Who Should Win a Nobel Prize in Cinema?

Nobel Theater

There is no Nobel Prize for Cinema, but there should be. Not that it’s anyone’s fault, of course. Alfred Nobel put aside the funding for the five prizes (Medicine, Peace, Physics, Chemistry and Literature) in his will, and he died in 1896. It seems entirely likely that the Swedish inventor and philanthropist never even saw a single film projected in his life. Why would he set aside some of his fortune to reward the practitioners of an art form that had been around for less than a decade?

I suppose one could leave it at that. Tough luck, cinema. But in 1969 the Swedish Academy began giving out the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. If they can grant an annual award to a fake science, then they can certainly do the same for an entirely real art.

What would such a prize look like? It should probably take most of the parameters of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which is the only current award that recognizes artists. The aren’t really specific criteria, except that the recipient has to be living. The list of prior laureates is international and interdisciplinary, including novelists as well as poets and playwrights. And, most importantly, the prize is given out for an entire body of work. Individual books have been included in citations, but that’s rare these days.

Looking back at the list of literature laureates, you can get sort of an idea as to who would have already won the Nobel Prize in Cinema if they’d started awarding it in, say, 1950. The Swedish Academy likes giving the award to writers with a strong sense of idealism, especially those who write defend human rights with their work. That screams Italian Neorealism to me, so Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini would probably have carried off the prize at some point.

Other obvious choices are Ingmar Bergman, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Luis Buñuel, and the whole laundry list of “great directors.” Jean-Luc Godard would likely have responded to the honor by turning it down, much like Jean-Paul Sartre did when he won for literature back in 1964.

But who would deserve a Nobel Prize in Cinema in 2013? The field of candidates is enormous, obviously. Anyone with a substantial body of highly regarded work should have a half-decent shot. Age helps, but not always. It isn’t exactly a lifetime achievement award, and is often given to an artist mid-way through their career. Rudyard Kipling was 42 when he won. Albert Camus was 44. A similarly youthful cinema winner might be Still Life and A Touch of Sin director Jia Zhangke, for example.

The oldest winner in history, Doris Lessing, had already retired when she won in 2007, at 88 years old. In that same vein, Alain Resnais is 91, and would be an excellent choice for a film Nobel.

A laureate can also work anywhere in the world, and in recent years they have. The last five literature winners are from China, Sweden, Peru, Romania and Mauritius. This means everyone should be considered, almost with an emphasis on those working well beyond the bounds of Hollywood and Western Europe.  Ousmane Sembène probably would have won at some point, along with Glauber Rocha. And, finally, one crucial point. The Nobel Prize in Cinema, like the other prizes, would not be the equivalent of “Best Filmmaker Alive.” This isn’t a direct competition, so egos can remain mostly unbruised.

And The Winner Might Be

Werner Herzog

Now that we’ve talked logistics, who should actually carry away the loot?

The first person who comes to my mind is Werner Herzog. He’s got the right pedigree, through his involvement in the “world historical” New German Cinema movement back in the 1970s. He certainly has the body of work, with over 40 feature films under his belt. The list includes timeless masterpieces like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, along with many “lesser films” that only seem that way when you aren’t watching them. I can even guess at what his citation might be: “for risking his sanity to spelunk the depths of madness and risking his life to chronicle the heights of human achievement.”

Plenty of other European filmmakers come to mind, Michael Haneke most obviously. But I think a strong case can be made for Claire Denis. The Swedish Academy has shown in their picks for the Nobel Prize in Literature that they have a soft spot for international writers, especially those that deal with issues of colonialism and its aftermath. Brilliant, complex examinations of French Africa like Chocolat and White Material are catnip for this sort of jury. Yet her filmography is also more internally diverse than that, and the close-to-home experimentation of Friday Night only furthers the case that a Nobel Laureate Denis would be an excellent idea.

This year we were all reminded by Top of the Lake that Jane Campion is, in fact, a fantastic filmmaker. It had been touch and go for a while, with the weak critical responses to Holy Smoke! (which is actually great) and In the Cut. But now that she’s returned to form, first with Bright Star and now with her New Zealand-noir miniseries, I think it’d be a good time to throw a Nobel Prize in her direction. Her early shorts, five years’ worth before her first attempt at a feature, show a commitment to cultivating her craft and a sharp sense of character. Sweetie is an extraordinary theatrical debut, and she followed it up with three triumphs that place her among the most influential filmmakers of the 1990s.

Spirited Away

The Nobel Prize in Literature rewards not only novelists, but also poets and playwrights. This openness to various forms should extend to a cinema prize, recognizing work beyond fictional live-action work. Animation should count, and for that the obvious choice would be Hayao Miyazaki. While other legendary animators prove that their art can be for adults, rather than children, Miyazaki seems to work with an infinite audience in mind. In 1997 he made one of the most beautiful films of all time, Princess Mononoke, and then followed it four years later with a masterpiece that expands the very definition of beauty. Those who loved Spirited Away as kids continue to adore it as they grow, but never ossifies into nostalgia.

As a closing thought, in 1988 Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses and religious leaders began calling for his death. Some members of the Swedish Academy wanted to give him the literature prize as a show of solidarity, and three of them resigned when it didn’t happen. But this isn’t because the Academy is afraid of political statements. Rushdie had only written four novels at the time and would have, at 41, been the youngest winner ever.

53-year-old Jafar Panahi has directed seven features and quite the handful of shorts, and many of them are pretty amazing. It’s hard to imagine any (however imaginary) Nobel committee not responding to his house arrest by the Iranian government with an award, especially after the release of his masterpiece of confinement, This Is Not a Film.

Of course, he’s deserved this sort of honor at least since 2006’s Offside. His work is seductively simple on the surface and layered with a deep love for humanity that challenges us just as it fills us with empathy. Panahi’s accomplishments transcend his current situation, and for that he deserves a Nobel.

But who would you pick?

Daniel Walber is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. He holds a MA in cinema studies from New York University, loves any movie under 80 minutes, and is gay for Bette Davis.

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