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KINO favorites: 7 great directing debuts

Scott Roxborough
November 24, 2017

The no-budget thriller that put Christopher Nolan on the road to "Batman," Ridley Scott's forgotten period drama and Steven Spielberg's humble beginnings with a monster truck: These first films launched stellar careers.

Still from "The Virgin Suicides"
Image: Imago/EntertainmentPictures

"Even Dwarfs Started Small," is how Werner Herzog put it in his ridiculously un-PC film from 1970 about a group of institutionalized little people who rebel against their keepers. The movie's message is simple: Revolution can come from the most unlikely places, and you're never too small to fight the system. It was Herzog's second film and, like his debut, "Signs of Life" in 1968, showed a director already fully-formed: Herzog would return to the similar themes — ambitious protagonists chasing impossible dreams, man's constant, and hopeless, battle with nature —throughout his career.

Even the biggest directors — Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott — started small. But, as with Herzog, their first films have a lot to say about their passions and preoccupations. Some, like "Following," Nolan's 1998 debut, give you the director in a nutshell: everything that was to come, from "Memento" to "The Dark Knight," can be glimpsed there in miniature.

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With others — Scott's Napoleonic war drama "The Duellists" from 1977 or "Knife in the Water," Roman Polanski's 1962 bow and still the only film he every shot in his native Poland — a debut can suggest a road not taken. You can imagine a whole separate canon, an alternative career, had the director continued on the path begun with that first feature.

But in every case, debut films are revealing. Whatever the budget or subject —Spielberg's "Duel," a road rage thriller original shot for TV was made for under half a million dollars; Nolan's "Following" for just $6,000 — where a director came from tells you a lot about where they ended up.

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Watching Sofia Coppola's first film, "The Virgin Suicides" (1999), you know this is a director destined for greatness. "Short Sharp Shock," the 1998 feature debut of German filmmaker Fatih Akin, has a few rough edges but his rock 'n' roll style and his ability to draw furious and fearless performances from his actors, is on full display.

For the latest edition of KINO Favorites we picked our seven top debuts: the mostly-forgotten beginnings of some of the world's greatest directors. Check it out and give us your review: Did your fave filmmaker make the cut? What first-time efforts would be on your list? Let us know: Kino@dw.com