Believing in Film

Interview with Mark le Fanu, former Film History teacher at European Film College.

Once you’ve been a student, a member of staff, or a teacher at European Film College, you are forever a member of a global family. One of EFC’s most beloved family members is Mark le Fanu, former Film History teacher at European Film College from 1993-2007.

Mark is an author and an expert on film history, and he recently published the book: ‘Believing in Film: Christianity and Classic European Cinema.”

We interviewed Mark about the book and about his time at European Film College.

What inspired you the write the book?

Perhaps it was the gradual realisation that so many of the European film directors I most admired had been influenced in some way by Christianity, and had brought the subject (in a non-hostile way) into their work. I myself had a Christian education, like many if not most of us, but I had never been a particularly practising or even a believing member of any church congregation. In my youth I rather spurned religion. But as one gets older one begins to see the point of it. At any event, atheism and rationalism have always irritated me. It seems to me obvious that man is a spiritual animal, and that the great religions of the world are grand and bold attempts to articulate this ‘longing for the absolute’ that exists in all of us. The great Russian poet Pushkin once remarked (in an epigram that always has inspired me) that religion and culture are effectively the same thing!

In your own words, what is the book about and why is it important to read?

The book is a work of practical film criticism, rather than theory. It attempts to parse the work of certain great historical European auteurs – Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Kieslowski, Zanussi, Wajda, Fellini, Rossellini, Fellini, Pasolini, De Sica, Rohmer, Bresson, Bergman, Dreyer, Bunuel are some (but not all) of them – through the optic of the Christian faith that inspired them, at least intermittently. I was guided by the feeling that in many of these cases it is Christianity that is the secret of their work. So far as I know, no other writer about cinema had explored this thesis before in a systematic way – though as soon as I say ‘systematic’ I have to correct myself. The book (only 260 pages) is not a treatise but an essay. The tone throughout is friendly and conversational: I aim to engage the ordinary educated reader in a sort of collaborative exploration of the phenomenon. I hope that people who read it will be able to hear my voice behind it, and have their own thoughts and qualifications.

How many books have you published?

I have only published three books in my life. As such, I can scarcely call myself an author! But I enjoyed writing all of them: they were adventures, or journeys, that I’m glad I undertook. They took me to places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone to. The first was a book about Tarkovsky (it bore the simple title The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky). The British Film Institute brought this out in 1987, a year after the director’s death; I think I can say that sales benefitted from the fact that he had died so recently. At any event, this book went into a second edition fairly swiftly and (uniquely) brought me in some money. (It brought me to Ebeltoft too, but that is another story.) My second book, Mizoguchi and Japan, a career analysis the great Japanese director, took ages to write. I went on research trips to Japan in 1992 and again in 1995, but the book itself didn’t get completed until 2005. And now this third book – not very long, as I said before – came out fifteen years after that! No, I am a slow writer. (I excuse myself by saying that I was doing other things in the intervals.)

The Mizoguchi book is just about to be re-issued in e-book form by Bloomsbury, with many corrections. I had written a whole chapter in it on Japanese theatre, not exactly my speciality, and when the book first came out a very nice girl wrote to me from Japan saying that she had enjoyed reading it, but there were rather a lot of errors in the theatre chapter. Which she proceeded to list. Oh dear. But the book stands up nonetheless, I think, now that it has been corrected. I am modestly proud of it (as I am of the Tarkovsky book). It even found itself nominated for a couple of prizes.

How do you look back at your time at the EFC? What importance did it have on your life and career?

I was lucky enough to be in on the first days of the EFC; I can truly say that the 14 years I spent in Ebeltoft teaching film history (1993-2007) constituted the best job I have ever had. Indeed one could scarcely call it a job – it was a way of life. And not just for myself of course, but for my dear departed wife Sally, and for my daughter Sylvie who grew up in Denmark as an Anglo-Danish child, and is now embarked on a career in film herself. What a privilege it was to find ourselves welcomed in the great country of Denmark! We made so many friends here. I am eternally grateful.

“I can truly say that the 14 years I spent in Ebeltoft teaching film history constituted the best job I have ever had.”