LOLA home                        HOME        CURRENT ISSUE 

To Program is to Write Film History

Peter von Bagh


  I realised that Yogas are a European invention. In Paris and New York today there are Yoga clubs frequented by all sorts of people, businessmen, society women, bakers, secretaries, etc. They earnestly believe that by indulging certain contortions once a week under the supervision of a teacher they will achieve the famous Hindu wisdom. But in India nothing like that exists.
– Roberto Rossellini, as invented by Jean-Luc Godard, 1959 (1)


1. Jean-Luc Godard, trans. Tom Milne, Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 142.


It all used to be so simple. There were movies, hard to catch – but when it happened, they were seen in productive circumstances: in a cinema, with a genuine audience, in 35 millimetre … all of which guaranteed an intense moment of life and art. And there were books: not that many of them, but some essential volumes, including those labelled ‘histories’ and written by a Georges Sadoul or a Jean Mitry, which functioned like the centre of our universe.


Yesterday and today. The differences are fundamental.


I begin each morning discussion at the Midnight Sun Film Festival by asking my interlocutor – a film director – what was the first film they ever saw. I still get responses, but they inevitably lose their point when my interlocutor is under the age of 40. Instead of a significant ‘first film’, we encounter all the arrogance imbued by virtual realities witnessed since early childhood. In a questionnaire published by my magazine Filmihullu, a young philosopher said that the time of ‘firsts’ is over – well, maybe there is still the first sex act, but that’s about it.


My generation (born in the 1940s) lived a cinema-life based on the idea of the search: we were always after films, whose network existed as a map in our heads – in some cases, leading to seeing certain movies after perhaps an intense dream-state of 25 years. With the instant accessibility of films, that reverie is permanently postponed. Instead, there is a tendency to believe (or half-believe) that you have seen a film when you own a video of it, or spotted it in a shop window or on an Internet list. The term ‘instant accessibility’ must now be returned to its real status of illusion – one of many such illusions of the present time, such as, foremost, the almost parodic insistence with which celebrated notions of ‘film culture’ are reproduced in the market, as imitations.


If a DVD reproduction is the imitation of a film, surrounded by all the new ways of viewing, there are imitations also in every detail: ‘restoration’, ‘director’s cut’ (sometimes valid, mostly a commercial manipulation to profit on the ‘bonus’ side). Restoration, director’s cut, and so on, are, at the same time, slogans even in the video shops, where a ‘pod’ aspect (à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers) gets the upper hand. There are restorations that for practical reasons – and because nobody cares about the difference – are made only digitally. The film becomes a virtual product; only the traffic of money is real. In many cases, some parts of prints are – to achieve a smooth impression – treated digitally: the problem of ghostly non-images can be sensed not only in the shockingly empty, latest Star Wars release, but also – and more and more frequently – in archival restorations. To have seen a digital transfer of Singin’ in the Rain (such as occurred in Cannes 2002, a presentation praised by many journalists) is worse than having never seen it: we witnessed a pod.


The cards get shuffled strangely. Some years ago, someone made the claim that TNT (the movie channel of Turner Broadcasting System) does more for film culture than any other known source, the point being that TNT has – in an overall situation where we currently see less and less – offered a way for us to view, at long last, many vanished titles from early 1930s Hollywood cinema. DVD has mushroomed to fantastic proportions, performing (with interviews, bonuses, additional material, rare clips) moves that should obviously have been performed by the archives, if only they were swift, agile and wealthy enough. This isn’t something to be laughed at, as there is, in theory, some kind of popular knowledge looming. But then – so where does the disquieting sense of an overall ignorance come from?


Tua res agitur … The small, privileged, mental world of a movie nut is tested hard in the midst of such daily reminders and humiliations. To visit a film school, in most cases, means observing that any kind of common knowledge – those points from which any sensible reasoning about films could start – is long gone.


Another personal experience. I see a brand new ‘restoration’ of Sir Arne’s Treasure (Mauritz Stiller, 1919), and it simply does not move me. I begin remembering the impact of a mediocre, unsubtitled 16mm print I have seen several times … Were some key sequences treated digitally, perhaps? Some lifelessness had crept in. Where is the life? In the cases where actual prints are perhaps not even struck, the colourful DVD campaigns become signs of a cruel irony: celebrating the life of a film that has no real existence.


This type of disquiet happens much too often. Of course, the revelation of a good restoration is a magic moment. In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967), seen at Bologna in a dazzling Sony-Columbia restoration, was one such case, in relation to a relatively recent film – recent films also, all too often, being in need of urgent work. However, in the case of Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Mack Sennett, 1914), shown in Sacile, October 2004, a minor film, bloated and boring in several of its multiple versions, suddenly became an overwhelming demonstration of anarchism in its most epic form.



DVD – another of my obsessions, I admit – is everywhere, and especially dominant in schools and universities. The creeps sitting in their offices do not see much sense in paying the expense for a 35mm print – and nor do most of the teachers who were already unable see any difference between a film and a VHS.


The main struggle, again and always, is to respect films. I take a provocatively conservative stand: 35mm projection is, for me, at best, an ultimate definition of life. Films are life itself! We have in front of us an ocean of films – more than ever, watched more absent-mindedly and nonchalantly than ever before. Historicity – an old-fashioned concept – requires the existence of ‘real’ films, and the depth of 35mm, which is still the centre of even commercial events and marketing processes, regardless of where the big money comes from. But more and more material is being shown to people who see – in the truest sense – less and less. The one, original ‘film’ is divided into more and more totally different and often contradictory subgenres. What is our right to promote the 35mm projection as the one and only experience? I know that certain brilliant commentators are entirely capable of redefining their point of view and casting in rosy colours the changed, indeed ameliorated conditions for a new, real state of cinephilia. Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested:


  Can films seen on television screens change one’s life as films on giant theatrical screens could? I think so, but almost certainly not in the same ways, and possibly in certain new ways that are still evolving. (2)    

This sorry view is all too true of commercial fare, to be distributed even more effectively and with an even more monotonous feel of endless recycling at the moment that ‘projection’ mean pushing a button to unleash a DVD screening. But, at the same time, there are other, marginalised aspects, and a truth in what Rosenbaum cites from filmmaker Travis Wilkerson:

  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 6.

  The new cinema doesn’t concern itself with technological debates, particularly the antagonism of analogue against digital. It employs, without prejudice, any and all tools available to it. (3)   3. Travis Wilkerson, ‘Incomplete Notes on the Character of the New Cinema’, World Socialist Website.

There, is of course, a strong temptation to quip that films – the commercial fare that fills with almost the same bunch of films 90% of the cinemas in the world – fit the same schema of hollowness. Michael Wood describes these new movies as a ‘rearrangement of our problems into shapes which tame them, which disperse them to the margins of our attention’ where we can forget about them. (4) We should perhaps invite Douglas Sirk to give us concepts – imitation, deceptive mirror, and so on – to express the depths of our situation, in which films are seen primarily in other ways than in a cinema: on television, video, DVD (in a size that neither respects or produces a true experience of them), at excessive speed, with or without commercials – if there is felt to be a difference at all. They are shadows indeed, and the old variant seems, in comparison, like life itself. (5)



I cannot help feeling that in the midst of this omnipotence – everything available at once, abounding written materials and video editions, thousands of TV channels around the world showing movies, film departments working at full steam – there is less knowledge than at any point within the last 50 years. One, single symptomatic detail conjures the ideal of film history, and the dream of a Sadoul or a Mitry: to write a personal history of world cinema. This all seems to have receded definitively into the past. Nobody seems to care. Instead, committees toil in several countries, with quite a few of the same names repeated in slightly different editions (and usually, somehow not at all giving their best in this kind of context) – it is bound to be something that exists in annual reports, not in human minds.


I should say, in passing, that I am still consulting the pages of Sadoul and Mitry – those personal histories – more happily than the pages of these huge, ‘scientific’ editions ... And here is the point of the Godard/Rossellini quotation with which I began, that does not even concern cinema very directly, but in which I am tempted to see more of an idea and more truth about cinema than in the output of the entire American university machine, with its film departments, over the last ten years. I do not mean to say that American film scholarship hasn’t produced some good – indeed, some brilliant  – things, but it has also been a too-organic part of the commercial empire of Hollywood, pushing – again symptomatically – its version of film history around the world, with, for instance, European cinema consisting of five auteurs (Fellini, Bergman, etc.) and little more.


4. Michael Wood, America in the Movies (New York: Basic Books, 1975), as quoted in Neal Gabler, Life: The Movie – How Entertainment Conquered Reality (New York: Vintage, 1998), p. 6.  

5. The relationship between DVD and festival presentation raises an interesting paradox. When festivals become the final way to decently see a work, the appearance of a DVD box set containing the every Laurel and Hardy movie can simultaneously both delight and sadden us – because it means that a ‘complete Laurel and Hardy’ festival program is now quite unlikely. Home cinema celebrates digital half-truths, while the film itself disappears. A DVD release, even if it is an imitation approaching perfection, is henceforth a mausoleum.



It would be too rude to generalise about present film literature, but we all know the overkill of books dedicated to a handful of fashionable names (Lynch, Tarantino, von Trier) and the dark difficulties of publishing anything else. Many film archives complement, unawares, this state of film culture. Fellini, Tarkovsky and even Eisenstein might still be regarded as topics worth frequent treatment but, at the same time, this hammering of an ever diminishing name-list means blatant oblivion for those who circle the supposedly ‘true names’: Pietro Germi and Alberto Lattuada, Gleb Panfilov and Marlen Khutsiev, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Fridrikh Ermler – not to mention a more general context and dramaturgy that are simply absent, an absence that the disappearance of film histories accentuates. The effect is obviously cumulative: when the basis is hollow knowledge, the programming ideas become static.


A preliminary answer to the sad lack of film history among us – let me cite a book I still regard as just about the best history around: the compilation of André Bazin’s daily and weekly writing, Le cinéma francais de la libération a la nouvelle vague (1945-1958), edited by Jean Narboni in 1983 ... As a book about the French cinema of a certain period, no other publication prompts as much illumination or dialogue – a work written at a time when everything was urgent, without the slightest trace of the complacency of our times. (6)



The question posed to me by Bernard Eisenschitz went something like: given the present ghostly situation of comprehending film history, are, for example, the festivals – in some concrete way – authentic contributions to the writing of film history? I seem to have formulated the same situation some ten years ago, as follows:








6. André Bazin, ed. Jean Narboni, Le cinéma francais de la libération à la nouvelle vague (1945-1958) (Paris: Éditions de l'Étoile, 1983). Some of the contents of this volume are also available in English as Bazin, French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance: The Birth of a Critical Aesthetic (New York: Ungar, 1981), a translation by Stanley Hochman of an anthology assembled by François Truffaut for Union générale d’edition in 1975.

  A good film showing can, and should, dramatise a film as a moment in History. Even if the requirements of a true retrospective create the need to show rather many films per week, or even per day – two or three showings seem to be a rather general practice inside FIAF, but even far fewer can lead to fine and essential results, if the programmer has a poetic sensibility. I am hereby defending small countries, small places, small cities, reminding people that sometimes programming only has a chance of one film – anyway something ridiculous in comparison with London, Paris, New York or Madrid, who have a chance to show perhaps four or five or even ten films a day. The impact must, however, be estimated in connection with other showings in the place, with the situation of a given national film culture of the time.    

The contribution of any film festival is necessarily an event of a very small scale but, at the same time, it has, at best, a concreteness and impact all its own – or, paraphrasing Vertov, film events beget films. This is evidently true of Cannes, which has a very special sense of its duty, contributing to the continuity of a remarkable bunch of filmmakers who, without that support, would not in some cases perform as much – a phenomenon violently opposed, in some articles, by the writers of Variety (in whose Darwinian mindset those films should not exist at all) and other pillars of the system. But small festivals contribute simply by adding to our sense of film history.


At this point I should certainly give credit to the fabulous retrospectives that practically all major festivals (which are, many times, the only places that can afford the costs) are giving us, with varying degrees of inspiration. Although not the festival shark some might suppose I am, I have had my share of unforgettable moments. San Sebastian – where retrospectives compensate for the necessarily poor level of competition, due to the festival being, calendar-wise, the last annual link among the A-list festivals, and thus having almost nothing decent to show – has produced the mind-boggling retrospectives of William Wellman (1993), Gregory La Cava (‘95), Mitchell Leisen (‘97), Mikio Naruse (‘98), John M. Stahl (‘99) ... Berlin has sustained a remarkable, well-produced concentration on German-language-area émigré directors – Erich von Stroheim (’94), Robert and Curt Siodmak (’98), Otto Preminger (’99), Fritz Lang (’01) – whose work crossed over several countries.


I admired the Soviet (and US) ‘Before the Code’ retrospective in Venice (’90); but the Locarno Soviet season of 2000 is perhaps my all-time most memorable experience – an event that was literally history-writing ablaze, and thus an answer to the informal topic of this article. To cut to the chase, all these were clearly moments of film history in the sense of being superb experiences of added understanding, pieces of a puzzle handed out at just the right time, and in an inspired way. And all of them represented the precious, electric meeting of film archives and film festivals.



A good film archive program reads like a piece of music. Take the brochures of Cinemateca Portuguesa (headed by João Bénard da Costa), Filmoteca Espanola (programmed by Catherine Gautier), The Pacific Film Archive (programmed by Edith Kramer) or the programs of the Cinémathèque française, and we have the heavenly feeling of film history in motion, and a sense of responsibility – the need to share experience, and explain our life as only film can, but devoid of superficial, sociological notions. Nothing in these programs is self-evident ... They are a beautiful dream, in their diagrams of a week or a month, or even one evening – as one very special, favourite programming memory will indicate.


Here is one day from more than 25 years ago, engraved in my memory – starting on a Saturday afternoon at the Cinémathèque française, and continuing on into the night:


                 One Exciting Night (D.W. Griffith, 1922)

                 Way of a Gaucho (Jacques Tourneur, 1952)

                 The Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir, 1946)

                 Europa 51 (Roberto Rossellini, 1952)


A perfect day in my life, which I have been thinking of ever since, as fervently as Everett Sloane/Bernstein thinks of the girl he once fleetingly saw on the ferry at New Jersey in Citizen Kane (1941) …


A primary school-type, linear, ‘this is film history’ approach does not work anymore in the way it used to, as there is not much around to back up such an idealistic approach. A right film – even just one right film – at exactly the right time, and in the right circumstances, can move a world. Programming is all about sensibility, and it relates very much to artistic activity in general, just as film festivals can be compared (if they are done with genuine understanding) to the act of directing a film.


There are no big or small themes, just an endeavour to deepen the sense of connection, and an intuition to see a small particle as an organic part of film history – this is how even small-scale archive showings or modest-size festivals can contribute essential pages to film history. A history that I, in the present situation, would sooner see as a process of adding to our understanding, with all available means, rather than producing a line of books.


Often a surprising, inventive theme makes an indelible mark: the Cinemateca Portuguesa and its theme of ‘absent protagonists’ (during January-February 2001) – central film characters who are named, talked about, but never seen – or the Cinémathèque française and its ‘swindlers’ rubric of January-February 1994. And, on the other side, an obvious theme can be treated creatively: regularly eyeing the programs of La Cinémathèque Suisse, I have long admired the productive results of homages immediately dedicated to just-deceased personalities – often with good, bad and mediocre films together, probably based closely on its own collection (a constraint that is no less essential in tracing the ‘career’ of a Swiss star or director) but with, as a result, the sense of a life lived in concrete circumstances.


There is a generational change forthcoming, or already happening, in the film archives. Seeing, for example, the booklets of Österreichische Filmmuseum (whose programming is in the hands of Alexander Horwath) makes one feel secure: a film archive can give a pulse to all the film-presentation activities of a country – the old films become fresh and new and modern again, and the new ones attain dimensions that instantly link them to the past.


At some point, I had the feeling that FIAF was going in a bad direction. A body count at a congress in the early 1980s resulted in some five people vitally interested in film. Not many words were said about restoration. Some time later, restoration and programming developed hand in hand; that is the only thing which can guarantee that an act of preservation grows into the actual rebirth of a film, of the recreation of its social life – even of certain significant characteristics of its original impact, the human echo of its initial perception.


Coming from a background in archives myself, I have an inclination to see their importance as paramount: without them as the centre, everything within film culture – including the mental circumstances of filmmaking itself – is muddled. I will use my own country of Finland as an example of some new twists, because careless, distracted viewing habits have also taken over our way of seeing films: a generation already without any serious time spent at the precious, privileged site that the Finnish Film Archive still is. The last filmmaker to have spent some years in the right kind of darkness – the Film Archive – is Aki Kaurismäki, and that was more than two decades ago. No wonder many filmmakers experience difficulties getting their ‘language’ recognised in the apprehension of foreign spectators.



Each country has its own strategies of survival, and has always had them. For instance, I have often wondered about Italy. How was its remarkable knowledge and informed cinephilic passion possible since, every time I spend an evening even in one of its major cities, consulting the daily programs, I find only a mess of the same, Anglo-Saxon junk. The explanation relates to Italy’s special events, with cinephile nomads constantly in movement. One event on Ulmer, another on Ophüls, etc. In constant circulation, inside and outside its several film archives. I am too modestly informed about France, but I imagine the same kind of explanation there; indeed, every (or almost every) country has something to teach us in this regard.


I might start by remembering some highpoints in the workings of the two festivals I know best: Pordenone/Sacile (Giornate del cinema muto) and Bologna (Il Cinema Ritrovato). Instead of trying to be logical and systematic, I hereby offer some miscellanea from various years.


My first and most precious memory goes no further back than 1988. It involved one of those fabulous ‘big’ themes that has made Pordenone a legend: the American 1910s, with all the rarities, all the forgotten themes you have ever dreamt of; then, the following year, Russian films before the Revolution, including the work of Jevgeni Bauer; then German cinema before Caligari ... Like the homages at San Sebastian and Berlin, the Venice and Locarno programs were accompanied by substantial reference volumes. These are revelations you cherish for your entire lifetime.


A homage to a personality can produce just as much, whether a gigantic series on an evident theme (Pordenone and the silent DeMille); or a surprise choice and a sophisticated idea, like having the films of Herbert Brenon (Pordenone again); or even a seeming banality like Valentino or Garbo can be as overwhelming and surprising as any revelation of hidden secrets of film history – done at a right time, with the right gathering of the public (in Bologna, the participation of local townspeople is crucial), it leads, at best, to surprising, productive results.


As for rarer material, a typical Bologna subprogram: something related to Mittel-Europa and reflecting, most likely, the special knowledge of the great historian and collector Vittorio Martinelli (1926-2008). This theme was seen through the films of some fascinating Russian émigré personalities – resulting in a truly rare bunch of movies all up, among them Viatcheslav Tourjansky’s Michael Strogoff (1926), Victor TrivasDans les rues (1933, with music by Hanns Eisler!), Anatole Litvak’s Cette vieille canaille (1933), Alexis Granowsky’s Das Lied vom Leben (1931), and Fédor Ozep’s Amok (1934) ... Adventures from the borderland of silence and sound, from directors (these were not the only films by them, the selection was rich) who seemed to change country with each film, and thus became unclassifiable, and largely – with the exception of Litvak, whose charged story gains some light when situated here – forgotten, missing out on their share in film history.


While many of the films may be unknown or have long remained unavailable even to the finest specialists, some others are known, but only in a print that hides more than it reveals the beauty of the original images; and yet other films attain an entirely new identity when seen, as a spectator, together with the best bunch of people in the world, i.e., the inimitable collection of archive professionals, film historians, essayists, preservation specialists, critics, cinephiles, and simply all those curious about the always thrilling equation life = film. The proportions of Pordenone/Sacile and Bologna vary, but in this kind of essence they both have produced an amazing, inventive synthesis of programming and surrounding dialogue.


A quote from my first preface, when blind chance made me the artistic director of Bologna in 2001, after being plucked directly out of the ranks of its regular clients:


  The eight happy days of Bologna will offer all that heaven (= cinema) allows: images of everyday and dreams, popular entertainment and avant-garde, narrative and non-narrative works, rounded works and fragments, canonised masterpieces (that must be saved from the unknown almost as often as the films that are lost or faded almost into nothingness) and B movies, and works that are not quite films and of which Nico de Klerk uses a subtle expression ‘orphans and foundlings’, thus examples of an author’s voice and the anonymous charms, so essential to cinema and its popular call – and not less essential. (7)  



7. The complete 2001 program of Bologna 2001 is archived here. (PDF document.)

Both Pordenone/Sacile and Bologna are organic continuations of the finest moment of FIAF: the Brighton conference of 1978, with its ambitious effort to screen all available pre-1905 material. (8) Since then, we have witnessed a triumphant return of the silent film heritage, with various sectors, for once, acting in remarkable harmony; thus the work of Il Cinema Ritrovato is closely connected with a laboratory (L’immagine ritrovato) and restoration work (taking care, for instance, of all Chaplin’s feature films).


Lately, even more than before, we are facing the tragedy of surprisingly new films almost in the state of extinction. Bologna’s thematic series of 2003 and 2004 dedicated to formats has shown this.


A shocking example is provided by the fate of the original CinemaScope, launched in 1953 by Fox with the ratio of 2:55:1 and Stereophonic sound. It only lasted for three years, after which all of it was standardised into the 2:35:1 format. The golden moment was over, and that strange, original sense of it lost – in the words of Leon Shamroy, ‘actually witnessing an event, rather than watching a picture of it … giving the viewer a feeling of being surrounded by the action and, therefore, participating in it’.


A symmetrical angst faced us in the case of VistaVision: another ideal case for cinephilic musings, as writing about it can no longer be based on facts – i.e., actual viewing of the prints – and thus the phenomenon is located somewhere in the wonderland or borderland of ideals and dreams. A series pushes us to meditate about the dream of VistaVision.


One of the privileges of a film festival dedicated to lost eras and rediscovered films is the chance to offer a glimpse of the original circumstances of a movie. The series on VistaVision was that kind of glimpse – almost literally, as the effort to dramatise the real circumstances of the system was clearly abortive (none of the few, probably dazzling original prints from the very first year of the system were found, the original viewing print of Vertigo [1958] remained in the vaults of the Cinémathèque française, etc.). Still, I guess it was a pertinent attempt to understand the degree to which that system made its day, and how a technological definition in the heart of a collective art can become a figment of memory.


We seem to be as nostalgic for these systems – they touch us like angels at a certain, tender age – as for the stars or stories that coloured an epoch. VistaVision appears as a concrete fact in the heated mental apparatuses of the period that covered the 1954-62 era of the ‘leisure time president’ Eisenhower in the United States, and in the US satellites we were mentally becoming right then (including, in one of the very rare real VistaVision films, the greatest ‘leisure time’ movie ever, To Catch a Thief [1955]). Just like the first three, tremendous years of CinemaScope: a veritable time travel.


How can we not be sentimental about the system that produced both The Searchers (1956) and Vertigo, the two grandest visions of impossible searching and the duplicity of illusions? VistaVision, with its graphic edge, seemed to be all about the definition of a landscape – external and internal.


Film festivals are, in this sense, adventures, as well as meditations on necessity and randomness in history. Thus, really productive festivals are seldom just compendiums of good or great films; anything shown will be seen in a new light. Thus, in a parallel way, relating still to CinemaScope and VistaVision, we might observe the interesting fact of how the key films at the starting point of a new technological phase – often summarily dismissed as irrelevant – are actually a kind of ideological sum of basics: The Jazz Singer (1927), The Robe (1953) … and White Christmas (1954), with its vision at the crossroads of religion and consumerism.


Thus, returning again to The Robe, we have, in ‘normal’ terms, just an extreme mediocrity, albeit an interesting movie from the vantage point of the Cold War (the warring elements of the reactionary tendency on one side and, on the other, those critical, leftist forces at work in the filmmaking team). But, screened in the way a festival should, ‘historically correct’, i.e., in 2:55:1 and in Stereophonic sound, we suddenly have a miracle: a stroll into an unknown space that is perhaps not Ancient Rome but ‘the year 1953’ – the totality of it.



At this point, I would like to say a few words in praise of the cinephile, assumed to be more or less the nice, clownish figure so sweetly dramatised in glimpses provided by Truffaut, or in Ettore Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much (C’eravamo tanto amati, 1974). In general parlance, a cinephile is a symbol of alienation, the sworn enemy of ‘real life’ – and thus devoid, by definition, of any understanding about social realities or the flow of history.


The truth is different. As I remember it, the old-school cinephile was preoccupied with real things, and with an urge for real knowledge, satisfied only with eternity and the deep focus of the kind of universal knowledge only film can provide – cinema being, let’s face it, a kind of parallel wisdom along with the wisdom of books and, as such, something without which the true history of the 20th century cannot be written.


I might march in here as a witness, like Jerry Lewis taken onto a television panel in Artists and Models (1955) as a deranged example of somebody consuming cartoons to a senseless degree. My example concerns Paris, the knowledge of which is, from my point of view, based on hundreds of hours spent in small cinemas. Almost literally, I had been present there for ten years before seeing the Eiffel Tower or visiting a museum – seeing, instead, films that, day after day, enlarged my modest knowledge with jolts that stopped the heart. Although it might seem absurd, it was all about enlarging the machinery of understanding – in the way that film, in its prime definition, could present this to me.


One great book exemplifies the achievements of cinephilia, the combined Stakhanovite days and nights one or two generations spent in shabby cinemas. It is a compendium on merely a couple of thousand film titles and yet, in its impact, it far overwhelms any recent effort in film history: Jacques Lourcelles’ volume in the series Dictionnaire du cinéma. (8) This summary of a lifelong cinephilia, due to its breadth, is an object proving my point that the range of cinephilic activities – screenings, writings, discussions – constitute one sovereign point of history proper. (9)


Paris is, to my knowledge, the only city where this book could have been compiled. London or New York neither show enough, nor radiate the same understanding of that commitment without which a writer cannot act. But our judgment should not be so harsh or pessimistic. Every other point in the universe must gather its knowledge and understanding via varying means, without discrimination. Living cinephilicly: it is again the principle of pars pro toto, a part taken for the whole. The feeling that even the remotest place can be homebase for real cinephilia and genuine understanding.



8. Two volumes were published from the Brighton symposium, one of which is a detailed filmography of the some 600 works screened: Roger Holman, Cinema 1900-1926: An Analytical Study (Brussels: FIAF, 1982).  

9. Jacques Lourcelles, Dictionnaire du cinéma: les films (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992) – 1,725 pages in small type.


Every festival should have a self-definition and mission all its own. I am privileged to be associated with two festivals. As both of them are a kind of wonderful hobby, rather than something I do for a living (which again relates more to the conventional writing of film history, or reflecting it in other ways, especially in the form of the montage film), I guess we are near enough to our main point – of trying to grasp how screenings can have a role in the vast, unlimited process of writing film history.


Pordenone/Sacile is a privileged meeting place for film scholars, while Bologna is a more freewheeling compendium of scholarship, enthusiasm and cinephilia (but still a specialist gathering, essentially). Bologna is a combination of many things – local and foreign sensibilities, the non-professional citizens of Bologna and highly specialised audiences ... It comprises a range of events, combinations of films that seem first to be wildly apart – but which hopefully form a unity that is mostly lacking in the commercial mentalities now creeping into once safe corners of film culture.


My dearest child, named the Midnight Sun Film Festival (mid-June), covers far more innocent and ignorant ground – it is not a specialist festival at all. It fell upon me at a crucial moment: I had just ended a 20 year stint of programming for a Film Archive, and experienced a tragic feeling of emptiness, with ghostly programs filling my restless dreams. Then came the initiative from three movie-director friends: we should start an international film festival in the middle of nowhere, in a small village in Finnish Lapland, 120 kilometres north of the North Pole.


The beginning is well worth mentioning. The director Anssi Mänttäri was, for some reason, in the village of Sodankylä, in November 1985, boozing with a local, cultural secretary. It was 4am, total darkness and nothingness all around them. Anssi quips: ‘Why not start an international film festival here?’ It must be the most incredible start for any festival and, of course, a productive one – very much due to the creative energy of the Kaurismäki brothers, who were active in it from the start.


Half a year later, mid-June 1986, we had it all: Samuel Fuller, Bertrand Tavernier, Jonathan Demme and Jean-Pierre Gorin were the first visitors, and we felt safe in the midst of a huge bunch of people, whose arrival seemed – and always seems – almost incomprehensible (and they proved, from the very first, not to be just a section of Helsinki cinephiles decamped to the north for a few days, but an audience definitely from all corners of Finland). In a small village that is like a facsimile of some small, tasteless American spot, and with nothing else to do, we offered three venues for films on a 24-hour-a-day basis: an old cinema (an extreme rarity at that altitude in this moment of history), a school, and a huge tent.


This became an emotional centre-point in life – perfectly defining the meaning of cinema for me, as well as for our public, whose main characteristic is their holy ignorance. As a matter of fact, there is nothing terribly extraordinary in the program; it is only the concentration on cinema that is nothing short of complete.  As we have done our share of presenting veterans – our basic wording is that guest directors under 80 are in the Youth section – this means that we have had retrospectives of Michael Powell, André de Toth, Richard Fleischer, Stanley Donen, Robert Wise, Alberto Lattuada, Dino Risi, Joseph H. Lewis, Jacques Demy, Claude Sautet … always with the director in attendance. These series cannot be complete in the way, for example, that Amiens (an obviously great festival I have never yet attended) stages them. The new films are a compendium of the best of the year, facilitated by the fact that there is no competition – indeed, there are none of the usual side effects, thus bringing about an anti-festival atmosphere.


Before continuing, I must place our festival within a larger context. The Sodankylä event is a part of the almost incomprehensible net of summer festivals, originated by the town of Jyväskylä from the late 1950s onwards, with all arts combined – and all this (today more and more specialist, with the strongest rise in music festivals) taking place essentially in the midst of nature. Our film festival seems to share something that the Finnish summer festivals have in common: a mystery play, full of holy naïveté, the feel of pure nature.


But why, in a film festival? It took me some years to get the point, but I think I now have it clear. Film is a drama of light – something filmmakers like Fellini or Kaurismäki never tire of declaring. And our festival, with its incredible drama of natural light, with the experience of going to the dark of the cinema at 3am and coming out at 5am into full daylight, is a parallel drama which creates a dialectic that simply has a unique effect on us, undiminished even after two decades.


This general context, and the inspiration of Finnish summer events – based, as we know from Bergman’s 1950s films, on the shortness of Scandinavian summer, and the brevity of happiness – of course inspires us to strive, in everything, for the vitality of a live performance. Old films are shown as if they were new, new films as if they are already classics. The stakes are high: even if you have already seen Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) quite a few times, the vision of it at Sodankylä would have to be the show of your lifetime. Incidentally, this particular event took place with our house orchestra, the 12-piece Anssi Tikanmäki band – and it later led to the ‘last silent film of the 20th century’, Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), with music by Tikanmäki: a film that was clearly a festival baby.


After the army of some 150 young, totally dedicated volunteers has packed and left – there is sadness in the end, and in these circumstances it is especially concrete, with the silent village achingly reminding us of the last minutes of The Circus (1928) or certain moments in Fellini – we face the problem of those other 360 days of the year ... how about them, under the present circumstances?


I write this in the conviction that even a small festival, far from the ‘big cities’, can contribute something truly essential. Any kind of festival must be based on the need to make the life of a film palpable. The ideal, which forever eludes us, is that each film – always an individual film – causes strange, unexpected formations with other films, if shown in an inspired and dignified way; ideally, so that that one showing is always remembered as the finest related to a cherished film.


The touching effect of Midnight, intact over 19 times, relates to the fact that the main part of the audience is definitively out of the miracle of cinema in the proper, old-fashioned sense I have tried to define as essential, still today. We have those five days and nights there together, world famous filmmakers and young, often ignorant (in terms of cinema), naive, curious people, indivisible and one, face to face with basic definitions of what cinema is. And that exactly appears to be the point that charms one filmmaker after another, causing a reaction already repeated in the very first years by veterans like Samuel Fuller, Michael Powell or Joseph H. Lewis: it's as if I’m seeing my own films for the first time …


A wonderful short film by Octavio Cortázar comes to mind: Por primera vez (For the First Time, 1967), an account of small, Cuban children in the mountains where a cine-car takes a projector and a print of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), and we witness the miracle and wonderment of cinema in its full, original form. An unsurpassed, inspirational moment for all of us who rehearse the art of running a film festival ...



This text by Peter von Bagh (1943-2014) was commissioned by Bernard Eisenschitz for Cinéma magazine and published in its ninth issue (Spring 2005), pp. 116-131. Von Bagh wrote it in (sometimes approximate) English, and then revised it according to Eisenschitz’s translation for the French version. For this new version, we have returned to the original English language manuscript, but edited it in the light of its definitive, published form. For access to these materials, and for permission to print this version, LOLA warmly thanks Juhana von Bagh, Bernard Eisenschitz, and Antti Alanen of the Finnish Film Archive.


from Issue 6: Distances


© Estate of Peter von Bagh, 2005.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.