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Berlinale: Scorsese on legacy, influence and TikTok

February 20, 2024

The US filmmaker has been honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Berlinale. Along with his masterpieces, Martin Scorsese is also known for sparking uproar.

Martin Scorsese talking with his hands in the air.
Martin Scorsese discussed his passion for cinema at the Berlinale, ahead of receiving the honorary Golden Bear for his life's workImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

"Describe Martin Scorsese in one word."

Asked the question by a journalist at the Berlin International Film Festival, the influential filmmaker and producer simply answered: "It's a mystery!"

If one thing can be said of him, it's that Scorsese is undeniably a monument of film history.

The influential director and producer, now 81, has already been honored with a number of lifetime achievement awards. The Berlin International Film Festival also celebrated him with its Honorary Golden Bear on February 20.

The director is dedicated to film preservation, and is an ardent promoter of restored and classic cinema. This passion could be felt at the press conference held on Tuesday, ahead of the award ceremony, as he discussed at length works from all eras and parts of the world.

But, asked another journalist, how does Scorsese reflect on his own influence on other filmmakers? 

When he was younger, Scorsese replied, he "was full of ambition and ego" — joking in the following sentence that he probably never lost those character traits. But, he added, "you try to, as it gets in the way sometimes."

Still among top Oscar candidates

Since 1967, Scorsese has directed 26 feature films and many more documentaries.

His latest work, "Killers of the Flower Moon," focuses on the systematic killing of members of the Osage Nation for their oil-rich land by white settlers in the 1920s, a story based on historical facts.

The film has earned 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Lily Gladstone, the first Native American to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone stepping out a of 1920s car in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone starred in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'Image: Melinda Sue Gordon/dpa/picture alliance

But despite the acclaim, Scorsese is no stranger to backlash.

Here are five controversies that are also part of Scorsese's remarkable legacy.

1. He has often been accused of glorifying violence

The director developed his trademark themes — including macho attitudes, bloody violence and Catholic guilt — early on in his career.

The graphic violence in "Taxi Driver" (1976), and the fact that then 12-year-old Jodie Foster was cast in the role of a child prostitute, made the Palme d'Or-winning masterpiece controversial.

Contributing to the film's infamous reputation, "Taxi Driver" was among the triggers of a delusional obsession developed by a man called John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, as he wanted to "try to impress Jodie Foster." 

Film still from 'Taxi Driver': Robert De Niro is topless and points a gun.
Robert De Niro's depiction of a veteran and taxi driver with a deteriorating mental state is one of his most iconic rolesImage: akg-images/picture alliance

For some critics, Scorsese should have condemned his protagonists' behavior more directly in his films.

But Scorsese has said he finds such moralistic attitudes "beyond boring," most recently in a discussion with Timothee Chalamet for GQ, referring to the reaction to "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013) a decade ago. The film was also accused of "glorifying psychopathic behavior" at the time of its release.

2. 'The Last Temptation of Christ' was deemed 'blasphemous'

Before discovering his passion for cinema, Scorsese first planned to become a priest, and he still identifies as a Catholic.

He has explored questions of faith in many of his films, but "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) was the one that angered conservative Catholics the most.

The film includes a hallucinatory sequence of Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe) having sex with Mary Magdalene.

A film still from 'The Last Temptation Of Christ': Willem Dafoe portraying Jesus on the cross.
Willem Dafoe in the role of Jesus, a man caught between the temptations of earthly pleasures and the will of GodImage: United Archives/picture-alliance

Screenings were accompanied by protests; the film was banned in different countries, including Argentina, where Pope Francis was born.

Since then, however, relations between the Vatican and the provocative Catholic director seem to have thawed.

Following a 2016 screening in Rome of his film "Silence," about the persecution of Jesuit Christians in 17th-century Japan, Scorsese had his first meeting with the pope.

And at the beginning of this year, Scorsese announced plans to direct another film about Christ, based on the novel "A Life of Jesus."

3. He has made enemies of fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In a 2019 interview with Empire magazine, Scorsese stated that he didn't consider Marvel superhero movies to be cinema. He likened them to "theme parks" and argued that they lacked the emotional and psychological depth he associates with true cinema.

Directors and stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were asked to react to his remarks and defend the mega-franchise.

The topic has turned into never-ending beef between him and fans of the superhero blockbusters.

4. His expensive partnership with Netflix raised eyebrows — and we shouldn't be scared of TikTok

Even the great advocate of cinema has adapted to a changing film industry.

While he once claimed that streaming services were "devaluing" cinema by reducing films to "content," he also teamed up with Netflix for the "The Irishman" (2019), his film starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

The filmmaker explained that no one else in Hollywood was ready to pay for the production, which featured pioneering — and expensive — "de-aging" technology. Its budget has been estimated to be as high as $250 million.

Meanwhile, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix is reviewing its approach, and "the era of expensive vanity projects" that allowed Scorsese to make this film "is likely over."

Film still from 'The Irishman': Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in 1950s suits.
Because 'The Irishman' spans decades, actors Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro were made to look younger with technology in certain scenesImage: Netflix/dpa/picture alliance

Despite what people might conclude from some of his statements, Scorsese doesn't believe cinema is dying: "It's transforming. It never was meant to be one thing," he said in Berlin. It perhaps used to be one thing, the film theater, he explained. Today, with quickly developing technologies, platforms for cinema are changing, but the filmmaker feels we can still hold onto one thing: "the individual voice."

"The individual voice, I must say, it can express itself on TikTok or in a four-hour film or in a miniseries," he said. "I don't think we should let the technology scare us." It just needs to be led in the right direction, he added, to allow personal visions to emerge, and not only "something that is consumed and tossed away." 

"What's fashionable dies within a day," noted the influential filmmaker.

5. He is accused of making films that lack strong female characters

This debate has been accompanying Scorsese throughout his career, but it was reignited following the release of "The Irishman," where female characters had just a few words in the three-and-a-half-hour long movie.

A woman cries while hugging another woman in the film 'Alice Doesn't live here Anymore.'
'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore' stars Ellen Burstyn as a widow in search of a better lifeImage: Mary Evans/IMAGO

But a deeper dive into his filmography shows that the influential filmmaker has also directed works with strong female leads, and offered more nuanced portrayals of women, including "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974) and "The Age of Innocence" (1993), or his recent Netflix series with New York icon Fran Lebowitz.

The director describes his work as an exploration of humanity that has little to do with the gender divide, as he pointed out in a recent interview with The Guardian. "I try to find who we are as a human being, as an organism, what our hearts are made of."

Edited by: Sarah Hucal

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture