Archive Fever: Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française

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Henri Langlois never made a single film — but he’s considered one of the most important figures in the history of filmmaking. Possessed by what French philosopher Jacques Derrida called “archive fever,” Langlois begin obsessively collecting films in the 1930s — and by the outset of World War II, he had one of the largest film collections in the world. The archive’s impact on the history of French cinema is legendary — as is the legacy of its controversial keeper.

Langois fell in love with film in his teens, just as silent films were being replaced by talkies. “In the early ’30s they were destroying every silent movie,” says film director Costa-Gavras, now president of Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française. “He started collecting all those movies, not just to save them for the future, but to show them.”

“Langlois’ principle was: Just like people have to go for a walk, films have to run,” explains Cinémathèque archivist and curator Lotte Eisner. “If you just keep them in vaults they die.”

Langois started his collection in the bathtub of his parents’ flat — with boxes of films piled up to the ceiling, says legendary French filmmaker Agnes Varda. Over decades it grew into an extensive archive dedicated to preserving and exhibiting movies from all eras and countries.

Filmmaker Jacques Richard was a teenager when he began working as an assistant to Langlois. “The philosophy of Langlois was to save everything,” Richard recalls. “The masterpiece, the unknown films, even the fascist films.”

Actress Simone Signoret first met Langlois in 1941, in the middle of the Nazi Occupation. “Langlois was organizing projection of forbidden films,” she recalled. They watched the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin “in his mother’s tiny dining room — she was serving little pink cakes.” They all could have been sent to jail for seeing the forbidden film, Signoret said.

“I don’t know how he did it,” Costa-Gavras says. “He was showing The Dictator by Charlie Chaplin during the Occupation. It was a kind of resistance.”

When the Germans occupied France and began censoring and destroying American films and German Expressionist films, Langlois and a group of friends began smuggling his archive out Paris.

“Langlois had to hide thousands of films, switching cans,” explains film curator Céline Ruivo. “We are still discovering many different titles every month.”

After the war, the French government funded the expansion of the Cinémathèque.

“By ’55, ’56 we were coming as many times as possible to see films at the Cinémathèque,” recalls film director Pierre Rissient. “We were very young. We were just film buffs — addict film buffs.”

“In one day you might see an African film, a Japanese film, a Chinese film with Turkish subtitles,” says filmmaker Wim Wenders.

Filmmaker Barbet Schroeder remembers that all the “real fans” would crowd into the first five rows. “I had the luck to see the complete works of Howard Hawks, Mizoguchi, Bergman,” he says. “Three movies a night. There was a lot of fever in that love of cinema.”

Emerging filmmakers François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci and other directors from around the world began flocking to the Cinémathèque to learn the language and craft of film from the massive collection.

“Langlois built a cinema language through programming, creating the New Wave,” explains film historian and critic Jean-Michel Frodon.

Langlois did not see it as his role to comment on the quality of the films. “I never say to Truffaut: This is good, this is bad,” Langlois said. “He discover himself. I have not teach. I only give food on the table and they eat the food. Only food, only films. Food, food, food, food. This is my work: To show films.”

But the Cinémathèque also had its troubles, says Frodon: “Nobody knew what there was, exactly in what condition — it was to a large extent a mess.”

Langlois clashed with the French government as well — in exchange for their funding, the government wanted some say in the archive’s operations.

“Henri Langlois would say: I am saving films every day, so just let me do my work — but keep giving me money,” Frodon explains. “This is the reason why Langlois was fired.”

This political ousting from the Cinémathèque caused riots in Paris.

“There was this big international scandal,” says archivist Lotte Eisner. “The young people like Godard — they say: Langlois is our father and he was kicked out. They immediately protested.”

“The big demonstration for Langlois in February ’68 was the first time we saw on the street of Paris police beating artists and intellectuals,” says filmmaker Jacques Richard. “This was the starter of the French Revolution of ’68.”


“We Want Langlois.” Christiane Rochefort, Jean Rouch, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Henri Attal and other French New Wave Filmmakers during a demonstration in support of Langlois after he was fired from the Cinémathèque Française by André Malraux, the Minister of Culture. February 11, 1968


Amid the protests, the 1968 Cannes Film Festival was cancelled. Filmmakers all over the world — Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Fritz Lange — sent telegrams in support of Langlois. And in April 1968, 75 days after Langlois was ousted, he was reinstated as head of the Cinémathèque.

At the 1974 Academy Awards, three years before his death in 1977, Langlois received an Honorary Award for his tireless protection of cinematic history. Presenting the prize, MPAA president Jack Valenti called Langlois a “savior” of film. “This man stood guard when no one else was there,” he said.

“Langlois educated a whole generation of film archivists and filmmakers,” says Wenders. “He spread the idea of saving the memory of mankind that is in the history of cinema.”

NPR’s Beth Novey adapted this story for the Web.

Special Thanks: At the Cinémathéque Française: Costa-Gavras (President), Frédéric Bonnaud (Director), Laurent Mannoni, Céline Ruivo, Elodie Dufour, Sylvie Vallon. In Paris: Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda, Barbet Schroeder, Pierre Rissient, Jacques Richard, Jean-Michel Frodon, Gerry Herman, Patrick Bensard, Serge Bromberg, Dominique Païni,Georges Mourier, Glenn Myrent, Brigitte Lacombe, Marian Lacombe, Richard Overstreet, Agnès Montenay, Steven Barclay. Elsewhere: Wim Wenders, Tom Luddy, Francis Ford Coppola, Louis Menand, Haden Guest, Tom Conley, Robb Moss, Jacob Conrad, Beth Novey, Ellen Lewis, Kent Jones, Kronos Quartet and DJ Spooky. Archival Footage: From Langlois a film by Roberto Guerra & Eila Hershon coming soon to the Criterion Channel on Filmstruck with special thanks to Kathy Brew, Lotte Eisner archival interview from the Pacifica Radio Archives. Translations & Tape Syncs: Laura Brimo, Delphine Dhilly, Sarah Elzas. Photo of Henri Langlois by Enrico Sarsini.

More memories of Langlois

Tom Luddy is one of the Founders and Directors of the Telluride Film Festival and was for years head of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

Henri Langlois was the legendary founder of the Cinémathèque Française, which is not only one of the great film archives and film showing institutions in the world but it was an incubator of the whole new wave cinema in France because it was the film school for directors like Jacques Rivette, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer… They were there under Henri Langlois in the 50s when they were all really young and into the 60s. It was the place that was the catalyst for a whole new movement of young people who didn’t want to make films like the old tired tradition of French quality films and commercial films.

Henri was like the father of the whole new wave. So that when the French government in 1968 wanted to remove him because he was pretty disorganized in some ways and he wasn’t a good bureaucrat, it caused people to mass into the streets. And it was the precursor to May ’68.  There were thousands and thousands of people protesting against the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, who did this, led by all the filmmakers and Henri was reinstated.

He was a larger than life character in many ways. Very charismatic. He was French but he was born in Turkey and he carried with him a lot of the kind of Oriental Turkish qualities of superstition and paranoia. He was like conspiratorial and there were people who are his enemies and people who were friends. His partner was also a very superstitious Polish woman who had moved to France and was the widow of the great art director, Lazare Meerson. Her name is Mary Meerson. She was a great beauty in the thirties. But by the time she and Henri were partners in the 50s and 60s she was larger than him, going half blind and they were these two kind of eccentric people. They were these colorful characters and if you were on their good side, it was fantastic.

I met him around 1968. I’m not sure if it was in Paris or in Berkeley. There was no Pacific Film Archive yet in ‘68, but there was a tiny museum on campus called the University Art Museum run by Peter Sells, formerly of the Museum of Modern Art art department in New York, and that small little museum had ambitions when they had their new building in ’71 to have something called the Pacific Film Archive. But they wanted to start showing films on campus in ’68 to kind of show that there was a presence that was working towards having a permanent home and a permanent program all year round.

I was friends with Peter and Sheldon Renan who Peter hired to spearhead the creation of the Pacific Film Archive. And Sheldon and I and Peter wanted to make contact with Henri Langlois because we wanted to create a film archive here more modeled on the Cinémathèque than the British Film Institute or the Museum of Modern Art which were cold bureaucratic places. They weren’t living places where crazy filmmakers could crash on your couch who might later be great filmmakers. So Henri was very receptive to what we were doing and came to Berkeley.

In ’68 I did a giant retrospective for this University Art Museum on Godard, who came. It might have been Godard who introduced me in Paris to Langlois or maybe when he came I think in ’68 or ’69 to Berkeley for the first time. He met with Sheldon and Peter and me and we showed some films in a theater on campus or maybe it was a theater on Shattuck Avenue where Henri brought treasures from the Cinémathèque. He instantly liked all of us and liked our youth, liked our ideas. And he hated the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was his enemy and he wanted to build an alliance with us that would include also James Card in the George Eastman House who he was already close friends with. He even wanted to start something called the American Cinematheque in New York. He had a guy named Gene Stavis who was raising money in New York. They did some programming in New York under the name of the American Cinematheque at the Metropolitan Museum as opposed to the Museum of Modern Art and they even found a space where they were going to create a branch of the Cinematheque under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York but then Henri died and that never happened. But before he died, Henri wanted to build a coalition of non-bureaucratic Cinematheques.

haden with hat

Haden Guest is Director of the Harvard Film Archive and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies where he teaches film history and curatorship.

A pioneering figure. He was omnivorous. His appetite for film was just enormous, and he was one who some might say wasn’t as discriminating about collecting at the time. And I would just want to remind people of the time that he was working in, when he was able to rescue films, or should we say, steal films from the Nazis and the Germans occupying Paris. Things like that that he did were really heroic. And the ways in which he fought for a place for film at a time when few people really seemed to notice or to care about the preservation of actual film prints, I think that he’s a really important figure.

There is also the myth of Langlois —the stories and myths about the ways in which he had such a passion for screening, for sharing films. If he had a film, if he made a discovery, he would want to share it. He would want to screen films whenever possible. He created one of the greatest institutions in the history of cinema which was the Cinémathèque Française.

In his time, as founder and leader of the Cinémathèque Française, he was able to incubate a whole generation of filmmakers and thinkers through his really visionary programming. He was able to screen films that no one had seen before, that hadn’t screened for many, many years, that had been forgotten. He was able to create this intoxicating environment where there was an urgent need to see every single screening. One didn’t always know what was going to screen, but one knew that it was guaranteed to be something of interest and something vitally important.

This is how young filmmakers such as Truffaut and Godard came to develop this fever, this passion for film, by attending these séances, these sessions, these screenings run by Langlois. Some have accused him of screening recklessly. Of not protecting the prints, screening original prints at the risk of damaging them. Again to this I would just want to say, it’s hindsight. It is different from the vision of the time. He was driven by an urgency to make known what was in the collection. He saw films as living entities and they were alive when they were on screen. Not when they were in cans on the shelf.

I look to his work with Georges Méliès. He was responsible for the re-discovery of one of cinema’s true founders — George Méliès the magician, filmmaker, inventor, visionary dreamer. Langlois was a young man when he found him, he discovered he was selling toys in a train station, like a heartrending and heartbreaking fairy tales. He realized the importance of this figure and went to the old Méliès Factory and recovered props that were just sitting there in decay. So, the work he did, he had the great fortune of having this vision, having this passion at a time when there was so much to be rescued. His energy and his appetites for doing so were endless.


Tom Conley is the Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies and of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard.

Archive Fever, of course is a translation of Jacques Derrida’s wonderful book Mal d’Archive that I think came out on the heels of another wonderful book by Arlette Farge, Le Goût de l’archive—A Taste For The Archive. I tend to think that when Derrida wrote Mal d’Archive, he was doing it tongue-in-cheek because there’s nothing that he ever wrote that was without some kind of crushing irony. Derrida himself was a ferocious archivist. He said he wasn’t as ferocious as the friend he loved to hate, Michel Foucault, who was very committed to archive and archive work. When I was in Paris in 1968 and ‘69 and then also in 1972 and then in also in ’76, I saw him very frequently at the Bibliothèque Nationale sitting on the right side of the main reading room. He was affectionately called “Rat de bibliothèque,” a library rat. Foucault again was an archivist but one in effect who played against the archive from within the archive because in fact the archive was also something that I think he lived through cinema.

The Cinémathèque Française that I knew was at the at the Palais de Chaillot. It was a meeting place where enthusiasts of film—cinephiles—gathered. These were characters, all delightfully mono-maniacal in different ways and very erratic in their tastes. They would all line up in order to get into the Cinémathèque over in the 16th Arrondissement and go to films one after the other. They would become enthralled entirely by an American film that those of us who had come from that land thought would probably be just a piece of ephemera or even of triviality. When I was in Paris in the in the 1960s I saw River of No Return, the Otto Preminger film with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. It is really sort of soft, very soft, thrice soft sexploitation vehicle that all these people in the room were just going crazy over, for its great theme of the endless itinerary of the self that is seeking to find its origin in an origin that has no return and so it went into the caverns of psychoanalysis to in effect find these great truths in River of No Return if you like.

This became a habit for me to go to the Cinémathèque to watch American films because when I’d seen them in America they were simply objects of let’s say entertainment. They were thrilling things to behold for their visuality, but they were not at that point philosophical objects or critical objects. And then you could have a sense of the way that has sort of a critical edge was being sharpened and defined in the viewing experience in the room itself. And so this is what became for me the absolute charm of the of the Cinémathèque in the time I knew it before 1968.

Henri Langlois was this great towering figure both intellectually, archivally and physically. He was a big man, and he was absolutely revered and the films he brought to the collection of material was just absolutely astounding. One could see more films than anywhere else in in the world in the Cinémathèque. I would go in the morning to consult the paper to see what films were shown at what hour and then of course one never had enough time to see all these films. Truffaut and company would go see about six films a day, six or seven, and this was just par for the course. They absorbed these things and then had memory of the volume that someone of the Middle Ages might have had. That is to say immense. These films did not simply go by one’s eyes and then disappear. That was what I was experiencing in the Cinémathèque. And that kind of thing then radiated into all the other theaters as well. Langlois was a very revered figure as the archivist who had gotten all kinds of films and brought them into the Cinémathèque that in fact couldn’t be seen elsewhere, or rarely elsewhere, it became a sort of a Santiago de Compostela for cinematic pilgrims.

Louis Menand

Louis Menand is a staff writer at the New Yorker. His book, The Metaphysical Society won the 2002 Pulitzer Prizer for history. He teaches in the English Department at Harvard.

Henri Langlois was a unique character. He and his friend, George Franju started a film society in Paris in the mid-1930s, the purpose of which was to show these movies that he collected from around the world to people who were interested in film. He eventually reached the conclusion, fairly early in his work that he should not turn down any movie that was offered to him. So he basically collected every piece of celluloid that he could lay his hands on. People would bring him their movies that they found or that were about to disappear because they knew that he would preserve them and protect them. He stored them in his bathtub. He and his girlfriend Mary Meerson were very secretive. Nobody knew half the time where they kept their movies. A lot of these movies the providence of them was a little sketchy so he would often not tell people where he’d gotten his hands on the movies.

And then after the war, the Cinémathèque Française, his Film Society, opened the screening room. It was a small room and lots of people would come every night to watch movies there. Langlois presided over the renewal of interest in cinema in France after the war and among the people who went to watch the movies night after night were future New Wave directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Sartre would go. Langlois was able to combine movies from different parts of the world and of different genres but show people that by putting them on the same bill with each other what cinematically they had in common, and that was a great learning experience for people like Truffaut and Godard. It became a kind of breeding ground for the French New Wave.

I wrote a story years ago about Bernardo Bertolucci and in particular the importance in his career of French cinephile, Henri Langlois. I was interested in the influence of American film on French film, and then the subsequent influence of French film on American film in the 1950s and 1960s. And then Bertolucci made a movie called The Dreamers which is set in Paris in 1968. And 1968 everyone knows was a period of insurrection and revolutionary order in Paris. And that episode was kicked off in February 1968 when Langlois who was Director of the Cinémathèque was removed from his position and there was a big outpouring of support for Langlois.

The term Nouvelle Vague, the New Wave, was coined by a French journalist named Françoise Giroud. She wrote a piece for a 1957 newspaper story about the young generation of Frenchman who grew up after the war. She wasn’t talking about movies or any other kind of art, but the term caught on. When Truffaut’s movie, 400 Blows and then in 1960 Godard’s Breathless came out, the New Wave was applied to these filmmakers because they belonged to that new generation after the War.

Langlois thought of cinema as a world art form and even in the 21st century people still tend to think of art in nationalist terms of French Art, British Art and Russian Art and so on…. Langlois didn’t think that way. He thought cinema was World Cinema and that was what he was devoted to. That’s unusual in the archive world, because there’s a tendency to collect the artifacts of the culture of the society that you’re in at the expense of the reset of the world, and the Cinémathèque wasn’t like that. Langlois as a person came to represent that history of world cinema.