In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modernism and Film

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • American Film—General
  • American Film and Literature
  • British Film
  • German Film
  • Pan-European Film
  • International Film
  • Film Criticism

Cinema and Media Studies Modernism and Film
Lucy Fischer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0162


This entry has particular parameters that should be understood at the outset. It covers only those critical works in cinema history, theory, and criticism that have self-consciously used the term “modernism” in their titles or abstracts. This limit was established because, from a certain perspective, almost all of film history can be viewed from the perspective of modernism, and almost all of its critics and theorists have drawn on modernist theory in examining it. Although sometimes the terms “avant-garde” and “experimental” are used as synonyms for “modernist” (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Avant-Garde and Experimental Film”). Furthermore, the term “modernism” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “modernist” and thereby conflated with it. For the purposes of this entry, only the former is relevant. Modernism here refers to a particular discursive style pioneered in the modern age (understood as late 19th to early 20th century)—not coincidentally the era in which the cinema appeared. On the other hand, modernity is a more sociological term that describes this particular historical period and its attendant cultural shifts (e.g., industrialization, electrification, urbanization, technological advance). Although all films are “modern” (in the sense that they were produced in the modern era), not all are modernist. To qualify for this designation, the films must display certain characteristics (among them, a commitment to the new and a rejection of the past, fragmentation, lack of plot, generic and stylistic innovation, anti-illusionism, anti-realism, formal complexity, etc.) that we associate with modernism in the other arts (for instance, literature [e.g., Virginia Woolf], painting [e.g., Pablo Picasso], theater [e.g., Bertolt Brecht], and dance [e.g., Martha Graham]). All the references discussed here self-consciously engage and announce their engagement with this discursive sense of modernism, examining works from its early heyday and continuing into the contemporary era, with films (and occasionally related photographic works) that still bear its traces. Questions of modernity may, of course, arise in conjunction with investigations of modernism. Given constraints of space, this entry cannot, however, include all writings on those we might deem modernist directors (e.g., monographs on Dziga Vertov, Jean Epstein, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Walter Ruttmann, and Federico Fellini). See also the Oxford Bibliographies articles “Avant-Garde and Experimental Film,” “Surrealism and Film,” and “American Independent Cinema.”

General Overview

These volumes provide overviews of what defines modernism in film. In an encyclopedia entry, Wood 2011 explores international modernist films in the 1920s and 1930s, highlighting German, American, French, and Russian films. Giovacchini 2001 considers how modernist American films of the 1930s were interested with leftist political activity. Pomerance 2006 is a large, extensive anthology with articles by major critics who discuss an international range of modernist films and theories, beginning with early cinema and moving into the contemporary era.

  • Giovacchini, Saverio. Hollywood Modernism: Film and Politics in the Age of the New Deal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

    Focusing on the 1930s, Giovacchini discusses how European émigré cineastes produced a modernist cinema that took an anti-fascist perspective and formed a community in Los Angeles of artists, intellectuals, activists, and film workers.

  • Pomerance, Murray, ed. Cinema and Modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

    In these original essays, and taking an historic and international perspective, scholars examine connections between film, modernism, and modernity. Films considered include Detour, Shock Corridor, The Last Laugh, Experiment in Terror, The Great Dictator, Leave Her to Heaven, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Eyes Wide Shut, Sunrise, The Crowd, The Shape of Things to Come, and The War of the Worlds.

  • Wood, Michael. “Modernism and Film.” In The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. Edited by Michael Levenson, 268–283. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9781107010635

    Wood examines where modernism appears and its broad characteristics, exploring examples of German, American, French, and Russian films of the 1920s and 1930s, paying particular attention to the importance and effects of montage and editing to convey the modernist aesthetic. He also investigates issues of illusion and perception in modernist film.

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