked by speechlessness.

Besides the autobiographical content which is further confirmed by Fellini’s pronouncement: “I am Guido,”[15] illustrated by the fact that Guido wears the same clothes and is the same age as Fellini at the time, the film has several levels of cinematic self-reflexivity, which underlie its complex structure.

Since the shooting stage of filmmaking is not directly shown, but only some preparations for it in the pre-production phase, in a sense all of “8 ½” is the “film within the film”, and the spectator watches its creation. Guido’s basic plot idea is for a science - fiction film in which the earth has been wiped out and a few survivors try to flee with a spaceship. But nothing, except the huge launching pad for the spaceship, gives any indication that this is really the film he wants to shoot. Instead, there are several suggestions that the preparations shown in the film are connected with “8 ½´s ” own sequences we are currently watching, and not with the science-fiction film. When Guido is in the hotel foyer, his production assistant introduces him to three old man “for the role of the father”. One of them closely resembles his own father, whom Guido has just met in the dream sequence at the cemetery. While Guido visits the production office, a number of portrait photographs can be seen, some of them are of people who have or will appear during the course of the movie. In addition, the production assistant talks with Guido about the location of a farm. This is obviously a reference to the location for the farm where the little Guido grew up and which was previously shown as he remembered it from his childhood. Later in the film, when Guido´s memories become mixed up with his fantasies, we will see the farm again, as the place where he can act out his male domination fantasies and preside over a harem of woman. In this sequence, the French actresses who Guido talked with in the hotel lobby can be seen in the costume that the dressmaker has tailored in the film’s production office. The harem fantasy can be read as a mirror on film production in general, where it is mostly men who are in charge and who have the ability to control and “remake” woman the way they would like. Therefore it is not surprising that Luisa, the independent and intelligent wife, who is not willing to accept Guido’s affairs, is shown as an obsequious and devoted housewife who puts up with his behaviour in this particular sequence.


[1] Anderson ,Patrick Donald: “In it’s own image – The cinematic vision of Hollywood”, New York: Arno Press, 1978, p.1

[2] Barris, Alex: “Hollywood according to Hollywood”, South Brunswick: A.S.Barnes, 1978, p.10

[3] Kiefer, Bernd/ Ruckriegl, Peter: “Realismus / sozialistischer Realismus / poetischer Realismus /Neorealismus” in Koebner, Thomas (ed.): Reclams Sachlexikon des Films, Stuttgart: Reclam, 2002, p.493-499

[4] The later two, Hitchcock and Hawks had fewer problems with the studio system.

[5] Although Hollywood allowed itself films in the 1950, which showed the “dream-factory” in a sarcastic and disillusioned manner, such as Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) or Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) . Unsurprisingly these films were made by directors, who where considered as “Auteurs” by the Cahier critics.

[6] Of course, each of the films answers the questions differently and stresses certain aspects of the metier:

[7] “Interview with Costanzo Costantini” in: Affron, Charles :8 ½ Federico Fellini, director, New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1987, p.244

[8] An interesting point is that during the development of the script for 8 ½ Guido’s profession was not a film director from the beginning, Fellini decided this very late.

[9] Alpert, Hollis: “Fellini - A life”, New York: Anatheum, 1986, p.120

[10] For a further discussion of the autobiographical content see Alpert, Hollis: “Fellini - A life” p.118-121

[11] Alpert, Hollis: “Fellini - A life”, New York: Anatheum, 1986, p.121

[12] “Letter from Fellini to Brunello Rondi” in :Affron, Charles :8 ½ Federico Fellini, director, New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1987, p.227-234

[13] Alpert, Hollis: “Fellini - A life”, New York: Anatheum, 1986, p.153-154

[14] Fellini. Federico: “Comments on film”, edited by Giovanni Grazzini, Fresno, CA: Press at the California State University, 1988, p.161-162

[15] Baxter, John: “Fellini”, London: Fourth Estate, 1993, p.180

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Film within Film - Self reflexivity in European Auteur Cinema
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Jürgen Tobisch (Author), 2003, Film within Film - Self reflexivity in European Auteur Cinema, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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