The death of Henri Langlois in Paris last month removes from the scene of world cinema its greatest benefactor. It is difficult to convey the full range of this astonishing personality whose vast erudition, demonic energy and unique talent enriched cinema in so many ways.
Among moviemakers and film archivists, Langlois was a legendary figure. The Cinematheque Francaise was founded in April 1936 by Georges Franju and Langlois, who was then only 22. While Franju left to direct films, the Cinematheque was given its shape and direction by Langlois alone. It was his personal creation motivated by no other reason but a passionate love for films. Under Langlois’ direction, the Cinematheque not only became one of the world’s largest and finest film archives, but “a house of cinematographic culture in which generations of young producers developed their taste and learnt their craft.”
Alfred Hitchcock once referred to him as “my mother” and added that compared to what Langlois has done for cinema “my contribution fades into insignificance.” Jean Cocteau called him “the dragon that guards our treasures.” And according to Jean Renoir, “we owe our passion for film to him.” I remember seeing Fritz Lang burst into tears after seeing an old film of his at the Cinematheque which he had almost forgotten.
The new wave directors of France owed their entire development in film to him. Truffaut dedicated two of his favourite films to Langlois. To Bernado Bertolucci and Godard, “the Cinematheque of Paris was the best school of cinema and Langlois the best teacher.”
For nearly four decades, the legendary figure of Langlois strode across the world saving and preserving the heritage of cinema for generations. He bought, begged and rescued it from scrap yards. He rediscovered the films of the pioneers- Georges Melies, Max Linder, the Lumiere brothers, Feuillade. He discovered the lost worlds of the early Westerns and the serials. He literally snatched from the dustbin the sole surviving films of Sarah Bernhardt. In this way he saved and preserved 50,000 odd films, many of which would certainly have been lost forever without his efforts.
During the war, Langlois feats in film preservation in occupied Paris are legendary. For five years he stayed one step ahead of the Nazis with his much “wanted” film tins, hiding them in unused buildings, friends’ apartments and sometimes right under the nose of the Germans. His best-remembered triumph was the time he stashed an outlawed movie in the one place where the censors wouldn’t think of looking for it - the offices of the Filmpolizei on the Champs Elysees.
When war ended, the French government finally decorated Langlois (Legion de Honoeur) for his work in saving films and the Cinematheque was given a substantial subsidy by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
Within a few years he wrested from the bureaucrats (his combats with them were well known) one theatre on the Left Bank in the student quarter, the other across the Seine in the Palais de Chailot. It was here that the master cinephile would begin his daily round of showing at least five films which would last until 2 to 3 am. Both houses were always full. It was not uncommon for many film buffs to take in up to a thousand films a year. Godard, Chabrol, Truffaut and Rivette were some of them who took pride in calling themselves “the children of Langlois.”
It was no wonder then that when in 1968 the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Andre Malraux dismissed him on the plea that he was not a good administrator, the entire film fraternity rose in a rare display of solidarity. The newspaper Le Monde even described him as “the soul, the blood and the heart” of the Cinematheque More than 2,000 demonstrators, led by the new wave movie makers picketed outside the Cinematheque’s theatre when the police charged them, injuring several.
Joining the French directors (Renoir, Godard, Bresson, Resnais, Truffaut, Gance, Carne, Pagnol, Chabrol and others) in condemning this clumsy and short-sighted decision of the Government, and prohibiting the Cinematheque in showing their films were American directors like Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Vincente Minneli, Anatol Litvak, who reacted sharply and refused to allow their films to be shown at the Cinematheque if Langlois was fired. Later the battle was joined by Pablo Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Max Ernst, Arthur Adamov, Jean Anouilh and many other intellectuals.
Such devotion to an individual is rare. But then Langlois was a rare individual. He was without doubt the greatest disseminator of cinematic culture in the world. He was not only the preserver of old films; he discovered and helped much new talent. He held premiers of the films of the then little known Arthur Penn, Andy Warhol and our own Satyajit Ray.
As David Robinson said, “Langlois had a vision of cinema which perceives Lumiere and Warhol, Raynaud, Jean Vigo and Robert Aldrich as part of the same panorama - a vision which he passed on to the generation of the Nouvelle Vague.” It was due to him that, in 1969, we were able to arrange the retrospective of Indian cinema in Paris, the biggest ever.
His scorn for written history was well known. I remember in Venice, in 1964 at a gathering of film historians he dropped a bombshell by saying that he did not trust much of written history. Most of it, he said, was based not on original research but other history books. There was fretting and fuming but none dared challenge Langlois. For all knew that no one except him had seen and studied every bit of available film whether European or American.