The first generation of film archivists were essentially collectors interested in showing their treasures. Before the age of television, old films were virtually impossible to see, since producers had little interest in saving material that had outlived its economic usefulness. Furthermore, mainstream cultural institutions and governments considered the cinema a crass commercial enterprise, a form of communication not worthy of serious intellectual consideration. Having what Roland Barthes has called "bad object" status, the cinema was mistreated by governments, institutions of education, and commercial interests alike.
In the 1920s, a minority of intellectuals began championing the cinema as a new art form, advocating the creation of noncommercial screening spaces and the establishment of archives for the preservation of old films. Once sound film was introduced between 1927 and 1931, however, the matter of the medium's survival became critical, since silent films were considered obsolete. Yet in that era many critics, historians, and cinephiles believed that silent film was a superior art form, one that deserved to be preserved. The first film archive in the world was established at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, New York) in 1935 by Iris Barry and her husband, John Abbott—both cinephiles who understood that the cinema was potentially a modern art. A year later, two young Frenchmen, Henri Langlois (1914–1977) and Georges Franju (1912–1987), founded the Cinémathèque Française in Paris as a private initiative. Before the decade was out, two more archives were founded in London (the National Film Library) and Berlin (Reichsfilmarchiv). While the latter two were national in scope, the MoMA Film Library and the Cinémathèque collected internationally. Together, these archives established the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF) in 1938. After World War II, FIAF expanded considerably with the founding of film archives in Switzerland, Prague, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Rochester (New York), and Moscow. By 1959, FIAF consisted of thirty-three members and by the turn of the millennium had over 120 archives associated with the organization.
The priority of the members of FIAF, then, was to collect films. Not without some justification, it was thought that the very act of collecting prints also contributed to their preservation. Just as important as collecting films was the act of screening them, making them live again on the screen for a new generation of filmgoers. Most of the first generation of film archivists, including Henri Langlois (Paris), James Card (Rochester), Maria Adriana Prolo (Turin), Jan de Vaal (Amsterdam), Jacques Ledoux (Brussels), Einar Lauritzen (Stockholm), and Freddy Buache (Lausanne), were indeed film collectors rather than film archivists. Films were stored in vaults that often did not meet standards for archival security, and catalogs consisted more often than not of lists printed in loose-leaf notebooks.
On the positive side, many films were indeed saved from destruction because the mentality of the film collector precluded throwing anything away. In other words, most of the first generation believed in saving every film they could get their hands on, legally, semi-legally, or illegally. Indeed, until quite recently film archives often operated without the blessing of film companies and rights holders; according to the strict letter of the law, only the rights holders could acquire films, making the very act of collecting illegal.
Finally, by the end of the 1960s, numerous countries around the world had established film and television archives, often funded by their governments. This was the case in Canada, for example, where, after numerous government and private initiatives, a national film archive was established in 1969. In the United States, however, moving image archives remained for the most part private affairs. At the same time, film companies soon realized that they had lost many films, which now only existed in the archives—films that could not be resold to television and later remarketed as videos.
The cofounder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, Henri Langlois belonged to the first generation of film archivists, most of whom were dedicated cinephiles rather than trained archivists. Over a forty-year period he amassed one of the largest cinema collections in the world, but unfortunately a significant percentage decomposed due to poor storage conditions.
In 1934, already mad about movies, Langlois started a film club, the Cercle du Cinéma , with his friend, the filmmaker Georges Franju. With a 10,000-franc donation from the publisher of La Cinématographie Français , the Cinémathèque Française was officially established on 2 September 1936.
Although extremely disorganized, Langlois was a rabid collector, taking in any and all films. According to Langlois, films were to be preserved by showing them, not by placing them in an archive. He is quoted as saying: "Order? That is for the Germans." In 1938, Langlois joined forces with Iris Barry (Museum of Modern Art), Olwen Vaughn (British Film Institute), and Frank Hensel (Reichsfilmarchiv) to form the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF). Thanks to excellent relations with the Reichsfilmarchiv, Langlois could protect the Cinémathèque's holdings during the German occupation of France during World War II; indeed, Langlois's first office was at the Nazi German film office in Paris. After World War II, the Cinémathèque became the epicenter for the French New Wave. By the early 1960s, the forty programs a week in two cinemas (Ulm opened in 1955 and Chaillot in 1963), functioned as a film school for aspiring filmmakers . Retrospectives were organized around directors or countries; there, Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, among others, discovered the work of Louis Feuillade, Jean Renoir, and Erich von Stroheim.
In 1962, Langlois dropped out of FIAF, apparently on a whim, but by then the Cinémathèque's fame was so great that he continued to deal with most archives, also curating series at the Cannes and Venice film festivals. However, with increased funding from the French government, the state demanded an end to the chaos in the archive and in 1964 appointed an administrative council and director over Langlois. On 9 February 1968, Langlois was fired and Pierre Barbin was named the new director of the Cinémathèque, leading to a firestorm of protest in the press and on the streets as dozens of well-known film directors came to Langlois's defense while police bloodied protestors. On 22 April, Langlois was reinstated by the administrative council, but it was a pyrrhic victory because the government withdrew almost all of its funding. While Langlois was able to open the MuséeduCinéma in June 1972, thémathèque's finances remained chaotic. Today, Langlois remains a controversial figure in the film archives world.
Card, James. "In Memoriam: Henri Langlois." Film Comment 13, no. 2 (1977): 33.
Myrent, Glenn, and Georges P. Langlois. Henri Langlois: First Citizen of Cinema . Boston: Twayne, 1994.
Roud, Richard. A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.