In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Film Theory Before 1945

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies

Cinema and Media Studies Film Theory Before 1945
Malcolm Turvey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0037


Film theory, defined broadly as any reflection on the nature and functions of cinema, appeared soon after cinema’s emergence in the mid-1890s. Due to the novelty of the moving image and its quick development into a mass entertainment, around 1910, intellectuals and artists began identifying cinema’s particular capacities, articulating their value and highlighting the formal and stylistic techniques best suited to exploiting them. For many, cinema had the capacity to be an art, one that was similar in some respects to the preexisting arts but that differed from and even surpassed those arts in other respects. Hence, in their writings, film theorists before 1945 often compared and contrasted cinema to other art forms, principally the theater (to which cinema was seen as bearing the greatest resemblance), in an effort to isolate what was “specific” to it (a doctrine known as medium specificity). For most film theorists of this period—unlike those who followed them immediately after the war, who tended to highlight film’s potential for realism—cinema’s specificity lay in its capacity to alter the appearance of reality in ways unavailable to the other arts. In addition to medium-specificity, such theorists often adopted a prescriptive medium-essentialism, insisting that filmmakers must transform the appearance of reality using uniquely cinematic techniques. In fact, many of these theorists were themselves filmmakers, and their theories reflected the distinct concerns of the national filmmaking movements to which they belonged, principally French Impressionism and Soviet montage. Film theorists in this period were not only concerned with the specificity and essence of the moving image, however. Some drew on the latest developments in psychology to explain cinema’s perceptual, cognitive, and affective effects on viewers. Others, especially of a Marxist persuasion in Germany and the Soviet Union, were concerned with cinema’s transformative impact on society and developed theories of how it could be used as a tool of enlightenment or deception. Finally, cinema became embroiled in the avant-garde movements of the 1910s and 1920s, and intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers affiliated with abstract painting, Dada, surrealism, and other avant-garde movements of the era proposed theories of how film might best be used in the pursuit of their avant-garde goals.

General Overviews

Although there is no overview in English devoted exclusively to film theory before 1945, a few works summarize film theories from this period in tracing the history of film theorizing into the post–World War II era and beyond (Andrew 1976, McDonald 2016). Traditionally, film theory before 1945 has been labeled “formalist” or “modernist,” in contrast to the post–World War II “realist” film theories of André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer (Andrew 1976, Bordwell 1997). This is because film theorists before 1945 by and large highlighted cinema’s formal attributes in praising its capacity to transform the appearance of reality, in contrast to realists, who tend to celebrate cinema’s ability to reproduce reality accurately. Recently, however, overviews have focused more on continuities between early and later, or modernist and realist, film theories. Aitken 2001 explores the philosophical sources of early European film theory and its relation to the realist theories of Bazin, John Grierson, and Kracauer, while Turvey 2008 claims that some early film theorists combined modernist formalism with realism into a distinct theoretical tradition the author calls “revelationism.” Elsaesser and Hagener 2010 groups early and later film theorists in terms of how they conceive of the mind and body of the film viewer. Film theory before 1945 is often grouped together with film theory of the immediate postwar period (1945–1960) under the label “classical film theory,” and more recent issues of the journals October and Screen (see Turvey 2014 and Bergfelder, et al. 2014, respectively) contain sections that address the contemporary renewal of interest among scholars in classical film theory.

  • Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

    A history of European film theory with chapters on early German, Soviet, and French film theories. Recommended for advanced students.

  • Andrew, Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

    A seminal introduction to film theory until the 1970s with chapters on early film theorists Arnheim, Balázs, Eisenstein, Kracauer, and Münsterberg. Recommended for beginning students.

  • Bergfelder, Tim, Alison Butler, Dimitris Eleftheriotis, et al., eds. Special Issue. Screen 55.3 (Autumn 2014).

    Contains essays examining the renewal of interest in classical film theory, the film theory of Béla Balázs, and the focus of classical film theorists on aesthetics. Recommended for advanced students.

  • Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    A critical overview of the different ways the history of film style has been conceptualized. Chapter 2 provides a succinct, clear summary of early film theory. Recommended for beginning students.

  • Elsaesser, Thomas, and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    Early film theorists covered include Arnheim, Balázs, Eisenstein, and Vertov. Recommended for advanced students.

  • McDonald, Kevin. Film Theory: The Basics. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2016.

    A historical introduction to film theory with chapters on early American, French, Soviet, and German film theory. Recommended for beginning students.

  • Turvey, Malcolm. Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Early film theorists covered include Balázs, Epstein, Kracauer, and Vertov. Recommended for advanced students.

  • Turvey, Malcolm, ed. Special Issue: A Return to Classical Film Theory? October 148 (Spring 2014).

    Contains a roundtable by leading scholars of film theory on the renewal of interest in classical film theory, reviews of recent books of classical film theory, and an essay on Vertov’s film theory. Recommended for advanced students.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.