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'Savior Of Film,' Henri Langlois, Began Extensive Cinema Archive In His Bathtub

Sep 20, 2018
Originally published on September 20, 2018 5:29 am

Henri Langlois never made a single film — but he's considered one of the most important figures in the history of filmmaking. Possessed by what French philosopher Jacques Derrida called "archive fever," Langlois began obsessively collecting films in the 1930s — and by the outset of World War II, he had one of the largest film collections in the world. The archive's impact on the history of French cinema is legendary — as is the legacy of its controversial keeper.

Langlois fell in love with film in his teens, just as silent films were being replaced by talkies. "In the early '30s they were destroying every silent movie," says film director Costa-Gavras, now president of Langlois' Cinémathèque Française. "He started collecting all those movies, not just to save them for the future, but to show them."

"Langlois' principle was: Just like people have to go for a walk, films have to run," explains Cinémathèque archivist and curator Lotte Eisner. "If you just keep them in vaults they die."

Langlois started his collection in the bathtub of his parents' flat — with boxes of films piled up to the ceiling, says legendary French filmmaker Agnes Varda. Over decades it grew into an extensive archive dedicated to preserving and exhibiting movies from many countries and eras.

Filmmaker Jacques Richard was a teenager when he began working as an assistant to Langlois. "The philosophy of Langlois was to save everything," Richard recalls. "The masterpiece, the unknown films, even the fascist films."

Actress Simone Signoret first met Langlois in 1941, in the middle of the Nazi Occupation. "Langlois was organizing projection of forbidden films," she recalled. They watched the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin "in his mother's tiny dining room — she was serving little pink cakes." They all could have been sent to jail for seeing the forbidden film, Signoret said.

"I don't know how he did it," Costa-Gavras says. "He was showing The Dictator by Charlie Chaplin during the Occupation. It was a kind of resistance."

When the Germans occupied France and began censoring and destroying American films and German Expressionist films, Langlois and a group of friends began smuggling his archive out Paris.

"Langlois had to hide thousands of films, switching cans," explains film curator Céline Ruivo. "We are still discovering many different titles every month."

After the war, the French government funded the expansion of the Cinémathèque.

"By '55, '56 we were coming as many times as possible to see films at the Cinémathèque," recalls film director Pierre Rissient. "We were very young. We were just film buffs — addict film buffs."

"In one day you might see an African film, a Japanese film, a Chinese film with Turkish subtitles," says filmmaker Wim Wenders.

Filmmaker Barbet Schroeder remembers that all the "real fans" would crowd into the first five rows. "I had the luck to see the complete works of Howard Hawks, Mizoguchi, Bergman," he says. "Three movies a night. There was a lot of fever in that love of cinema."

Emerging filmmakers François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci and other directors from around the world began flocking to the Cinémathèque to learn the language and craft of film from the massive collection.

"Langlois built a cinema language through programming, creating the New Wave," explains film historian and critic Jean-Michel Frodon.

Langlois did not see it as his role to comment on the quality of the films. "I never say to Truffaut: This is good, this is bad," Langlois said. "He discover himself. I have not teach. I only give food on the table and they eat the food. Only food, only films. Food, food, food, food. This is my work: To show films."

But the Cinémathèque also had its troubles, says Frodon: "Nobody knew what there was, exactly in what condition — it was, to a large extent, a mess."

Langlois clashed with the French government as well — in exchange for their funding, the government wanted some say in the archive's operations.

"Henri Langlois would say: I am saving films every day, so just let me do my work — but keep giving me money," Frodon explains. "This is the reason why Langlois was fired."

This political ousting from the Cinémathèque caused riots in Paris.

"There was this big international scandal," says archivist Lotte Eisner. "The young people like Godard — they say: Langlois is our father and he was kicked out. They immediately protested."

"The big demonstration for Langlois in February '68 was the first time we saw on the street of Paris police beating artists and intellectuals," says filmmaker Jacques Richard. "This was the starter of the French Revolution of '68."

Amid the protests, the 1968 Cannes Film Festival was cancelled. Filmmakers all over the world — Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Fritz Lange — sent telegrams in support of Langlois. And in April 1968, 75 days after Langlois was ousted, he was reinstated as head of the Cinémathèque.

At the 1974 Academy Awards, three years before his death in 1977, Langlois received an Honorary Award for his tireless protection of cinematic history. Presenting the prize, MPAA president Jack Valenti called Langlois a "savior" of film. "This man stood guard when no one else was there," he said.

"Langlois educated a whole generation of film archivists and filmmakers," says Wenders. "He spread the idea of saving the memory of mankind that is in the history of cinema."

This story is part of The Keepers series produced by The Kitchen Sisters — Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva — stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians keepers of the culture and collections they keep. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, our series The Keepers continues with the story of a man and his obsession - preserving films - all films, any films. The Kitchen Sisters introduce us to Henri Langlois and the Cinematheque Francaise.

(SOUNDBITE OF 46TH ACADEMY AWARDS TELECAST)

BURT REYNOLDS: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Mr. Jack Valenti.

JACK VALENTI: Tonight, the Academy presents an award to someone who is not a maker of film but is truly a savior of film. This man stood guard when no one else was there - the director of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, the curator, collector, the conscience of the cinema - Henri Langlois.

(APPLAUSE)

AGNES VARDA: He's an inventor. He invented the French Cinematheque. My name is Agnes Varda. I'm a French film director. I met Henri Langlois. The man was very impressive, fat and speaking very well - very smart about we should start to keep films, including the films we don't like.

JACQUES RICHARD: The philosophy of Langlois was to save everything - the masterpiece, the unknown films, even the fascist films. I'm Jacques Richard, filmmaker. I started as an assistant of Henri Langlois. He loved cinema when he was a teenager. It was the moment where the silent film stopped and the talkies arrived.

COSTA-GAVRAS: The early '30s, they were destroying every silent movie. He started collecting all those movies, not just to save them for the future but to show them. My name is Costa-Gavras. I'm film director and president of the French Cinematheque.

VARDA: He started to pile boxes of films in the bathtub up to the ceiling.

RICHARD: In the bathtub of his parents' flat, this is where the Cinematheque started.

LOTTE EISNER: When I met Henri Langlois in '34, he was not only collecting films but everything what had to do about films.

NIKKI SILVA, BYLINE: Cinematheque Francaise curator Lotte Eisner.

EISNER: Langlois' principle - just like people have to go for a walk, films have to run. If you just keep them in vaults, they die.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMONE SIGNORET: When I met him in '41, in the middle of the Nazi occupation, Langlois was organizing projection of forbidden films.

SILVA: Actress Simone Signoret.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIGNORET: Very first time I ever saw "Potemkin" was in his mother's tiny dining room. She was serving little pink cakes. We could have gone to jail just for seeing something which was forbidden.

COSTA-GAVRAS: I don't know how he did it. He would show "The Dictator" (ph) by Charlie Chaplin during the occupation. It was a kind of resistance.

CELINE RUIVO: The Nazis censored films, destroyed them. Celine Ruivo, film curator of the Cinematheque Francaise. Langlois had to hide thousands of films, switching cans. We are still discovering many different titles every month.

PIERRE RISSIENT: By '55, '56, we were coming as many times as possible to see films at the Cinematheque. We were very young, just film buffs - addict film buffs. My name is Pierre Rissient, Man of Cinema. Henri was a poet and a magician. He had a genius to speak about the feelings...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG SLEEP")

LAUREN BACALL: (As Vivian Rutledge) You know, I don't see what there is to be cagey about, Mr. Marlowe. And I don't like your manners.

HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Philip Marlowe) Well, I'm not crazy about yours.

BARBET SCHROEDER: All the real fans were always in the first five rows. I'm Barbet Schroeder, filmmaker. I had the luck to see the complete work of Howard Hawks, Mizoguchi, Bergman - three movies a night. There was a lot of fever in that love of cinema.

WIM WENDERS: In one day, you might see an African film, a Japanese film, Chinese film with Turkish subtitles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIAL SOLAL'S "L'AMOUR, LA MORT")

COSTA-GAVRAS: In the '50s, all the future directors of the Nouvelle Vague were there.

RICHARD: The New Wave - Jean-Luc Godard, Chabrol, Francois Truffaut.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BREATHLESS")

ANNE COLETTE: (As character) La jolie fille, le vilain garcon, le revolver, le gentil monsieur.

JEAN-MICHEL FRODON: Langlois built a cinema language through programming, creating the New Wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENRI LANGLOIS: I never say to Truffaut, this is good; this is bad. He discover himself.

SILVA: Henri Langlois.

LANGLOIS: I have not teach. I have only give food. And they eat the food - only food, only films - food, food, food, food. This is my work, to show films.

RICHARD: Henri Langlois was a thin and pretty guy when he was young. But with the time, he became very fat, like Orson Welles or Hitchcock. The wife, Mary Meerson - she became fat, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LANGLOIS: (Speaking French).

RUIVO: They started getting bigger and bigger as the archives of the Cinematheque was also getting bigger.

FRODON: There were problems in the Cinematheque. Nobody knew what there was exactly, in what condition. It was, to a large extent, a mess.

SCHROEDER: He always had clashes with the government. They tried to make rules in exchange of the money they were giving.

FRODON: Henri Langlois would say, I am saving films every day. Just let me do my work. But keep giving me money. This is a reason why Langlois was fired.

EISNER: There was this big, international scandal. The young people, like Godard - they say, Langlois is our father. He was kicked out. They immediately protested - everybody - Fritz Lange, Picasso...

RICHARD: The big demonstration for Langlois was the first time where we saw, on the street of Paris, police beating artists and intellectuals. This was the start of the French revolution of '68.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

SCHROEDER: I was a part of the Jean-Luc Godard mini-gang that was demonstrating for Langlois.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

COSTA-GAVRAS: It was so big movement in Paris, they decided to stop Cannes Festival.

RICHARD: The Cinematheque started to receive telegrams to return Langlois to the Cinematheque from filmmakers all over the world - Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles...

EISNER: And so after 75 days, we got the Cinematheque back.

WENDERS: I'm Wim Wenders, filmmaker. My very first picture was shown by the Cinematheque Francaise. Yes, he kept my print. I tried hard to get it out of his hands again. But he said, no, no, no. I would rather keep it. And I realized that's how he had assembled this amazing collection of thousands and thousands of films. He just kept them.

And then it was, of course, a good thing. At least there was always going to be a print of that film. Langlois has educated a whole generation of film archivists and filmmakers and saving the memory of mankind that is incorporated in the history of cinema.

MARTIN: "Archive Fever" was produced by The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, with Nathan Dalton and Brandi Howell; mixed by Jim McKee. You can hear more stories from The Keeper series on their podcast "The Kitchen Sisters Present." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.