We couldn’t imagine cinema without the name of Henri Langlois, but somehow not many people know him. He really is a big deal and he might just be the reason why we are able to see À Bout de souffle on Netflix today.
It all started when Henri Langlois (1914 – 1977) began a collection of silent films that he salvaged from film companies that were collapsing under the weight of economic strain in the 1930’s. Also, during the Nazi occupation, Langlois felt the need to preserve films that were deemed unlawful by the Nazi regime, and risk everything in order to increase his collection. His efforts to protect and save films were not limited to French films but also American and Soviet films that were in danger of extinction. Supposedly, he would even make trades with SS officers for specific films that he could not get himself.
He strongly believed that movies were meant to be seen, and served no purpose if they were simply archived. So, in 1935, he founded the Circle of Cinema, which was a small club in his mother’s apartment where he hosted screenings and patrons enjoyed her cooking. Some of his more famous patrons that attended were Jean-Paul Sartre and André Gide.
As the demand to see films grew, he decided to form a Cinémathèque that would not only exhibit films but also preserve and archive them. Together with Georges Franju, Jean Mitry and Paul-Auguste Harle, he began receiving films directly from the studios and by 1944, Langlois had collected over 50,000 films. With the help of a little state funding, he found storage for his collection on the Avenue Messine, the Rue d’Ulm and finally, in 1963, at the Palais de Chaillot.
Jean-Luc Godard, as well as Chabrol, Truffaut, Rivette and Rohmer, were Langlois’ first students, joining the Cinémathèque in its early years. They applied what they had seen and learned to their work with the Cahiers du Cinéma. Langlois strongly supported Jean-Luc Godard’s innovation and working criticism of cinematic form. Basically one could say that New Wave was born in Cinémathèque.
Although Langlois was loved by the cinema community, he had a complicated relationship with the State, especially with André Malraux, Charles de Gaulle’s minister of Culture. Malraux supported cinema and new filmmakers, but he wasn’t a fan of Langlois’ way of doing things. He blamed him for the Cinémathèque’s financial problems. For example, Langlois though it was fair that some of the regulars wouldn’t need to pay for watching films. In February 1986, Malraux decided that Langlois was no longer suited for the job at the Cinémathèque, therefore he was dismissed. He was replaced by a man named Pierre Barbin. So, it became Barbin, a relatively inexperienced film-festival organizer who replaced the legend and cultural hero Langlois.
In next twenty-four hours, forty filmmakers, including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir, and Robert Bresson, had withdrawn permission for their films to be shown at “Barbinothèque” as they called it. They were quickly joined by world famous artists like Charlie Chaplin, Roberto Rossellini, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, and Jerry Lewis. In just a few days, there was a huge crowd outside of Palais de Chaillot. By February 23rd, Cahiers du Cinéma, had collected signatures from more than seven hundred people protesting Langlois’ dismissal. Some of the protestants were also people who are not associated with New Wave or Cahiers du Cinema, such as: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Andy Warhol, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Marlene Dietrich, Jane Fonda, Pablo Picasso, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
This Langlois Affair had nothing to do with the general strike, but for many people in France it has always seemed like it was a dress rehearsal for the revolution of May ’68.
Malraux finally backed down, but as a result, he made major cuts to funding. So in order to earn money for the Cinémathèque, Langlois would travel around the world and give lectures on film.
For years, Langlois had dreamed of creating a cinema museum which finally opened on June 14, 1972, and was a huge success. In 1974, he received an honorary Academy Award for his service to the cinema.
Henri Langlois was one of the founding fathers that shaped the world of cinema that we know today. If it wasn’t for his passion, insights and most importantly, his aspirations, many great films would have been lost to history. Although he may not be a household name, the product of his work has graced every television and touched every film enthusiast since.