Cinematic revolutions that anticipated the 1968 counterculture

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

French New Wave

The spirit of 1968 was presaged by filmmakers in the preceding years, especially in France. The "Nouvelle Vague," or New Wave, was the most vital of the many new developments in cinema at the time. Directors rejected everything that smacked of turgid post-war film aesthetics. Jean Luc Godard's 1959 film "Breathless" was a fresh cinematic wind that triggered the New Wave revolution.

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

Free love and Truffaut

Francois Truffaut was another influential French New Wave director whose films were even more popular than Godard's. Truffaut's breakout 1961 film, "Jules and Jim," questioned the nature of monogamous love and hinted at the sexual revolution and new ideas about female gender roles that have since become emblematic of 1968.

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

'Yesterday Girl'

Germany experienced its own take on New Wave cinema in the 1960s, as the foundations were set for the New German Cinema. The Oberhausen Manifesto signed by 26 filmmakers in 1962 demanded a shift away from "Papa's cinema," and director Alexander Kluge became the leader of the new genre with his 1966 drama "Yesterday Girl," the story of a young East German migrant in West Germany.

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

Prolific provocateur

German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's vast filmography of sometimes abstract and always uncompromising cinema sparked international recognition for Germany's nascent New Wave. His first feature film was the 1969 gangster film, "Love is colder than death." Fassbinder cared little for convention and was a true revolutionary in terms of aesthetics and plot who made films with tireless zeal.

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

Thwarted change

For a while, it seemed Communist East Germany was also in the grips of a cinematic revolution in the mid-1960s. East German film makers made a dozen movies in 1965-66 that moved down new cinematic paths, including Frank Beyer's "Spur der Steine" ("Trace of Stones"), the story of exploited petrochemical plant workers that typically played for a few days before it was banned by the GDR government.

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

Eastern European awakening

Eastern European directors also tried to disrupt established cinematic conventions in the 1960s, especially in Czechoslovakia in the lead-up to the Prague Spring. Avant-garde filmmaker Vera Chytilova was synonymous with the Czech New Wave that included work by Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman, who, before "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," was Oscar nominated for 1965's "Loves of a blonde" (pictured).

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

Latin American 'New Film'

Brazilian filmmakers also played a special role in Latin American popular movements by creating what became known as "Cinema Novo," or new film. Director Glauber Rocha was a key figure in a new film culture that took its queues from Italian neorealism and French New Wave. His 1969 western "Anotiono das Mortes" (1969), for example, took a critical look at the plight of Brazilian peasants.

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

Protest and sexuality

Japanese cinema also saw revolutionary developments in the 1960s. Nagisa Oshima, who would shock world cinema in the 1970s with his art "In the Real of the Senses," had already embarked on radical projects defied cinematic conventions. His 1967 film "Sing a song of sex," for example, examines young people's changing attitude toward violence and sexuality.

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

New Hollywood

Of course, the movement didn't bypass the US. A new vanguard of directors grouped together under the New Hollywood cinema broke away from the mainstream studio conventions to create daring films that reflected the political insurgency of the time. The 1968 road movie "Easy Rider," starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, was the ultimate counterculture film of the New Hollywood era.

1968: a new wave of filmmaking

The end of the dream

Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" seems to mark the end of the global new cinema phenomenon that coincided with 1968. The film – made in the US – is a homage to the aftermath of the late '60s protest and flower power movement. The final scene shows a villa exploding in a huge fireball, symbolic of a loss of innocence after years of idealism.

While mass student protests were the most visible expression of social and political change in 1968, new film movements had already started to foretell this revolt. Here's a look at the rise of a radical new cinema.

From the late 1950s, French New Wave film pioneers like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda – the movement's only female director ­­–  made movies that shook France, Europe and the world. "Nouvelle Vague" was not only innovative but spearheaded a cinematic reawakening that influenced directors the world over.

Film anticipated the protest movements, student revolutions and upheavals that marked 1968 by almost a decade. Godard's 1959 film "Breathless" depicted youth who were turning their back on their parents' generation and the ideals of the past, who were rebelling against authority and would soon re-imagine ideas about sexuality and female gender roles.

Read moreCannes film festival reveals 'political' competition line-up 

So too in Germany in 1962, a group of young directors adopted the Oberhausen Manifesto that promised that "papa's cinema is dead." Bold films by New German Cinema directors Alexander Kluge, Reiner Werner Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta and Werner Herzog soon followed.

In Britain, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach stood for Free Cinema. Back in 1959, almost ten years before the upheavals reached mass culture, British director Tony Richardson chose an apt title for his film drama about a disillusioned young man, "Look Back in Anger."

Italian directors cloaked their dreams of revolution and change as western movies. Sergio Leone's epic "Once upon a time in the West" hit the silver screen in 1968 as a reinvented American western with dark political undertones.  

Eastern Europeans, too, had a hunger for change. East Germans took to the streets in 1953, Hungarians three years later. Directors brought the images of angry citizens and repressive states to the screen.

Read moreWim Wenders goes underwater and into the desert with 'Submergence'

And in the US, the New Hollywood cinema presaged the the rebellion of disaffected youth in 1968 with films like "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and "The Graduate" (1967) that were created by auteurs and not big movie studios.   

Click through the picture gallery above to explore the radical new film movements that symbolized the changing times times half a century ago.