Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Great Preservationist: Henri Langlois

When I was young and getting into movies, I wanted to get my hands on everything. I am still working to get my hands on anything. As I dabbled in film classes, I realized that I had no talent in writing scripts or directing, so reading about movies and watching them is what I settled on. Eventually, when I learned about the French New Wave, a man who was not a filmmaker came to my attention as a pioneer in many respects. That person, Henri Langlois, was this oaf of a man with a personality of love that attracted every young cinephile to his abode full of dreams on celluloid. I wanted to be like him. Watch movies, preserve movies, show movies – under government funding. It’s a dream job and Langlois founded it themselves. 

Henri Langlois was born in 1914 in Turkey and moved to France when he was eight. From childhood, he was highly interested in attending the cinema and immediately wanted to work in something related to movies. Every Thursday and Sunday afternoon, Langlois would be at the cinema, but his father wanted the young Henri to be a lawyer and so sought to enroll him in law school. But Langlois defied his father by intentionally failing his entry exam, simply submitting a blank page before leaving the school and going to his local theater. He said, “I’m the black sheep of the family. I loved cinema too much.” 

Finding work in a printing press, Langlois would meet Georges Franju, who would later direct Eyes Without A Face and Judex, and with fellow filmmaker Jean Mitry, they founded the Cinematheque Francaise in 1936. With early assistance by Paul-Auguste Harle in funding and no government funding until 1945, ten films were part of the first collection and slowly would grow based on requests for donations. As a columnist for a film magazine, Langlois wrote about the importance of preserving silent films as talking pictures were normalized and many silent films were presumed lost. Franju credits Langlois’ push to save silent films in helping him become a better director because he would constantly watch silent films recommended by Langlois. 

By the start of Nazi occupation in France in 1940, Langois and company had successfully kept a vast collection of movies and memorabilia. This included old cameras, projection equipment, costumes from period films, and vintage theatre programmes. When the Nazis ordered the destruction of all films prior to 1937, he and others smuggled most of their collection out of Paris and hid them in various places, holding secret screenings until the end of the war. Langlois would describe the loss of movies as, “a crime against civilization.” His main curator was German exile Lotte Eisner and she would hold that position of the Cinémathèque Française until her retirement.

It is at the Cinematheque Francais where directors from the French New Wave got together and watched films as critics before becoming directors. Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, and others would attend daily screenings and become friends with Langlois. They were called, “les enfants de la cinémathèque,” or ‘children of the cinémathèque.’ It also changed government support when funding went up from 3.4 million Francs between 1945 and 1959 to 20 million Francs from 1959 to 1968 and moved into the much-bigger Palais de Challiot. However, it resulted in more scrutiny on the Cinematheque, conflicting with Langlois’ way of working in it.

With his eccentric way with his preservation methods, Langlois faced consistent criticism from the French government’s Ministry of Culture. He was accused of neglecting administration and having no approach in proper recordkeeping such as the library’s ownership rights, as well as being careless with thousands of films which deteriorated and blocked researchers from gaining access. In 1959, some of its collection was lost to a nitrate fire, and Langlois would be in conflict with the International Federation of Film Archives, in association with counterparts in London, Berlin, and New York, which he had a role in establishing. His stature however prevented any serious changes at the Cinematheque. Years of battles resulted in the firing of Langlois in February 1968 by the French Minister of Culture Andre Malraux. 

The massive pushback against the decision became worldwide as protests led by leading French film figures including Truffaut, Godard, actress Simone Signoret, and director Jean Renoir spilled out onto the street. The police were brought over to break the protest of over 3000 people in front of the Cinematheque and became violent, with Godard suffering a gash and his noteworthy glasses being shattered, a foreshadowing event for protests in May that year leading to the cancellation of that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Dozens of actors, writers, and directors around the world signed a letter calling for Langlois to be reinstalled including Orson Welles, Ingrid Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini among many others. Eventually, Malraux changed course and Langlois was reinstated two months later.

For his work in film preservation, he was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1974, “for his devotion to the art of film, his massive contributions in preserving its past and his unswerving faith in its future.” From ten films at the start, the collection reached over 60,000 films by the early 1970s. Langois’ collection was so big that when it was donated to the newly established Musée du Cinéma, the amount total spanned two full miles. Langlois remained active until his death on January 13, 1977, but his passion, now in a more modern building with Costa-Gavras (Z) as President, is still alive for current film lovers to see in person. 

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