Since 2003, the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna has included a section of 100-year-old films; last month, 89 movies from 1912 were projected, with scattered additions from just before and just after. No other initiative has so vigorously forced scholars and archivists to rethink cinema’s first years; words like ‘primitive’ or ‘static’ have had to be discarded in the face of the breadth and invention of the films shown in Bologna.
The ‘Cento anni fa’ programme is the brainchild of Mariann Lewinsky, a scholar whose expansive vision is coupled with an infectious enthusiasm; she understands the need for an intimate engagement with the world in which the films were produced. As the editions continue and the number of surviving movies from each year increases, along with their shift into medium and feature-length films, the selection tends to concentrate on the lesser-known works. That’s not to say they were marginal for their time – these were the bread and butter of the programmes of their day, but shorter films are rarely revived at cinémathèques or festivals.
Given the vast number of films in European archives that Lewinsky watches to prepare for the programme each year, no one is better placed to identify trends: 1912 saw an upsurge in doppelgangers and suicides, and the corrupting power of money was also a popular theme – in La fièvre de l’or, directed by René Leprince and Ferdinand Zecca, an avaricious banker advertises an impossible 25 per cent return on deposits (as pertinent now as ever). Horse-drawn carriages and automobiles still share the streets, while factories, like the one in Alfred Machin’s Joachim Goëthal et le secret de l’acier, are not yet gleaming Futurist or Constructivist temples but still 19th-century infernos.
In Bologna we saw newsreels, science documentaries and panoramic shorts showing anti-armament demonstrations in Prague, the Delhi Durbar, seaworms, and the shores of the Bosphorus. That inescapable anniversary, the sinking of the Titanic, made its appearance in Louis Feuillade’s La Hantise, a fictionalised account made just months after the disaster (the hero is one of the lucky passengers saved by the Carpathia). A beautifully hand-stencilled, gorgeously restored colour film of the Luxembourg Gardens was a wonder: it was thrilling to watch little boys push their sailing boats in the fountain, just as I did 61 years later.
Then, even more extraordinary, Deauville and Trouville in Chronocrome, a short-lived experimental colour process. Shot just 14 years after Eugène Boudin’s death, in the years Proust was at the seaside, here were moving images that could almost be mistaken for a recreation by Visconti. The film is on YouTube, but the colour isn’t as good. Nor can the online version match the brilliant hues of the print for Bouquets de fleurs dans un vase, with their intense yellows, periwinkles and fuchsias, leading to a stunning pyramid of velvety peaches. Such lifelike colours weren’t a regular option until 1935.
Overhanging all, especially the actualities, is the not-so-distant war: it’s impossible to watch throngs of eager-faced, anonymous boys and not imagine their future in the trenches just two years later.