Martin Scorsese: 5 things that make him great 2
Martin Scorsese. Photo by Cordon Press/picture alliance

Martin Scorsese: 5 things that make him a great filmmaker

As the legendary director turns 80, a look back at Martin Scorsese's approach and habits that have marked his outstanding career.
Kevin Tschierse, Deutsche Welle | Nov 19 2022

A directing legend like Martin Scorsese has more than just natural talent — he has worked hard to earn his place as one of the world's top directors. With iconic works burned into the collective memories of film lovers, the US director remains at the top of his game as he turns 80 on November 17.

Here are five reasons why Scorsese is one of the greats of movie history.


1. Scorsese has stories to tell

What stands out about Scorsese is his genuine interest in the stories he tells. This has a lot to do with his origins, his roots as an Italian-American, his Catholic upbringing, and his diverse range of interests.

Scorsese, who was born in New York in 1942, has always been interested in film and music history.

Most of his movies give insight into modern American society with its history of social upheavals, crime and violence. He incorporates his favorite topics into his films: criminality in Mafia flicks, from "Mean Streets" (1973) to "The Irishman" (2019); the search for the meaning of life in movies that deal with religion, such as "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) or "Silence" (2016), and his interest in music and film in his documentaries. 


2. He knows his craft

Telling interesting stories is one thing, but bringing them to life cinematically is quite another. Scorsese is a master in both, turning for example a sports drama like "Raging Bull" (1980) into a radical stylized work.

He knows how to surround himself with the best collaborators. He has cultivated fruitful artistic partnerships with outstanding film composers, editors or cinematographers, such as the German Michael Ballhaus. 

He has also championed outstanding performances from actors who would become top Hollywood stars following their breakthrough with the director, including Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel with "Mean Streets" (1973) and Jodie Foster with "Taxi Driver" (1976).

Scorsese (right) with Robert De Niro on the set of 'Taxi Driver'
Scorsese (right) with Robert De Niro on the set of 'Taxi Driver'. Image: Everett Collection/picture alliance

3. He refuses to be put in a box

Martin Scorsese refuses to be pinned down. After attracting attention early in his career as a chronicler of violent American society with films like "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," he then surprised audiences by adopting different genres, including the 1977 musical drama, "New York, New York."

He also directed notable black comedies, such as "The King of Comedy" (1982) and "After Hours" (1985).

In 1988, the filmmaker — who actually wanted to become a priest as a child — stunned the world with the biblical drama "The Last Temptation of Christ" and in 2016 with "Silence," a story about two Catholic missionaries.

In addition to directing some 25 feature films, the director is responsible for 16 feature-length documentaries, including many dedicated to his passion for music. As early as 1978, he documented the farewell concert of the Bob Dylan backing rock group, The Band, in "The Last Waltz," which was later followed by films about Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles' George Harrison. 


4. He knows film history

Scorsese builds on American, European and Asian cinema traditions — but has definitely developed his own style.

Beyond having written film history himself with his works, he has also revisited how cinema history influenced him in documentaries such as "A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies" 1995 and "My Voyage to Italy" from 1999, in which the filmmaker travels through Italian cinema, with a focus on its neorealist period.


5. He still works tirelessly

While other directors retire in old age, Scorsese continues to work tirelessly. This tremendous diligence was evident early on. Scorsese works obsessively on each of his films.

On the set of 'Shutter Island' (2010) with Leonardo DiCaprio
On the set of 'Shutter Island' (2010) with Leonardo DiCaprio. Image: Paramount/Everett Collection/picture alliance

He remains committed to protecting treasures of film history. Having recognized early on that analog film material is threatened by decay, he founded various institutions to save older works from destruction. He founded the Film Foundation with other directors in 1980 and the World Cinema Foundation in 2007, two institutions dedicated to the restoration and rediscovery of classic films. In 2017, he also introduced the African Film Heritage Project, which aims to preserve classic African films.

As he turns 80, Scorsese is keeping busy with several productions, including a biopic about rock band the Grateful Dead, with Jonah Hill in the role of Jerry Garcia, and a Western crime drama titled "Killers of the Flower Moon." The upcoming film, expected to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023, stars his longtime collaborators Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

He has also signed onto another upcoming project with DiCaprio, "The Wager," a naval survival drama for AppleTV+. 

This article was originally written in German.