Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ossesione: Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque Francaise

Noel Burch, the greatest of film theoreticians, says that the way a filmmaker approaches filmmaking is influenced by his language. Thus, the term "editing" in English has a distinctly different meaning - and practice - from the French term, "decoupage." It helps explain (particularly in the early work of Godard and Bresson) the wide gulf in filmmaking strategies between French and American filmmakers.

I say this because all of this would be mere conjecture were it not for the monumental effort of Henri Langlois and his - and Georges Franju's - staggering creation, Le Cinematheque Francaise. Beyond Hollywood, it is the cathedral of movies.

To say Langlois was a mere archivist is to trivialize his story; and what a story it is. And his love for movies, if "love" is an adequate term, is not provincial. The dude was a maniac, saving anything, particularly his love of loves, nitrate. He helped create the great Pacific Film Archive, up the street from me, in Berkeley.

...but for his titanic efforts, the history of the cinema would have remained what it was for Bardeche and Brasillach [writers of the first French film history, Histoire du Cinema, in 1935, later translated into English by Iris Barry]--souvenir postcards brought back by a pair of amiable but not very serious students from the land of darkened auditoriums.

One fascinating part of the story I'll mention is during the Vichy period:

Co-Founder, Georges Franju:
When the Germans came, there were about three hundred films; when they left, there were three thousand. Voila!

Where did those 2,700 additional films come from? Without taking any credit from Langlois (or Franju), the truth is that they were able to save so many prints thanks to a German. And not only a German, but Frank Hensel--army officer, Nazi, president of FIAF. [Federation Internationale des Archives du Film]

For this and so much more, get Richard Roud's excellent, A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque Francaise.