What Is a Film Auteur?

Let’s explore what makes a filmmaker an auteur and who some of the most influential film auteurs were, from the French New Wave to Alfred Hitchcock.

May 29, 2024By Alex "Cosmo" Lutz, BA English Literature

what is a film auteur


An auteur is a filmmaker whose creative markings are so distinct across their body of work that we can recognize, at a glance, whose markings they are as easily as we could the music of a particular recording artist or the painting style of a notable painter. But not all filmmakers are considered auteurs. This article will explore the origins of the concept and discuss what differentiates a film auteur from other types of filmmakers.


What’s the Difference Between a Film Auteur and a Director?

film auteur fellini amarcord 1973
Fellini’s Amarcord, 1973. Source: Academy Film Archive


Despite the many collaborative efforts that take place in the filmmaking process, some filmmakers are able to yield enough control over their creative vision that we can identify their work as uniquely theirs, sometimes with only having seen a few frames of their film. These specific filmmakers are called auteurs. Their styles have often been mimicked, copied, and admired. Film auteurs are influential throughout the filmmaking community. Some auteurs work within a genre, like John Ford who made mostly Westerns. Others have styles so niche that entire genres have been created in their wake, like Alfred Hitchcock, whose mastery over suspenseful techniques created tropes for what we now consider the thriller genre.


alfred hitchcock birds auteur
Alfred Hitchcock promotional material for The Birds, 1961. Source: Academy Film Archive


However, even though both of these auteurs are film directors, not all directors can be considered auteurs. So what’s the difference? Typically, in the film world, the director is the person whose creative vision is followed by the film crew through to the end of a project. They are the leader of the project and their process begins in pre-production, continues on-set, and doesn’t finish until the film is completed with editing, color, sound, and visual effects.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

In French, the word for the director is realizateur, but this translation isn’t so direct. Realizateur translates as the one who brings the vision to life.  Though filmmaking is often seen as a collaborative effort between multiple—sometimes even thousands—of people the question of authorship in cinema, meaning whose vision is at the heart of what everyone else is trying to realize, remains an important and debated topic, even within the filmmaking community.


Mainstream Effect of Color TV on Cinema

colour color tv
Philips Color television. Source: National Film & Sound Archive of Australia


Up until the late 1940s directors were not necessarily the ones credited with the overarching creative vision of their films in Hollywood and in international cinema, such as France, Italy, and Japan, which all had booming film industries. The invention of color television in 1944 changed the way in which films were both consumed and produced with bigger-scale productions on bigger budgets and no need for audiences to visit the cinema. To capitalize on this technological change the beginning of studio-network relationships streamlined a style of filmmaking that was easily digestible for mainstream audiences. As a result, producers, studio heads, and other executives were often associated with being the authoritative voice behind the creative vision of a film.


Many filmmakers, particularly in France, were unhappy with what they thought was ultimately an un-artistic, boring style of filmmaking that was produced for TV. They wanted to correct what they felt was a misconception over whose voice was the one steering the creative ship, believing that the fully realized vision of a film belonged not to studio executives or distributors, but to the director of a film.


Whose Voice Steers the Ship? 

Kurosawa Akira film auteur
Akira Kurosawa. Source: PRNewsFoto


Though it is well established today that the person whose creative vision is at the center of a film is the director, it wasn’t always so. The voice of the director has often been lost to a variety of different voices, such as studio executives, network producers, or other financial backers. Historically, because of the often massive expenses needed behind the scenes to put a film together, a grey area surrounding whose voice should be credited with the overall vision of a film was created. Out of the many forms of artistic revolt that began to arise from various independent and international corners of the cinematic world against the Hollywood studio model were many questions surrounding authorship in cinema, including the need to define who the true realizateur was of any given film.


The French New Wave

400 blows francois truffaut
The 400 Blows, 1956. Source: Criterion Collection


In 1948, Alexandre Astruc wrote a manifesto entitled, The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo that outlined a bunch of ideas related to authorship in cinema, one of which was that a camera was to a director what a pen was to a novelist. Later, a fellow French film critic and film director, Francois Truffaut expanded on this idea in a film magazine he ran called Cahiers du Cinema. He likened the director of a film to the author of a book. Truffaut’s critical writing provided an ethos for a group of independent, iconoclast filmmakers that rejected those mainstream ideals, and the French New Wave was born.


The French New Wave’s ethos rejected the classically produced, studio-style films that began to predominate globally and in France. But they knew their philosophies needed to be more than just words, so they also began to make films. These films, characterized by their avant-garde style stemming from low-budget productions, express the group’s desire to demonstrate that film, like painting or music, is an artistic medium for expressing thoughts.


Their avant-garde films often depicted protagonists who were far different from big leading stars of Hollywood. The films showed themes of absurdity and existential crisis. There were long tracking shots and low-budget camera techniques, such as handheld as opposed to dolly shots. The first films that were both critically and financially successful for The New Wave were Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless (1960). Other notable members of the movement include film theorist Andre Bazin and directors like Eric Rohmer, Agnes Vada, and Claude Chabrol.


Jean-Luc Godard’s Impact

jean luc godard looking through camera
Jean-Luc Godard, 1989. Source: Academy Film Archive


Jean-Luc Goddard was one of the most influential filmmakers of the French New Wave. Not only due to the international success of his film Breathless but because of his entire body of work, which includes films like Bande a Part (1964) and Pierrot Le Fou (1965).


Goddard was part of the French New Wave movement, but his films also had their unique style, marked by distinct characteristics that can be identified as specifically his.


His style consisted of noir archetypes, anti-hero storylines, existential themes, close-ups of paintings, handheld camera moves, and his distinctive, disjunctive editing style. He was known for his jump cuts that were meant to draw attention to the fact that the audience was watching a film. This last and most notable trait of Goddard’s work was a very specific revolt against the seamless editing style of mainstream French TV and Hollywood of the time. These unique attributes made Goddard an auteur.


Auteur Theory in Hollywood

breathless jean luc godard auteur
Breathless, 1960. Source: Academy Film Archive


Although Truffaut used the French expression les politiques des auteurs to liken film directors to authors of books, it wasn’t until 1962, when American film critic Andrew Sarris translated the French New Wave’s concept of authorship into English film criticism, that ‘auteur theory’ made waves in Hollywood.


The concept of auteur theory sparked a similar type of revolt against the studio machinery in Hollywood, temporarily shifting creative authorship from studio executives into the hands of directors. The directors were now given more freedom to make creative choices in their projects. This changed the perception of directors as creators giving birth to the New Hollywood era that lasted until the early 1980s when the colossal financial failure of films such as Heaven’s Gate (1985) made studios more cautious. At this point, things started to teeter back in favor of the studios again.


Since the term auteur was coined, it has been reapplied retroactively and proactively by critics and filmmakers alike to describe many filmmakers. Some of these filmmakers were making movies in a unique style even before Goddard was alive. These include John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and even Alfred Hitchcock. Interestingly, both Godard and Hitchcock saw each other’s style of filmmaking as revolutionary.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Impact

film auteur alfred hitchcock collection highlight
Blackmail, Alfred Hitchcock Collection, 1929. Source: Academy Film Archive


Alfred Hitchcock was a British-born film director who worked predominantly in Hollywood from 1939 until 1980. His work is known for a variety of specific stylistic qualities that were consistent throughout his body of work even before the term auteur entered cinematic consciousness.


Hitchcock is known for his particular ways of creating suspense in films such as Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). His work is also known for a variety of distinct storytelling characteristics, such as the red herring, his cameo appearances, and the use of elements of horror. He also used a variety of cinematic techniques such as the dolly zoom. Hitchcock also liked breaking the fourth wall which happens when the main character looks right into the camera and speaks to the audience directly as in Psycho or The Rear Window (1956), where the whole film becomes the fourth wall. Hitchcock liked working with the same cast members. James Stewart appeared in four of his films, while graphic designer Saul Bass created artworks for several of Hitchcock’s films, from Vertigo to North By Northwest (1959).


Francois Truffaut wrote a book about Alfred Hitchcock’s films entitled Truffaut/Hitchcock which is based on a series of interviews Truffaut did with his fellow director in the sixties. Truffaut came to realize that Alfred Hitchcock was revolutionizing how films were produced and cinema was shown. He also believed that Alfred created the entire thriller genre. Hitchcock had respect for the French New Wave too and he was astounded by the fact that films of so much substance could be made with such small budgets. Hitchcock’s works are widely watched and discussed today, and he remains one of the first Hollywood directors to be associated with the title of a film auteur.


Federico Fellini’s Influence

federico fellini itialian film director
Fellini on the set of 8 ½, 1963. Source: Academy Film Archive


Federico Fellini was an Italian, neo-realist film director famous for his use of chiaroscuro, high-contrast lighting, dreamlike sequences, non-linear storytelling, allegory, and symbolism. He was heavily influenced by his time on set when he was writing for another Italian filmmaker, Roberto Rossellini. One of the unique themes in Fellini’s work are depictions of memories or moments ripe with nostalgia, that aren’t based on actual events from the filmmaker’s life.


His most famous works include La Strada (1954), which tells the story of a vagabond who has an abusive love affair on the road, and La Dolce Vita (1960), which is considered Fellini’s magnum opus. Dream-like sequences can be seen in this film and in movies like 8 ½ (1963) which tells the story of a filmmaker struggling with creative block, something that Fellini himself is known to have dealt with.


Fellini’s influence on contemporary filmmakers and other auteurs is extensive. Directors such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch attribute elements of style, philosophies of cinema, and both thematic and technical aspects of their filmmaking to the Italian director.


Akira Kurosawa’s Legacy

seven samurai mifune kurosawa auteur
Kurosawa & Mifune on the set of Seven Samurai, 1954. Source: ifccenter


The term auteur can be applied to filmmakers who work outside of Hollywood and Europe, extending east to Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa won the main award at the Venice Film Festival in 1950 with his samurai film Roshomon. After seeing his films, Federico Fellini named Kurosawa “the greatest living example of all that an author of the cinema should be.”


The distinct film techniques that can be seen in Kurosawa’s body of work include long lens shots, the use of fog and rain to enhance a scene with dramatic irony, Shakespearean scale dramatizations, and stories about Samurai warriors. Kurosawa also used a regular ensemble of cast and crew in his films. Toshiro Mifune played characters in fourteen of Kurosawa’s films including, Roshoman, Yojimbo (1961), Seven Samurai (1954), and Ran (1985).


Kurosawa’s success at the Venice Film Festival brought Japanese cinema global attention. The stories from Roshomon and his other Samurai films like Yojimbo (1961) established the major tropes for what would later become the Spaghetti Western narrative. Images of battles on horseback, showdowns in the middle of town between two warriors, and the moment when all the blinds shut on small businesses as the bad guy waltzes into town to instill fear, all stem from Kurosawa’s samurai films.


Are all Directors Film Auteurs?

pulp fiction quentin trantino modern auteur
Pulp Fiction, 1994. Source: Miramax Entertainment


There has been a lot of debate within the filmmaking community on whether a film director is always an auteur. Quentin Tarantino argued that to be a true auteur the film must be both written and directed by one person. This is likely because some directors, like David Fincher—whom many consider to be a modern-day auteur with a very distinct style—would not begin working on a film until the genesis of the story was already established by a writer.


Members of a school of thought called Schreiber Theory believe writers to be the rightful auteurs of a film. Another school of thought believes that actors can be auteurs, like Marlon Brando for example. Before Brando, Lawrence Olivier’s style of stage-acting dominated movies, but Brando’s method acting style inspired by Stanislavski’s system became widely influential. As a result, many people argue that Brando himself was an auteur even though he never directed a film.


marlon brando streetcar named desire
A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951. Source: Warner Bros

Though auteurship is rarely a quality associated with television, the creative voice of a TV series is its showrunner. This person stands somewhere between a head writer and a lead producer. Typically the showrunner may only direct a few episodes per season of a show or sometimes none at all. Yet, this person is who we associate with the creative vision of a show, so some showrunners can be seen as auteurs.


Authorship in cinema remains an important and debated topic. From pioneers of the French New Wave to directors of international cinema like Fellini and Kurosawa, the defining voices of film auteurs have helped cement cinema as an art form.

Author Image

By Alex "Cosmo" LutzBA English LiteratureCosmo is a writer and filmmaker from Ontario, Canada. After completing his BA in English Literature from Western University Canada, he spent nearly 8 years traveling the world, living out of a backpack, before deciding to return to Canada to complete his certificate in advanced Filmmaking from Fanshawe College. He currently works on-set as a Camera Assistant, and continues to travel, living out of a van and produces short films.