Auteur theory

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The auteur theory (from French "auteur" = author ) is a film theory and the theoretical basis for auteur films  - especially French ones - in the 1950s, which was differentiated from " producer cinema ". Even today, the definition of the term auteur is constantly being developed. For the author theory, the focus of the film is on the director or filmmaker as the intellectual originator and central designer of the work of art .

History of the Auteur Theory

At the end of the 1940s, a first author theory was formulated by the French film critic Alexandre Astruc when he raised the question of the intellectual property of a film . In the traditional creative process, it is difficult to assign the proportions of scriptwriter , cameraman and film director to the overall work. The thesis is that creativity suffers as a result of the assignment of partial tasks as fee-based activities by the film companies . Conversely, this theory calls for the activities to be merged into a creative unit. He formulated his design in the essay " La caméra-stylo ". The camera should be used like a pen. He was certain that in the future important writings would no longer be written as text , but with a "camera".

But such and similar ideas from the Auteur theory did not gain acceptance until the 1950s. Their common term as a pioneer for today's auteur theory was initially politique des auteurs (author's policy), which was only transformed into a theory in the course of time . The word politique or politics stood here for partisanship, which is more of a hindrance for discussions on film studies (see below).

The politique des auteurs was developed at that time by a group of young film critics around André Bazin , who wrote for the film magazine Cahiers du cinéma . François Truffaut played an essential role in this : In January 1954 he published his sensational essay A certain tendency in French film ( Une certaine tendance du cinéma français ), in which he took a sharp polemic against the established French "quality film". In this case, the director often took a back seat to the scriptwriter and the author of the literary source. Truffaut, on the other hand, advocated a film in which the form and content are completely determined by the director himself as the actual “author” of the film. He found this with European directors such as Luis Buñuel , Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini , who were traditionally regarded as authors of their films, but also and above all with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock , Howard Hawks , Fritz Lang and Vincente Minnelli , who (for the most part as contract directors ) worked in the Hollywood studio system, but their films still have a personal style.

The concept of the director as the author of his films became decisive for the film criticism of the Cahiers du cinéma , and thus for the directors of the Nouvelle Vague who emerged from it, alongside Truffaut, for example, Jean-Luc Godard , Jacques Rivette or Claude Chabrol - filmmakers who worked towards the Implementation of their artistic goals each served a very own cinematic form.

Roland Barthes, on the other hand, in his essay La mort de l'auteur (1968, The Death of the Author ) attaches far less importance to the author for literature than has been the case before. The "Auteur-Dieu" ("Author God") is replaced by the "écrivain" (the writer ) by Barthes and thus follows a criticism that Julia Kristeva wrote back in 1967 in her essay Bakhtine , le mot, le dialogue et le roman ( Bakhtin, the Word, the Dialogue, and the Novel , 1972).

The auteur theory remained formative for European films until the 1970s. After that, a turn away from the “fateful power of directors” ( Günter Rohrbach ) began. Economic pressure forced a return to a production method based on the division of labor, as is characteristic of producer films. This necessarily went hand in hand with the agreement of all those involved on a lowest common denominator and thus often a certain trivialization of the film content, which becomes more apparent the less the producer is involved in the actual creative process as the person responsible for the project.

In film studies, new authorship was also discovered by team members. In reality, the film is teamwork and you cannot tell from the film whether, for example, the idea for a shot comes from the director or the cameraman . In the Dogma film , the cameraman is not bound by instructions. The “Polish School” already involves the cameraman in the script-writing process. Inexperienced directors are usually very dependent on the creativity of the cameraman and other team members.

With the advent of digital recording techniques such as digital video since the late 1990s, many filmmakers , such as Wim Wenders , see more favorable conditions for individual, subjective productions.

Criticism and discussion

The “politique des auteurs” (author's policy) proclaimed by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1950s was originally an attempt to recognize certain directors such as Alfred Hitchcock as artists who developed their own visual language or, like Truffaut himself, all aspects of them Films themselves determined. An auteur filmmaker is a director who designs a film - if possible without compromise - the way he wants it to be.

The “politique des auteurs” quickly came under fire . Critics such as Andrew Sarris and Peter Wollen pointed to an empirical problem: Nobody can prove how much influence the director really had on his films or what influence form and content really have on what we perceive as authorship.

An example of this is the opening credits of Vertigo - From the Realm of the Dead (1958), which Alfred Hitchcock did not make himself, or the fact that many of his films are based on books by other authors and that even the scripts were rarely written by himself. Hitchcock in particular is a central figure in the “politique des auteurs”.

As the name “politique des auteurs” suggests, it was a question of politics, a deliberate polemical intervention. The Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris translated “politique des auteurs” into “auteur theory” in 1962, although it remained unclear in what sense this is actually a theory . Sarris popularized this "theory" in the English-speaking world and used it primarily to demonstrate the absolute superiority of Hollywood cinema, since he was convinced that it was "the only cinema in the world worth exploring in depth beneath the frosting of a few great directors at the top ”. Now the question was: where is the limit? Who or rather what do we perceive as authors?

From a sociological point of view, the author's theory was a strategy of distinction among young critics who wanted to draw attention to themselves. Godard later openly admitted this: "We said of Preminger and the other directors who worked for studios as you work for television today: 'They are wage earners, but at the same time more than that, because they have talent, some even genius ...' , but that was totally wrong. We said this because we believed it, but the reality is that we wanted to attract attention because no one was listening to us. The doors were closed. So we had to say: Hitchcock is a greater genius than Chateaubriand. "

The strongest criticism of the “politique des auteurs” followed in the 1970s. Roland Barthes proclaimed the " death of the author " as early as 1968 against a post-structuralist background . Due to the empirical dilemma of the verifiability of authorship, the author has now been recognized as an image figure who is formed from their environment and inscribes in the works. The “politique des auteurs” was also sharply attacked from the feminist side, as it served to cover up the collective character of filmmaking and, in the tradition of patriarchal hero worship, to stylize men into superstars. Claire Johnston defended the approach insofar as it counteracted an overly monolithic view of Hollywood cinema.

In the nineties, finally, there was a tendency to assume that authorship is largely (partly commercially) constructed. Timothy Corrigan calls this the "commercial auteur". It is expected that the audience will watch the film by a director known as a writer as e.g. B. perceives “The New Woody Allen !” Without really knowing how much influence Woody Allen actually had on the film. Dana Polan took another interesting approach: He sees the “auteurist” as the main person responsible for constructed author images. These are critics who seek the author as the highest authority and thus - like François Truffaut - want to point out a filmmaker as an artist and who also celebrate their own powers of insight. The term for this is "Auteur Desire". This approach shows once again the greatest accusation against the “politique des auteurs”. Nevertheless, naming a director parallel to - for example - a book author as a creative spirit continues to be extremely popular among reflective film critics and scholars. So is there more to it?

A more recent approach, Jan Distelmeyer's context-oriented work analysis , tries to clarify this question. The basis is the reception of the audience and critics on the one hand, and the author's construction from biography, film industry and cultural environment on the other. This bilateral approach recognizes the empirical dilemma of the definition of “auteur” and does not presume to determine what the work of author XYZ actually is now. Many other film theorists pursue similar concepts today. However, even such free handling cannot completely solve the problem, since the most important elements are variable and thus cannot be made clear.

So the main focus of critical tendencies is empirical. Recognizing a filmmaker as an “author” requires unreserved trust in what he says about how much influence he has had on his own films. Since this is an almost hopeless undertaking in times of very strong marketing of all possible more or less (in) dependent directors on the part of the film industry and distribution, a residual doubt and constant questioning of the “auteur” definition is appropriate. (Further references to this section Critique and Discussion in the bibliography)

Individual evidence

  1. Jean-Luc Godard: Introduction to a True History of Cinema. Hanser 1981, ISBN 3446132821 . P. 34

Important author theorists


  • François Truffaut : Une certaine tendance du cinéma français. In: Cahiers du cinéma. 1954.31 (January). Translation: A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema. In: Bill Nichols (Ed.): Movies and Methods. Berkeley 1976, pp. 224-237.
  • Jean-Luc Godard : Godard / Critic. Munich 1974, pp. 38-56.
  • Jean-Luc Godard: Introduction to a True History of Cinema. Hanser 1981, ISBN 3446132821 .
  • Andrew Sarris: Towards a Theory of Film History. In: Bill Nichols (Ed.): Movies and Methods. Berkeley 1976, pp. 237-251.
  • Peter Wollen: The Auteur Theory. In: Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. London 1969, pp. 74-115.
  • Roland Barthes : The death of the author. In: Fotis Jannidis, Gerhard Lauer, Mathias Martinez, Simone Winko (eds.): Texts on the theory of authorship. Stuttgart 2000, pp. 185-193.
  • Timothy Corrigan: A Cinema Without Walls. Movies and Culture after Vietnam. New Brunswick 1991, pp. 101-136.
  • Dana Polan: Author Desire. In: Screening the Past - An International, Refereed, Electronic Journal of Visual Media and History. No. 12 ("Auteurism 2001")
  • Jan Distelmeyer : From author to cultural product. Draft of a context-oriented work history. In: Andrea Nolte (Ed.): Medial Realities. Documentation of the 15th film and television studies colloquium. Marburg 2003, pp. 86-97.