Henri Langlois: The Auteur of the Cinémathèque Francaise


— Ryan Babula

Henri Langlois, a man of heft and immediacy, was a voracious lover of the cinema. So much so that he was willing to risk his life in order prevent its systematic destruction at the hands of distributors and government officials. The arts have always found themselves, in some form or another, under attack by those who do not appreciate their importance and impact on entire generations. The work of Langlois, from his initial screenings in 1935 to his ambitious and widely admired Musée du Cinéma, fostered an entire generation of filmmakers during France’s New Wave and drew support from all corners of the globe. Admirers of his Cinémathèque Francaise included not only the New Wave, but filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Ray and Welles. When Langlois’ power was usurped, the very filmmakers whom he had fed creatively came to his defense in passionate protest against the state. Langlois was not merely an idol; he was a God to a generation of lost souls after the end of World War II.

The Beginning of an Era

In the years leading up to World War II, the pre-eminent film studios in France that had found much success in the earlier years of cinema were collapsing under the weight of economic strain.1  As a result, thousands of silent films were being destroyed by the studios at an alarming rate. At the time, a number of periodicals were dedicated to Parisian film culture, and at the forefront of these was Pour Vous. In 1934, Langlois found himself drawn to a spread of films listed in the journal, and became passionately aware of the need for a national film archive. The publication itself had thrown a fundraising gala in the name of the cause, but nothing came of it. This failure incited Langlois to take matters into his own hands, and in 1935 he founded a small club entitled the Circle of Cinema with the intent of screening films for a gathering of cinema lovers. Though small, the group welcomed a relaxed atmosphere where people could come and enjoy the films without interruption. As a result, the club drew the attention of numerous patrons, most notably Jean-Paul Sarte and André Gide, for its devotion to the purity of the cinema.2

The next year, Langlois became more ambitious, and as the club grew he decided to form a Cinémathèque that would not only exhibit but preserve and archive films. Enlisting the help of Georges Franju, Jean Mitry and Paul-Auguste Harle, he began renting films directly from the studios and hosting screenings from his mother’s apartment, where she would cook for his patrons, despite rationing, and welcome them graciously.3 Though there were a number of other houses dedicated to the restoration of films, Langlois’ operation differed in that he consolidated all of those actions under one organization. Franju would be responsible for programming, Mitry for his editing and history and Harle for financing.4 Harle was the owner of the trade paper La Cinématographie Francaise, and he came to Langlois’ aid when his contacts at the film companies began to dry up.

The Cinémathèque had no consistent meeting place, often switching locations on account of the German occupation. When Hitler’s Nazi regime had overtaken the French government, state mandates on cultural matters had become unbearable, as numerous films and other artistic artifacts faced destruction. During this time, Langlois fought to protect these gems and began purchasing nitrate prints of classics such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Georges Méliès’ Jeanne d’Arc. It’s easy to understand why the Nazi regime would want certain films to be shunned from the light of day. Caligari reflected the nation’s sense of guilt and confusion after the end of the first World War and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Méliès’ films often faced destruction for financial reasons:  many of them were melted down to provide the soles for soldiers’ boots. Langlois found these to be grave offenses, and sought to buy as many films as possible as a result, believing that one must “buy everything and save everything,” as each film represented a specific time and place—a celluloid time capsule that spoke volumes about a nation’s culture, politics and people.5

Many of the films that Langlois would acquire were stolen and smuggled into the city, and as a result a vast area for storage was needed. His associates would often finalize underhanded deals with military personnel in order to keep them informed about raids against the Cinémathèque, and Langlois relied on the kindness of numerous people (like famed production designer Max Douy) to hide his films and documents from the SS. It wasn’t just French cinema that found itself in danger, but American and Soviet cinema as well. Sometimes he would make trades with SS officers for specific films. One such officer asked Langlois for a documentary on the Maginot Line for a print of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Langlois in turn traded a documentary of no particular relevance to the Maginot Line, completing the trade while shunning the occupancy.6

The Rise of the Cinémathèque

By 1944, Langlois had accumulated over 50,000 films and decided to dedicate a concrete location to a comprehensive archive. Prior to this, in 1940, “the Cinémathèque entrusted its collection to the motion picture section of the French army, and eventually saw it disappear into the service of the Germans.”7 Langlois and company were able to re-locate many of those lost gems, and borrowing space from a building near the Champs-Elysees to house the films, they opened the Cinémathèque’s first official theater at the Museum of Mankind on 7 Avenue de Messine in 1948. Langlois intended the organization not only has a place for restoration but for research and academia. Receiving only a small allocation of funding from the government, the Cinémathèque was largely considered a private institution that was administered by an elected board of directors and required only 3,000 francs in membership dues. Most of the labor that was required to maintain the mountain of work was entrusted to volunteers.8

It was at this theater that many of the prominent voices of the French New Wave gathered and honed their craft. Langlois loved to educate, and believed that the best way to learn the craft was to explore the work that had come before.  Films were never shown twice, and as a result the theater was often packed. Claude Chabrol recalled one night at the Cinémathèque:  M was being shown in the main theater, another film was being projected upstairs, and Diary of a Lost Girl was screening on the stairwell to eager viewers. He noted that it was, essentially, the first multiplex. These screenings culminated in a theater-wide discussion that often lasted late into the night. Langlois facilitated these discussions and allowed them to often get out of hand. The process of discourse allowed the viewers to discover not only new aspects of the film, but of themselves and their tastes in cinema.9

After about seven years at the Museum of Mankind, Langlois sought out a larger location for the Cinémathèque, separating the office space from the screening site. In 1959, André Malraux personally inaugurated their new offices at Rue de Courcelles. Langlois’ relationship with Malraux was complicated at best. As the Minister of Culture under Charles de Gaulle, Malraux was supportive of the cinema and of new filmmakers, but he didn’t fully agree with the way Langlois ran the organization. Still fumbling for more funds, Langlois would often charm governmental leaders and potential investors, but would always come short of securing enough interested donors.

The new screening location at the Rue d’Ulm attracted the same New Wave students and filmmakers as before, but strengthened the sense of cinephilia amongst its patrons. Some audience members would go so far as to jump on stage and caress the screen at the sight of their favorite stars. When artists and stars attended certain screenings, they were always welcomed warmly and enthusiastically. Buster Keaton, who had been written off as an alcoholic and a withering presence, was greeted by filmgoers with pomp and circumstance. Luis Bunuel’s highly misunderstood El was screened by Langlois and was lavished by the crowd.

Langlois ensured that beloved artists of the past were well received and that budding artists of the future received their fair share of the spotlight as well. When Rainer Werner Fassbinder brought one of his early works, Langlois lauded him as a serious talent. He loved new filmmakers and denounced France’s high-budgeted “cinema of quality,” claiming that it was a murderous offense and a step backwards. Always looking towards the future, Langlois spoke out for the democratization of filmmaking, deploring the lack of “troublemakers” and “bad film students” working in the business.11  He would praise Jean-Luc Godard for his innovation and working criticism of cinematic form and tropes. Godard, in addition to Chabrol, Truffaut, Rivette and Rohmer, were Langlois’ first pupils, joining the Cinémathèque in its early years and applying what they had seen and learned to their work with the Cahiers du Cinéma.

As Langlois accumulated more films, he found fewer locations to properly store them. Since the Cinémathèque received few funds, many film canisters would sit idly in the lobby of the theater, which would in turn cause for deterioration and damage of the prints. Thus, Langlois was often accused of being a terrible curator and an even worse businessman.  The theater brought in some money, but many patrons were allowed to view the films for free. Langlois was not necessarily unorganized, but he was bound by the limitations of his resources. As Langlois became more incessantly agitated with the state, Malraux would decide that he was no longer suited to run the organization. His economic practices often worried auditors and he had created many enemies for himself through his constant haranguing of state officials.12

Langlois’ Power Usurped

In early February 1968, during a heated meeting, the Cinémathèque’s board of directors voted out Langlois as the head of the organization. Malraux had been in contact with Pierre Moinot, the group’s programmer at the time, and had urged him to take over, a decision he later regretted.13  Langlois’ ejection caused a riot amongst cineastes, and over 1,500 filmmakers, filmgoers and artists protested the decision. On February 16, the Committee for the Defense of the Cinémathèque was formed, with Jean Renoir as its president and filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut as members. The protests achieved international fame as letters from all around the world flooded de Gaulle’s offices, chastising him for his decision. To combat the protestors, Malraux issued statements decrying the institution’s “administrative inefficiency, the problem of decaying film prints in storage, the failure to catalogue and locate prints” and charges that Langlois failed to compromise on issues of finance and administration.14  As the protests went on into April, the government began looking for ways out of the situation and announced “the creation of a separate film conservation office, which meant that the Cinémathèque was henceforth free to pursue its own policies, but was also ‘free’ of government funding for the purpose of conservation.”15 By the end of the month, Langlois was reinstated as the head of the organization, but at the cost of over 1 million francs in government funding. Regardless, the protests were a huge success in terms of uniting France’s cineastes and establishing a line against government interference in the film world, especially the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC).

With the substantial budget cut, Langlois was forced to limit his staff from 75 to 15 and working conditions became much harder as operations continued as normal. In order to earn money for the Cinémathèque, he would travel to Montreal, Canada, and teach film studies at the university. Students would pack out these sessions, and their popularity spread to other locations. Langlois was now invited to lecture at the Smithsonian and other prestigious institutions around the world. In 1974, he received an honorary Academy Award for his service to the cinema and was continuously revered in the wake of his ordeal. Still critical of the state of French cinema and governmental practices, Langlois would not hesitate to take shots at the establishment, outwardly castigating the Ministry of Culture while awarding Alfred Hitchcock at the Legion d’Honneur ceremony.16 He was tired and disparaged from the experience, but his plans for the Cinémathèque were about to include an ambitious and esteemed project.

The Musée du Cinéma

For years, Langlois had dreamed of installing a museum that would chart the history of cinema, rabidly collecting various props and installations during his search for lost films. The 1968 incident had definitely slowed down the project, but in 1970 Edmond Michelet, the new Minister of Culture, granted Langlois the “former rooms of the Musee des Arts et Traditions Populaires, covering 1,500 square metres in area and 150 metres in length.”17 With the help of Lotte Eisner, Langlois sent hundreds of letters to famed Hollywood celebrities and asked for donations, and over the course of the next two years dedicated his life entirely to the creation of the museum. As a result, his steadfast dedication also led to great neglect, both to matters regarding the Cinémathèque and to his health, which was beginning to falter in his later years. Another problem that plagued the operation was money, as he hemorrhaged the Cinémathèque’s funds consistently and was often denied substantial grants from the government, which was very particular about the allocation of finances. Regardless of all of this, Langlois’ dedication to the project led to the donation of thousands of pieces of film history and the construction of a vast space that suggested and explored the meaning of cinema and its significance to the world.

Structured along a loose chronology, Langlois wanted to immerse his audience in the history of cinema, which spanned 70 years at that point, before leading them into a large theater which treated them to a screening. The museum opened on June 14, 1972 and was a huge success, both in the media and in the public. But despite its success, it continued to bleed money from the Cinémathèque (some 7.2 million francs) and caused some dissent within its committee. Truffaut resigned from the committee in 1973, citing that the “money spent on the Museum Langlois could have copied and restored thousands of nitrate films.”18 Also, as time went on, artifacts began to disappear and many were displayed without glass cases, including a rare Edison Kinetoscope and some 16mm projectors. Heat-generating lamps also caused issues with a number of the installations and the museum’s age began to show as curators were not able to keep up with maintenance. In 1997, after a fire spread through the building, the museum was finally disbanded and its artifacts were put into storage after numerous attempts to change its location.19 It was only after this destruction that the museum was recognized as a “creative work” by the French government.

A Continued Legacy

On January 13, 1977, Langlois noted some discomfort while working on some programming and, after asking for assistance from his wife Mary, died of a heart attack. He was 62 years old. At the time of his death, the Cinémathèque faced many financial issues and could not afford a funeral for Langlois, but due to his enormous following, a casket and a plot were fully funded by donators.20 As it stands, the Cinémathèque Francaise continues to exhibit and preserve film history, offering numerous retrospectives and screenings as well as a library for visitors to explore the lasting effect of the cinema. While it’s not the grand expansion that Langlois may have dreamt about (which included a Cinémathèque in New York City), his work in preserving thousands of films and exhibiting them to the world helped to create some of the most prolific filmmakers and artists of the 20th century. 21

An admirer of the auteur theory, Langlois argued that a true artist must have complete control over his craft and that each individual work would contribute to a lifetime’s worth of creativity. Langlois dedicated his life to the art of the cinema, and with every film he found, every screening he hosted, every filmmaker he promoted and every artifact he displayed, he was creating a masterpiece that could not be regarded as anything less than a legacy. If it weren’t for Henri Langlois, the history of cinema would be substantially less colorful.

Posted on May 28, 2012

1 Eric Smoodin, “Going to the Movies in Paris, Around 1933,” The Moving Image 11.1 (2011): 33.

2 Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Directed by Jacques Richard. Kino Video, 2005. DVD.

3 Ibid.

4 Molly Haskell and Andréw Sarris, “Memories of the Cinémathèque,” MoMA 23 (1996): 11.

5 Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Kino Video, 2005.

6 Ibid.

7 Henri Langlois, “The Cinémathèque Francaise,” Hollywood Quarterly 2.2 (1947), 208.

8 Ibid 208.

9 Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Kino Video, 2005.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Sylvia Harvey, May ’68 and Film Culture. (British Film Institute, 1980), pg. 15.

15 Ibid 15.

16 Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Kino Video, 2005.

17 Laurent Mannoni and Richard Crangle, “Henri Langlois and the Musée du Cinéma.” Film History 18.3, (2006), 279.

18 Ibid., 285.

19 Ibid 286.

20 Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Kino Video, 2005.

21 Richard Koszarski, “The Lost Museum of Henri Langlois,” Film History 18.3 (2006): 288-294.

Ryan Babula is a recent graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, earning his MA in Cinema Studies. He is currently working as the Head Team Advisor for the National Student Leadership Conference’s Journalism and Mass Communication programs in Washington D.C. and Berkeley, California.