Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinematheque

"Oh, the thrill of identifying unknown films!"

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"When you feed people crap, they lose their taste buds," said Henri Langlois in his third act, thereby predicting the triumph – decades later – of everything from reality television to Tim Allen's film career. This being Austin, Langlois' name is perhaps more widely recognized than it might be elsewhere. As the founder of the Cinémathèque Française (with Eyes Without a Face director Georges Franju in 1935), Langlois was at first sight an unlikely godfather to modern film preservation and the inspiration, guidance counselor, and manic, chain-smoking cause célèbre to a dozen or so now-famous filmmakers, among them the entire makeup of the New Wave and countless others outside of France.

Far afield of the usual scholarly template, the post-World War II Langlois resembled nothing so much as Jabba the Hut on a Peter Lorre/Rodney Dangerfield bender, but the man's sheer voluminous physicality and unslakeable appetite for all things filmic proved a perfect fit for what early on became his overriding mission in life: the discovery, exhibition, and preservation of films.

All of them.

Richard's lengthy documentary is a revelatory wash of cinema history, infused with Langlois' joyous and exuberant wit (he died in 1977, possibly of Star Wars), while guiding us on a nonstop tour of French heritage, all while painting a long overdue portrait of one of the most important nonfilmmaking makers of film. Consider: During World War II, at the height of the Nazi's occupation of France and the collaborative duplicity of Vichy, Langlois clandestinely worked with a Major Hensel of the German army, trading films in return for alerts of pending SS raids on the Cinémathèque. One of the films he saved was Marlene Dietrich's The Blue Angel, and he would employ Simone Signoret to wheel canisters of film in a baby-buggy past unsuspecting Nazis' noses, all the while collecting until he had amassed some 50,000 by war's end. Langlois' cri de couer – "Oh, the thrill of identifying unknown films!" – went a long way toward influencing James Card and his work at George Eastman House (the two men shared a passion for Louise Brooks), but only Langlois could lay claim to having Mrs. Bates' mummified head resting atop his Paris mantle.

In 1968, Langlois was briefly removed as head of the by now wildly influential Cinémathèque Française. Riots in the streets of France ensued, and the likes of Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Carl Dreyer, and Josef von Sternberg sent official telegrams of protest to Charles de Gaulle, ultimately resulting in Langlois' reinstatement. "Nobody lets filmgoing dictate their every waking moment the way we did," he once said. Indeed, he's a phantom only in the sense that his passion haunts our own.

Also Out Now

Cars (Walt Disney Video, $29.99): We may be all out of American heroes, but we've still got Butch Cassidy. As a car.

The Greatest American Hero box set (Anchor Bay, $99.99): "Greatest" is, obviously, up for debate.

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Henri Langlois:Phantom of the Cinematheque

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