10 great European road movies

With the release of Pawel Pawlikowski’s award-winning drama Ida on BFI Player, we’re setting off on 10 more unmissable road trips across Europe.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Ida (2013)

Ida (2013)

At last year’s London Film Festival, a black-and-white road movie about a nun took the prize for best film from under the feet of competitors including Under the Skin, The Selfish Giant and The Double. Shot within a nearly square, 1:37 frame, Ida is a resolutely small film but the buzz around it is that Pawel Pawlikowski, a Polish director with a clutch of acclaimed British films to his name (Last Resort, 2000; My Summer of Love, 2004), had returned to Poland and come up with an immaculately conceived, modest yet exquisite gem.

It’s the story of Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who has grown up in a rural convent after being orphaned during the Second World War. On the cusp of taking her vows, she is instructed to travel to see her aunt, a hard-drinking judge (Agata Kulesza) who is able to help her shed light on the truth about her parents’ history.

The road trip that ensues is typical of the European strain of the genre. Where American road movies are frequently about escape, freedom and lawlessness, so often European examples are journeys into the continent’s fractious political history, where buried memories from the past are traversed and crisscrossed along with national boundaries.

As the wait is finally over for Ida’s release in cinemas and on BFI Player, here are 10 more continental trips worth taking.

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Director Ingmar Bergman

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Swedish master Ingmar Bergman isn’t always given the credit he deserves as a pioneer of the road movie, but his 1957 film Wild Strawberries helped set a template that would be much imitated.

Its idea is very simple: an elderly professor, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), learns he is to receive an honorary degree and sets out on the long car drive from Stockholm to his old university in Lund in the southern tip of Sweden. In the company of his daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin), the trip also becomes a journey into the past, as the ageing Borg revisits the scenes of his youth and reflects on an unhappy marriage. The succession of hitchhikers who catch a ride with the professor keep the film routed in the present, even as it spirals off into internal dreams, doubts and reveries. It’s one of Bergman’s finest inquiries into a human soul, and – together with The Seventh Seal (1957) – put him firmly on the international map as one of cinema’s most fearless filmmakers.

Pierrot le fou (1965)

Director Jean-Luc Godard

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

Hollywood classics such as You Only Live Once (1937) and They Live by Night (1948) had long established the archetype of doomed, criminal lovers taking to the road to escape their fate. Continuing his headlong reinvention of cinema (this was his tenth film in six years), French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard used the model to tell the story of what he called the “last romantic couple”: a Parisian (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his babysitter (Godard’s then-wife Anna Karina) who take off for the south of France with a cache of gun-running money.

In true Godardian style, the flimsy plot plays coathanger for satirical digressions (on commercialism and the Vietnam war), kaleidoscopic stylistic devices, sunny musical numbers and a merciless examination of male-female incompatibility, shot in intoxicating primary colours by Raoul Coutard. Only two years later, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) took lessons learned from French films like this to reinvigorate Hollywood cinema and kickstart a new trend for American road movies.

Kings of the Road (1976)

Director Wim Wenders

Kings of the Road (1976)

Kings of the Road (1976)

Like Godard, New German Cinema director Wim Wenders had a love/hate relationship with America. Love in that he was infatuated with Hollywood cinema; hate in that he could see how Europeans were in thrall to American culture and capitalism. As hitchhiker Robert Lander (Hanns Zischler) puts it in this 1976 film: “The Americans have colonised our subconscious.”

Following Alice in the Cities (1974) and Wrong Move (1975), Kings of the Road is the third and most expansive in a trilogy of road movies that Wenders made in the mid-70s. Pushing three hours in length and shot in lustrous black and white by celebrated cinematographer Robby Müller, it follows two men – a travelling projector repairman and a hitchhiker he befriends – as they drive the roads near to the border with East Germany to carry out maintenance at dilapidated local cinemas. It’s a buddy-buddy adventure movie of sorts, but with the emphasis shifted to atmosphere, mood, the behaviour of men and the dynamics of friendship.

Radio On (1980)

Director Chris Petit

Radio On (1979)

Radio On (1979)

Radio On is a precious one-off in post-punk era British cinema that reflects the same fascination with German culture and signifiers that was evidenced in the music of David Bowie and Joy Division at the time. Not only is its soundtrack packed with Berlin-era Bowie and Kraftwerk, but it also proudly displays its debt to Wim Wenders’ road films in its steely monochrome photography and wandering eye for desolate urban landscapes.

Chris Petit’s striking debut, produced by the BFI Production Board in 1979, remains surely the only film to have made mythic use of the M4, as we join Robert (David Beames) in his car on a trip from London to Bristol to investigate his brother’s death. That mystery isn’t so central to the film though; as with Alice in the Cities or Kings of the Road it’s the cinematic nature of the journey that counts, with its occasion for bizarre roadside encounters, meandering narrative byways and a gloomy survey of Britain at a precise point at the dawn of the Thatcher era.

Vagabond (1985)

Director Agnès Varda

Vagabond (1985)

Vagabond (1985)

So many of the films on the list show the influence of the American road movie on European filmmakers, but also the ways in which films from the continent have fed back into American inspiration. And so it is with Agnès Varda’s extraordinary 1985 film Vagabond, which clearly provided a model for Kelly Reichardt’s much later film about female homelessness and a life on the road, Wendy and Lucy (2008).

Varda’s film’s French title is Sans toit ni loi (‘Without roof nor law’) and it begins with the discovery of the corpse of a young woman who has frozen to death in a roadside ditch. In flashback, it then traces the final days of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) as she drifts from place to place in the south of France, scraping together an existence from random work and encounters. In a manner similar to the recent British documentary Dreams of a Life (2011), it also includes pseudo-documentary interviews with the people who met her, gradually piecing together a picture of a singular, aggressively self-dependent free spirit.

Ariel (1988)

Director Aki Kaurismäki

Ariel (1988)

Ariel (1988)

Among European directors, Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki is rivalled only by Wim Wenders in his fondness for the road movie and automobile culture, with Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) and Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994) other notable examples. 1988’s Ariel begins with Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajala) inheriting a white cadillac after his father kills himself. Out of work after the Lapland mine where he works closes, he uses the gleaming vehicle to escape to Helsinki, but soon gets into even deeper trouble after he is framed for a crime he didn’t commit.

Though its journey narrative comes to a lengthy pit-stop in the big city, not least because Taisto ends up behind bars, the cadillac remains an almost talismanic symbol of freedom and existential cool. With a wonderful soundtrack of Baltic pop and tango, and Kaurismäki’s trademark minimalism and ice-dry humour to the fore, Ariel firmly announced the arrival of a major new filmmaking talent.

Landscape in the Mist (1988)

Director Theo Angelopoulos

Landscape in the Mist (1988)

Landscape in the Mist (1988)

Theo Angelopoulos’s magisterial drama follows a young brother and sister as they make their faltering way from their home in Greece to Germany, where they hope to find their long-lost father. There are elements of a fairytale quest here, albeit one dashed with quixotic hopelessness and rooted in the specifics of its location: a wintry Balkans of truck stops, motorways, train stations and other marginal spaces where two children can slip around and between an adult world of often harrowing realities.

A succession of dreamlike, monumental images stick in the head: a horse dying in the street as a wedding party passes by; a huge stone hand being airlifted from the sea and carried over the cityscape; figures clinging to a border fence like birds on the wire. This is one of the best films of the 1980s.

Gallivant (1996)

Director Andrew Kötting

Gallivant (1996)

Gallivant (1996)

Despite the notable exceptions included here, it’s often said of the British that we can’t really do road movies: our dual carriageways and motorways don’t have the mythic quality of the German autobahns or Americans highways, and few British car journeys last more than a few hours.

But consider two documentaries 70 years apart. First, 1925’s The Open Road, in which pioneer filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene created an invaluable record of 1920s Britain by filming his journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Then there’s Gallivant, an experimental travelogue in which Andrew Kötting took his 85-year-old grandmother Gladys and his seven-year-old daughter Eden, who suffers from the rare genetic disorder Joubert’s Syndrome, on a clockwise tour around the coastline of Great Britain. As the life expectancy of both his travelling companions is sadly limited, the unique trip is undercut with a sense of mortality, but the sheer force of vitality on display – both in the growing closeness of Gladys and Eden, and in Kötting’s survey of British people, places and folk traditions – is very funny and very moving. Happily, Eden is still alive today and appears in the director’s later film, This Our Still Life (2011).

Red Lights (2003)

Director Cédric Kahn

Red Lights (2003)

Red Lights (2003)

Cédric Kahn’s delicious 2004 thriller takes place during one summer’s ‘grand départ’, the annual July exodus that sees Parisians leave the capital en masse for their holidays. Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Carole Bouquet play married couple Antoine and Hélène Dunan, whose road trip to pick up their children from summer camp to go on holiday together is beset first with bickering, then with something darker and deadlier.

There are bits of Godard’s Week End (1967) in here (the view of le grand départ as a pressure cooker for animosity and violence), a smattering of nods to North by Northwest (1959), as well as memories of The Vanishing (after Hélène seemingly disappears without trace after a dispute at a service station). But the mix of comedy and detached horror feels bracingly original, quirky and sinister.

Locke (2013)

Director Steven Knight

Locke (2013)

Locke (2013)

Locke was a pleasant surprise among modern UK films: not just a grippingly emotional drama set almost entirely within the confines of a travelling car, but also a uniquely British road movie that invests a night-time drive from Birmingham to Croydon with nail-biting tension without any recourse to psychotic hitchhikers or high-speed chases.

Tom Hardy plays a construction engineer who abandons his building site on the eve of “the biggest concrete pour in Europe” to make a journey south in order to do the right thing by a woman colleague who’s gone into labour with his child. The drama takes the form of a compelling series of mobile conversations from his driving seat, during which he must not only make work arrangements to keep everything on track but also break the news of his infidelity to his wife and children. There’s terrific work from Hardy here, a range of emotions and frustrations playing out across his face, and as his passengers we’re gripped for the whole ride, never tempted to ask “Are we there yet?” 

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