The opening images of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (an essential film for anyone who was ever young and in love with cinema) offer us images of Parisian youth (and others) rising in protest against the government.
It's not the events of May 1968 but the shot across the bow that, in many ways, anticipated the historic student protests and union strikes to come very soon after.
These were the protests against the government's removal of Henri Langlois
from the Cinémathèque Français
, the institution that he created (with George Franju
and Jean Mitry
), nurtured and expanded into the most famous and most influential film archive and repertory cinemateque in the world.
The real-life images of the protests, which feature Claude Chabrol
, François Truffaut
, Jean-Luc Godard
and Jean-Pierre Léaud
making speeches to the crowds and the cameras and taking their place along the front lines - form the dramatic highlight of Jacques Richard
's documentary Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque
. But as Richards shows us, the real story of Langlois is in why this feverishly fanatical cineaste inspired an uprising rarely seen outside of major political historical flashpoints. It could only happen in a cinema-mad society, and Langlois was essential in spreading and celebrating that madness.
François Truffaut called him "the best film programmer on Earth." Jean-Luc Godard wrote: "Langlois has written a non-stop film called La Cinémathèque française." He was a pioneer of film preservation and a godfather of the French New Wave
. And for lovers of classic and silent cinema the world over, he is something of a madcap saint. During the German occupation of World War II, he risked his life to rescue and hide films from the Nazis, squirreling away everything from the banned Soviet paeans to the glories of socialism and Hollywood entertainments to the masterworks of French cinema and the classics of Germany's great filmmakers, banned by Hitler as "decadent." Thanks to Langlois, the original negatives of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
, The Blue Angel
and A Day in the Country
made their way into his care and survived the Nazi purge.
While not the first to archive film prints or to campaign for preserving the cinematic past, Langlois was surely the most driven and dedicated. His operating principle was simple: "One must save everything and buy everything. Never assume you know what's of value," Langlois explains in an archival interview in Richard's documentary. Issues of where to store it and how to preserve it would be dealt with later, if at all. He had another operating principle: Leaving a film in a can was no way to preserve a film. You had to show it to an audience. That meant master prints were being run through projectors.
In that method lies madness, to be sure, and we can be thankful that subsequent archives have taken a more intensive and focused approach. Langlois was, by all accounts, a poor record keeper and he allowed films in his own possession to deteriorate beyond the point of rescue. But that madness and heedless spirit is responsible for the survival of many, many other films that might otherwise have been destroyed or lost to neglect and indifference, for the world's first great repository of cinema, and for the art of repertory programming.
Again, the Cinémathèque Français was the womb that gave birth to the French New Wave. Weaned on the films running nightly in the screening rooms that Langlois built, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer
, Chabrol, Rivette
and others proudly proclaimed themselves "Children of the Cinémathèque." They claimed to have met in the front row of his exhibition room (the better to "eat the screen," a term Langlois coined). True in fact or only in spirit, it hardly matters. In the tradition of cinema poet John Ford
, we print the legend.
Even more importantly, Langlois played midwife to les politiques des auteurs
, or auteurism. France had been cut off from American movies for years. When the war ended, they starting arriving in a flood. Langlois didn't simply screen the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks
, Sam Fuller
and Nicholas Ray
, he organized and shaped screenings around the directors, just as he shaped programs around themes and genres. In the process, he cast a light on the continuity of work from directors heretofore dismissed as merely gifted entertainers. The ideas and arguments of auteurism were put into words by Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol and other critics at Cahiers du cinéma
. The exposure was all thanks to Langlois.
It was a love of silent cinema that started Langlois's magnificent obsession way back in 1935, when he formed his first cinema club, but his dedication embraced contemporary cinema as well. He championed early Ingmar Bergman
, before the director had established his reputation with The Seventh Seal
and Wild Strawberries
. He resurrected Luis Buñuel
after its disastrous Cannes debut and launched a critical reappraisal with his screenings. He played the films of the New Wave directors he inspired.
In 1974, Langlois received an honorary Academy Award - handed to him by Alfred Hitchcock
, no less - for a lifetime of of keeping alive the spirit of discovery and rediscovery in films old and new. Langlois said it meant more to him than a French Legion of Honor.