Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française

Only the French would think of putting a cinema inside a palace.
- Matthew, The Dreamers

The father of modern cinema

The credit and glory for every great work of art is justifiably awarded to the artist who created it, but behind almost every masterpiece, there's a sponsor or patron whose belief in the art form or in art itself sustains and nurtures those who lay brush to canvas, or hands on the keyboard.  In the world of film, Henri Langlois is generally credited with shepherding cinema through one of its darkest hours, during World War II.  He was instrumental in rescuing some of cinema's rarest treasures from destruction and preserving many others from obscurity. 

Henri Langlois was born in the Turkish port city of Izmir (Smyrna), to French parents in 1914.  As a youth, Langlois witnessed the destruction of Izmir in the fighting between the Greeks and the Turks after World War I.  Seeing the city of his birth ravaged may have provided some of the passion for preservation that drove much of his adult life1.  

 In 1936, when Langlois, and his friends Jean Mitry and Georges Fanju, founded the Cinémathèque Française as a combination of theater and museum, the rise of Fascism in Germany was well underway.  Leon Blume was elected as the French Premier, the first socialist and Jew ever to hold that position.  Fascist political parties were banned in France and the French munitions industry was nationalized in anticipation of the coming conflict. Tensions between Germany and France were building rapidly.  The Cinémathèque was originally dedicated to documenting and preserving the history of cinema.  It was a small and fragile operation, initially supported with the founder's own money and the generosity of a small but passionate population of cinephiles. The Cinémathèque opened with a stock of 10 films but eventually grew to house over 60,000 in its archives2.  Over the years, the collection also acquired other film-related items such as cameras, posters, publications, costumes, and props.

The underlying philosophy of the Cinémathèque Française was expressed by Jean-Luc Godard, most famously in his Histoire(s) du cinéma where he suggested that "a solidarity exists between the history of cinema and history itself: the latter is required in order to tell the former". The viewpoint that cinema is intimately intertwined with history helps to explain the single-mindedness with which Langlois approached the preservation of film archives and the development of film as an art form.  Indeed Langlois is credited by Godard as the original inspiration behind the Histoire and as the father of the French New Wave cinema including such directors as Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Demy, who proudly referred to themselves as the "Children of the Cinémathèque." 3 

Trouble arose for Langlois in February 1968, when the French Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux demoted Langlois and cut the funding for the Cinémathèque Française in reaction to Langlois' increasing demands, poor management and personal eccentricities. This led to violent protests in Paris and an international uproar by cineasts culminating in the shutdown of the Cannes Film Festival that year. Letters of protest from film makers worldwide including such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin deluged the French government.  After protracted negotiations, Langlois was ultimately reinstated as the director of the Cinémathèque and full government funding restored.  In 1973 Langlois was honored with a special Academy Award for his contributions to the preservation of film.  Langlois was also honored by the naming of a street in Paris' 13th arrondissement after him.

It seems surprising today that one of Langlois' most important innovations was the simple but powerful idea that films should be shown, as often and widely as possible. In its infancy, cinema was an elitist pleasure, with few venues and no established audience.  Many early films were shown only a few times to a limited audience, then tucked carelessly away.  Through the Musée du Cinema, in the basement of the Palais de Chaillot, Langlois brought films of all varieties to the public.  His guiding principle was that no aesthetic judgments should be made, it should all be saved and it should all be shown. For the first time rare and obscure films were widely seen and a worldwide sense of film as a valid and important art form began to emerge.  

Langlois broke new ground in the restoration and long term archival storage of early films. In the early years of cinema, the nitrate film stock was inherently unstable and required careful preservation merely to survive. Absent these conditions,  many films self destructed spectacularly via spontaneous combustion, or simply disintegrated into a whiff of vinegar and a mound of fine white dust4. Langlois was a pioneer in the tricky art of film preservation and over the course of his career, he saved thousands of film treasures from destruction.  Langlois also saved many films, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, from outright destruction by the Nazis during the occupation of Paris in World War II. Langlois exhibited real ingenuity in this effort including moving contraband films around Paris in baby carriages, mislabeling or hiding banned films and enlisting the help of an anonymous Nazi film lover to obtain the original negative for The Blue Angel

The life and passions of Henri Langlois are exhaustively profiled through interviews with Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and other cinema legends in the documentary Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque.  A magnificently beautiful, if somewhat tangential, perspective on Langlois and French cinema is provided in Bernardo Bertolucci's film, The Dreamers (2004), that chronicles the events of 1968 through the eyes of three young cinephiles in Paris.  

Henri Langlois died in Paris of a heart attack in 1977.



1 Godard, Jean-Luc and Pauline Kael, "The Economics of Film Criticism: A Debate", Camera Obscura 8/9/10, Fall 1982, p.163-184.
2 The Cinémathèque Française website (in French): http://www.cinemathequefrancaise.com/ 
3 Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Langlois 
4 Many thanks to Riverrun for sharing his personal experience with archival film stock.