Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque (2005)

by | Oct 6, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque (2005)

Directed by Jacques Richard
Studio: Leisure Time Features/Kino Video K475
Video: 1.33:1 full frame color
Audio: PCM stereo, French
Subtitles: English
Extras: Langlois Monumental – Dedication ceremony for the Langlois Monument (10 min.); Le Musee du Cinema Henri Langlois – Featurette on the ill-fated Museum of Cinema, narrated by Alain Delon (3 min.); Gallery of stills
Length: 128 minutes
Rating: ****

This documentary took seven years to make and is must viewing for any cinephile.  The New York Times called Langlois – the founder and director for 40 years of the Cinematheque Francaise – one of the most important figures in the history of film.  The reason is that he cultivated cinema’s future by protecting its past. Almost no one before Langlois had any interest in preserving great films, let alone not-so-great ones.  After they had their run in the theaters, most films were summarily destroyed.

Starting in 1936 Langlois begged, borrowed and stole films to be preserved and exhibited by the Cinematheque – before anyone realized the value of them.  He shared his love of films in special showings around Paris until the Cinematheque had a permanent home. During the Nazi occupation he held secret showings of banned films and thru various ploys managed to bar the Nazi from their determination to destroy all U.S. and Russian films. Sartre and Gide attended showings and Simone Signoret wheeled a baby carriage with banned films to showings under the noses of the Germans. It is difficult to appreciate today – with our easily-available videos and DVDs – the priceless value of the daily public showings the Cinematheque held in Paris.

In 1968 the French government, which didn’t trust Langlois’ haphazard approach in presiding over the Cinematheque, replaced him with a new director of their choice. Goddard and Truffaut led the defense of the Cinematheque against a riot squad of police and eventually Langlois was reinstated. Visitors to the institution often mistook the rusting cans of film stacked around for the valuable Cinematheque collection which was being preserved, when in fact they were films that people around the world had stolen from exhibitors and studios who wanted to burn them, and had sent to the Cinematheque. Actually, many of those films were on the verge of burning themselves via spontaneous combustion, because they were on dangerous nitrate stock, which often caught fire or even exploded as it deteriorated.

The Cinematheque was a private institution and was always short on cash. There was never enough staff, time or money to catalog and preserve all the films.  Having failed to save some silent films he felt at the time didn’t warrant it, and later being sorry for his decisions, Langlois eventually came to the realization that every film he could get his hands on should be stored and preserved because you never knew until later which the most important ones might be. Langlois and his wife – both larger-than-life figures – ruled over the Cinematheque, and such intimate figures on the scene as Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jack Valenti talk candidly about these legendary characters. Many other cinema lights are touched on in the documentary, including Alfred Hitchcock (who gives Langlois his own award after Langlois pins the French Legion of Honor on the director), Claude Berri, Jean Rouch, and Francois Truffaut.

The Musee du Cinema was a path-breaking personal exhibit put together entirely by Langlois, which started a whole new approach to cinema memorabilia later followed in other exhibits. It is also featured in the short featurette. Sadly, the place was closed and the exhibits packed away after water damage from a nearby fire in l997. The importance of the Cinematheque’s work cannot be overestimated. Such films as The Blue Angel (Langlois traded the Nazis a militarily-useless documentary on the Maginot Line in order to keep it) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari would not be in existence today were it not for Langlois. He motivated institutions around the world to begin programs of film preservation, which had been completely ignored prior to the Cinematheque.  No film fan should miss this wonderful documentary!

 – John Sunier 

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