skip navigation
Henri Langois: Phantom of the Cinematheque
share:
Remind Me

Henri Langois: Phantom of the Cinematheque

He stacked them in his bathtub. He stashed them in chateaux. He literally took them underground during World War II, only to unearth them again, turning them into the seeds of generations to follow. He is, as anyone reading a film-oriented website will realize, Henri Langlois, France's maniacally adoptive father to orphan films, snatching them can by can from the jaws of Nazis, dumpsters, and industrial recyclers bent on extracting the silver content of nitrate stock. He began accumulating silent films in the 1930s, when you would no more think of showing people old films than offering them old food. Langlois, a great, impassioned whale of voracious, gargantuan appetite, often likened films to food. He took it upon himself to feed film to the world.

He was film's great hunter and gatherer. The films he obsessively accumulated turned into the Cinematheque Francaise. Jacques Richard's loving, admiring, but far from hagiographic documentary, Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque (2004), begins with a film clip of Langlois, standing before flickering images on a screen, declaring that the essence of film is the living co-existing with the shadows of the dead. Langlois, who died in 1977, aged 62, remains a pretty substantial phantom. The key to understanding the importance of his impassioned contribution lies in a single word: access. Today we have the world of film at our fingertips, in our living rooms, in our computers. When Langlois began, one had to go to where a film was projected. If it was projected. If it existed in a form that could be projected.

The Cinematheque Francaise, co-founded with Georges Franju in 1934, at first consisted of ten films donated by Langlois. A lot of the films he subsequently found, and that found their way to him, had dodgy provenances. Langlois would cajole films out of private hands, or buy bootleg copies. As his reputation spread, people brought him films they didn't own, and to which they held no legal rights, but which they didn't want to see destroyed. But thanks to him, films lived that would otherwise have died. By the time Langlois was hiding films from the occupying Nazis, he was well versed in hiding them from the film companies that owned them and thought they had been trashed. When he couldn't find small public spaces to show them, he projected them on a wall in his apartment. Simone Signoret, one of the first of what was to become a steady stream of celebrities attending the screenings, recalls Langlois' mother serving filmgoers sweet wine and Turkish pastries.

Langlois kept serving Parisian cinephiles films - and perspectives, often based on his thematic programming and juxtapositions. He and the Cinematheque moved from the Avenue de Messine to the Rue d'Ulm to the Chaillot Palace, each time adding viewing capacity. In 1972, he opened as well a museum at the Chaillot Palace, filled it with the sets from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), the mummified head of Anthony Perkins' mother from Psycho (1960, a gift from Alfred Hitchcock), and a soon-to-be-stolen costume of Marilyn Monroe's, among other artifacts. It was a brilliant montage of the entire continuum of film, assembled in the manner of an action painting, with quick, instinctive decisions, unerring in taste and appropriateness, of what should go where, with a time line that was never strictly chronological. It was psychic, a spectacular piece of installation art, a streaming of the stuff of film - manuscripts, production designs, posters, letters, magic lanterns and other precursors of film. Turkish-born Langlois, who until his death lived with Mary Meerson, widow of the legendary Russian emigre production designer Lazare Meerson, laid everything out in a way meant to usher filmgoers into the physical world of film.

Langlois was in every way a hands-on figure. It was his glory, and almost became his undoing. So strongly identified with the world of film was he in Paris that his firing by De Gaulle's minister of culture, Andre Malraux, gave focus and impetus to the student riots that gripped Paris in 1968. To the young directors of the New Wave, who credited Langlois with teaching them everything they knew by immersing them in the films of figures ranging from Georges Feuillade to Nichols Ray, Langlois' dismissal was the final intolerable affront of a government grown too arrogant. The documentary shows a young, bespectacled Claude Chabrol trying to mediate between police and students. Among the celebrity demonstrators were Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Paul Belmondo, all championing Langlois.

In the end, Malraux and the government backed down and reinstated Langlois - but, say a number of talking heads, lifelong associates of Langlois and veterans of France's culture wars, the bureaucrats never forgave Langlois. Many declare, in effect, that Langlois died the death of a thousand cuts at the hands of the bureaucrats, who never gave Langlois enough money to properly preserve many of the films he rescued, or keep his staff of 15 from having to do the work of 75. As Langlois lay dying, his telephone and utilities had been shut off. What money he got always went into buying new old films that did so much to launch a heady world of cinephilia.

To Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol, and subsequent generations of French filmmakers, he was a hero. Chabrol recalls going to the Cinematheque one night to find one film showing downstairs, one in a smaller space upstairs, and another on the stairwell separating them. "The first multiplex" he says, laughing. Throughout, the evocation is flecked with a keening nostalgia for the days when film and the ritual of filmgoing ignited enthusiasms, passions and antagonisms, often thrashed out in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema. It wasn't just that Langlois was there at a time when film mattered strongly, was central to public and intellectual life, and national esprit. He was stoking the fire, feeding the baby, serving a lot of it up.

The enthusiasts who showed up night after night at the Cinematheque to see Buster Keaton with Czech subtitles, or the latest Ingmar Bergman, or a revelatory Danish silent often found themselves arguing with Langlois as they waited on line. He was as opinionated as they. If he schemed successfully with a German film buff to protect Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and Marlene Dietrich's The Blue Angel (1930) from Hitler, who wanted them destroyed, he also dismissed Dietrich, saying she couldn't compare to Louise Brooks, whose re-emergence he sparked. But Langlois was not judgmental about what to save. He saved all films, insisting that nobody had the right to reject or - worse - destroy a film by subjecting it to something as fickle as taste. "We have not the right to decide which films live and which films die," he told a questioner during one of his - as it turned out - fruitless trips to help New York City inaugurate a cinematheque along the lines of his. For Langlois, it was enough that film was subject to the triage of time without subjecting it to the triage of taste. So, save everything.

His vision reached into the future. But it was a future he believed stood on the shoulders of the past. Perpetually overextended, he nevertheless made time for young filmmakers. "He didn't just say, 'Leave your film with the receptionist in the lobby,'" recalls filmmaker Philippe Garrel. "He'd say, 'Show me what you've got.' Right on the spot. He had no money, of course, but if he liked it, he'd phone producers and distributors." His championing of filmmakers extended to scraping money together and sending an associate to Amsterdam to pay the hotel bill of Nicholas Ray, who had run out of money and was trying to finish a film there.

One must be single-minded to accomplish what Langlois accomplished. No bureaucrat could, least of all the ones who sought to succeed him. Missing from Richard's documentary are precise figures that would better make the case that Langlois was harassed and unappreciated by a country he honored and should have honored him. Obviously, in his insistence on having a hand in everything going on, he could be maddening, and dealing with him could be even more so. He didn't show Malraux the records Malraux demanded to see because a lot of them existed only in Langlois' head. He didn't want too much of a paper trail attached to many of his films. Mary Meerson, his companion, a similarly formidable figure, ran interference, used her bulk and imperiousness to scare even taxmen. Langlois wasn't the first advocate of saving old films. And he was messier than many a devoted preservationist working quietly away in this or that lab. But he remains nonetheless film's Don Quixote, Falstaff and patron saint rolled into one. A lot of films we have learned to love wouldn't be here if he hadn't been. This documentary evocation of him, while seeming scattered (the US release has been cut to 128 minutes from the 210-minute European release) is cherishable.

Producer: Jacques Richard
Director: Jacques Richard
Screenplay: Jacques Richard
Cinematography: Jerome Blumberg, Jacques Richard
Film Editing: Fabrice Radenac
Music: Nicolas Baby, Liam Farrell
Cast: Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Henri Langlois, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut.
BW&C-128m. Letterboxed.

by Jay Carr

SOURCES:
A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois & The Cinematheque Francaise, by Richard Roud
Henri Langlois: First Citizen of Cinema, by Glenn Myrent and Georges P. Langlois
IMDb