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10 memorable winners of the Palme d'Or

Jochen Kürten kbm
May 18, 2018

The Golden Palm has been awarded at the glamorous Cannes Film Festival since 1955. Since then, some of the world's most famous directors have won – but only one woman. Here's a look back at the highlights.

Scene from The Tine Drum by Volker Schlöndorff
Image: Imago/AGD

Take a close look at the winners of the world's most important film festivals – Cannes, Venice, Berlin – and one thing will stand out. The Cannes Film Festival has consistently had a nose for films that would go down in movie history and become classics.

The winners of the Golden Lions and Bears in Venice and Berlin, on the other hand, have often quickly disappeared from our memories, landing wherever forgotten films go.

Cannes' Golden Palm list still shines

Scene from Rome, Open City
Roberto Rossellini's "Rome, Open City" became a classicImage: imago

Should Cannes need still more proof that it is the world's most significant film festival, the list of Palm d'Or winners would be it.

The Palms have been around since 1955. Before that – the festival first took place in 1946 – a Grand Prix du Festival was awarded. Prior to 1955, each winner went home with a prize that was uniquely created by a French artist.

The Palms, then, were consistently in gold, bearing the crest of the ritzy city on the French Riviera. And to mark the festiva's 70th anniversary, in 2017, the trophy was inlaid with 167 diamonds.

Rossellini, Reed and Lean among early winners

In the first two years of the festival, the prize was presented to numerous films. Among the early winners were Roberto Rossellini's neo-realism drama "Rome, Open City," and David Lean's melodrama "Brief Encounter." Starting in 1949, only one single prize was handed out, and that year it went to Carol Reed's "The Third Man," which would later become a classic.

Orson Welles in The Third Man
Orson Welles both directed and performed in "The Third Man"Image: Imago/United Archives

The first "real" Golden Palm was presented in 1955 to American director Delbert Mann for his film "Marty." It remains one of the few winning films that didn't go on to leave a mark. The following year, the jury, led by French theater great Maurice Lehmann, dished out a surprise and chose "The Silent World," a documentary by underwater pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and young director Louis Malle.

Nearly half a century would pass before another documentary would be honored at Cannes: "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004.

The list of winners in the decades following the Cousteau/Malle duo is impressive: Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Francesco Rosi and the Taviani brothers made a strong showing for Italian cinema in the early decades in Cannes.

Scene from Fahrenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore
With "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore won the second Gold Palm for a documentaryImage: Imago/Zuma Press

French greats went home empty-handed

Not surprisingly, French directors were also frequently chosen for the top prize in their home country, including Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Demy and Claude Lelouch.

What's conspicuous, however, is that their more famous colleagues Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol have never won a Golden Palm. And it's not for want of trying. French productions often make their way into the competition - but the international juries, it seems, don't want to give the host country a home advantage.

Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Catherine Deneuve in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," which won in 1964Image: Imago/United Archives

Even Great Britain has been strongly represented among the Palme d'Or winners with directors like Richard Lester, Joseph Losey, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Eastern Europe claimed the top award in 1958 for Mikhail Kalatozov with "The Cranes Are Flying," in 1981 for Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Iron," and in 1985 for "When Father Was Away on Business" by Emir Kusturica.

Two Golden Palms for Germany

Germany has won twice in Cannes, with Volker Schlöndorff ("The Tin Drum") and Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas"). Japanese directors have also been honored multiple times, including Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1954 win for "Gate of Hell" and Akira Kurosawa's "Kagemusha" in 1980.

Akira Kurosawa
Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa won in 1980 for "Kagemusha"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Of course, a number of Palms have also gone to the US. Orson Welles claimed one early on for "Othello" (1952); later came William Wyler, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Surprising - but certainly deserved - was the 1989 Golden Palm for "Sex, Lies and Videotape" by Steven Soderberg.

China, Thailand also among Palm winners

China hasn't gone away from Cannes empty-handed, with Chen Kaige claiming the top prize in 1993 for his impressive epic, "Farewell My Concubine." In 2010, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won for "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." A handful of other smaller countries have also made their way onto the winners' list, including Belgium, Greece, Romania, Turkey, Spain, and Scandinavian countries.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan in Cannes 2014
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan shows off his prize in 2014Image: Reuters

The strength of the Golden Bear

Other continents have rather remained the exception in Cannes, though Brazil won in 1962, Algeria in 1975 and Iran in 1997. However, the Berlinale Film Festival, which takes place yearly in February, tends to concentrate more closely on these regions of the world.

When it comes to international recognition, the Berlinale's Golden Bear can't compete with the Palme d'Or, and neither can the Golded Lion from Venice. All the more reason that expectations are once again high when the 71st Golden Palm will be handed out on May 19, 2018.