Watching foreign films can give the viewer a whole new perspective on cinema and indeed other lands. Political and social factors in every country inevitably influence their artistic output, and foreign films can offer an invaluable insight into the nation's zeitgeist. For example, much of Jean Luc Godard's work in the mid 60s (especially La Chinoise) pre-empts the riots of May 1968, while Krzysztof Kieslowski's Polish films such as Camera Buff and Blind Chance show life under an oppressive political regime. A more controversial example would be Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, a terrifying window onto the magnetism of National Socialism in Hitler's Germany.
Foreign films often produce new movements that influence cinema globally - think of Italian neo-realism (Bicycle Thieves), German expressionism (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Soviet montage (Man with a Movie Camera), the Nouvelle Vague (Les 400 Coups), the giallo (anything by Dario Argento) and the spaghetti western. Outside of Europe whole new film genres have been born; Japan alone, for example, has given us the samurai movie (Yojimbo), the yazuka film (anything by Takeshi Kitano), anime (Akira), pink cinema (The Bedroom) and kaiju monster movies (Godzilla). The legacy of foreign films in shaping western cinema cannot be underestimated.
Foreign films often carry a weight of scholarly seriousness, thanks to the cliche of Scandinavian miserablism associated, usually unfairly, with Ingmar Bergman and Carl Dreyer. Yet many countries have home-grown cinema industries as commercial as Hollywood. Bollywood is the most famous example, producing many crossover hits abroad (Devdas) and attracting higher cinema audiences in the UK than British home-grown cinema. Although not widely released outside of Africa, Nigeria's film output is the third most successful cinema industry in the world (affectionately known as 'Nollywood'). And the most successful films at the domestic box office are usually mainstream and accessible; the softcore Emmanuelle (1974), the cinema smash hit of its year, ran for 18 months in one Parisian cinema.
Foreign films have also influenced Hollywood film in a direct way - through largely inferior remakes. Cinema goers should always try and seek out the original foreign versions, with films such as The Vanishing, Boudu Saved from Drowning (remade as Down and Out in Beverly Hills), Infernal Affairs (The Departed) and Open Your Eyes (Vanilla Sky) losing much in translation. Sadly the tradition is set to continue, with a remake of Let the Right One In pencilled in for a 2010 release. Perversely, some foreign films have remade American cinema with successful results - The Beat That My Heart Skipped (based on Fingers) being a noted example.