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European Film Schools: Lessons From the Past

Duncan Petrie, co-author (with Rod Stoneman) of the new book Educating Film-Makers, charts the history of Europe’s film schools and says that today’s emphasis on vocational skills training risks losing sight of the way film schools have historically integrated artistic, intellectual and industrial aims.

The creative achievements and historical legacy of European film-making owes a great deal to the ways in which practitioners have been educated and trained. In line with the long tradition of public support for cinema across the continent, the predominant model of European film school has been the national conservatoire. While the primary function of such institutions has been to provide a steady stream of suitably trained cadres of film-makers for the film and (increasingly) television industries, they have also played a central role in the nurturing of moving image culture, particularly in the period before the growth of film and media studies within universities.

educating filmmakers

Educating Film-makers (Intellect, 2014).

But in recent times a new agenda has imposed itself on practice-oriented moving image education: that of vocational skills training. In order to maintain global competitiveness, European film industries have increasingly embraced a market-oriented focus which in turn has impacted on all aspects of business and relevant new policy initiatives. In the realm of education this has encouraged a shift in emphasis away from the formation of film-makers as essentially artists or cultural workers in favour of a new emphasis on the need to train resourceful creative entrepreneurs and skilled technicians.

In the UK, where the vision of the film industry as a global creative hub attracting inward investment and big budget Hollywood production, the focus on skills has been placed centre stage and overseen by Creative Skillset, the sector skills council for the creative industries, which awards official industry approval for practice-oriented courses and programmes. While the response to the new business imperative in some other European nations has been more nuanced, across the continent policy is being guided by a similar need to nurture economically sustainable ‘creative industries’.

But this new emphasis loses sight of the way in which film schools have sought to integrate cultural and industrial aims through the integration of the practical and technical training, creative experimentation and intellectual stimulation, an approach that facilitated and sustained the artistic, cultural and industrial health of European cinema for several decades. Such a reconsideration is the purpose of a new book, Educating Film-Makers, which explores the history of film school education and asks how the lessons of the past might be used to address the needs, opportunities and challenges of the present and future.

Europe’s first film schools

Moscow State College

Europe’s first film school: The Moscow State College of Cinematography, founded 1919. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The history of European film schools begins almost a hundred years ago with the establishment in 1919 of the Moscow State College of Cinematography following Lenin’s famous decree that ‘of all the arts, for us the cinema is most important’. The school, which subsequently developed into the world famous VGIK, was driven by a revolutionary zeal in which practical instruction and intellectual enquiry went and in hand in the service of building a new society. This was epitomised by those who taught and studied at school, including Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, advancing both the art and the theoretical understanding of cinema in the process. Moreover, in addition to training film-makers for the new Soviet film industry, VGIK also became a centre of serious scholarship, establishing an archive and library by 1931.

This provided a prototype for subsequent developments beginning with the Italian Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, founded in Rome in 1935 by Mussolini and situated across the road from the world-famous Cinecitta studios. The Centro provided a fertile creative and intellectual environment – students were able to view films that were otherwise banned and publications included the journal Bianco et Nero – paving the way for the breakthrough of Neo Realism after the fall of Fascism. Meanwhile in Nazi-occupied Paris, the Institute des hautes etudes cinématographiques (IDHEC) under the leadership of the avant garde film-maker Marcel L’Herbier began enrolling its first cohort of students in January 1944, a full six months before the liberation.

The rebuilding of European cinema after the 1945 saw an explosion of film schools across the continent. The Soviet-controlled East seized the initiative first and by 1950 almost every Socialist State had founded its own national institution. Fascist Spain was also quick of the mark, founding its national school in 1947. The democratic nations in the west were slower off the mark; a Dutch institution appeared in 1958 followed in the 1960s by Belgium, Sweden, Denmark and West Germany (with institutions in Munich and Berlin rather than a single national school). Somewhat typically, Britain was late on the scene, finally setting up its own National Film School in 1970.

Auteur film-makers

The development of European film schools entailed some interesting pedagogical debates and shifts in practice. Given the early close association between film education and totalitarian regimes, political interference was a major problem for many schools and the history of film education under Communism is marked by the oscillation between periods of relative freedom and repressive control. Yet despite the difficulties, the Eastern European schools – particularly the Polish School in Lodz and FAMU in Czechoslovakia – maintained a high standard of intellectual, creative and technical achievement, underpinning the various new waves that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Jerzy Toeplitz – historian, teacher and director of the Polish Film School – also emerged as one of the inspiring visionaries of international film education during the same period.

Colin Young

Founding director of the UK’s National Film School Colin Young (right) with Lord Eccles in 1971. (Photo: NFTS)

Prior to the 1960s, most schools balanced a strong commitment to creative ideas and developing specialist production skills. This was challenged by the rise of auteurism, illustrated by the way the French nouvelle vague set its rebellious sail against the commitment of IDHEC to professional skills and high quality production values – the very bedrock of the derided ‘cinema du papa’. This inspired a shift away from the teaching of separate specialisations in film schools – directing, cinematography, screenwriting, production design, editing – towards a focus on all-round generalist film-makers (although in Eastern Europe a commitment to specialisation was maintained).

New institutions were sometimes more radical, for example, Colin Young, founding director of the UK’s National Film School, imported an ‘open curriculum’ model previously developed at UCLA that afforded students complete freedom over their learning and development. While a clear response to the vision of cinema as a form of personal expression that underpinned the revitalisation of the movies across Europe and America in the 1960s, this resulted in a different kind of imbalance to the current obsession with skills training.

Craft specialists

But by the 1980s the golden age of art cinema was on the wane and European film industries began expressing disquiet that film schools were producing too many writer/directors at the expense of the full range of creative and technical specialists. The response in UK was to replace the open curriculum with structured training in ten distinct craft specialisations. In France the growing concern about declining standards at IDHEC even led to the establishment of a new institution, La FEMIS, in 1986 which offered a rigorous four-year course in one of seven specialist areas. In addition to addressing industrial need, this shift should also be seen as a welcome reaffirmation of the essentially collaborative nature of film-making.


Dogma-95 films like Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration) owe much to the rule-bound philosophy of Denmark’s National Film School.

Some institutions made a new virtue out of creative collaboration, notably the National Film School of Denmark which also developed a commitment to the role of structure, rules and constraint – rather than openness and freedom – as fundamental to the fostering of creativity. This innovative philosophy was explained by the school’s former head of Screenwriting, Mogens Rukov, in the following way:

We have the habit of regarding limits as things that narrow the work, but we know that’s a lie. We know that it’s a lie because we always live with, and we can only live within, constraints. So, work within limits: limits you can discuss with your students, limits you can impose on them, limits they can fight….. All films that make a certain impact on the public are told according to very clear narrative limitations.

The impact of this approach can be seen in the rules-based phenomenon of Dogma-95, while the institutional commitment to collaboration has underpinned the artistic and popular success of Danish cinema and television drama over the last two decades.

Creative entrepreneurs

The rejection of auteurism and the push for greater market responsiveness in film schools also initiated a new emphasis on the training of screenwriters and producers. Where auteurism had led to writing being subsumed under directing, the need for better scripts motivated a new concentration on the specific craft of screenwriting. Meanwhile, the idea of the producer as a creative entrepreneur: developing projects, raising finance and building independent production companies, also came to the fore.

Thus the auteur came to be eclipsed by the three way relationship between writer, director and producer, dubbed the triangle model, at the heart of the creative process. But unlike the reductive variant of skills training, this continues to place ideas and stories at the heart of the process, and as such maintains a link back to the original aims of European film school education.

Professor Duncan Petrie is based at the University of York. He is both a project contributor and member of the MeCETES Advisory Board. His latest book (co-authored with Rod Stoneman), Educating Film-Makers: Past, Present and Future (2014), is published by Intellect.

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