Il Cinema Ritrovato 2021: Archives on legs

29 July, 2021

I have absolutely no relation to that particular ilk of Bucharest cinema-goers that don’t watch films at the Eforie Cinematheque. But even so, I wouldn’t want to see them crowded in there, either – private vices, public virtues. I am happy to know that the screening room is sometimes filled up, but I’d rather go for the second screening, always a discreet affair. In part, due to the fact that I always thought of going to the Cinematheque as an act of complicity; that one very good friend of mine that walked me around through Bucharest for the first time wanted to start it off by showing me Fritz Lang’s M. Then, what with the FILM MENU cineclub, Eforie and UNATC’s Sala Cinema became our havens; our entrevues always began with an “I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it on Sunday, Friday’s screening really messed me up and I had some work to do, too”. And then, when I fell in love with a boy in whose presence I couldn’t find my words any longer, well, I took him to just about every film that was showing from March all the way to August, the Cinematheque’s yearly month of vacation between seasons. But, beyond my little stories, Eforie is so necessary to me because I can still get lost in it, together with those few anonymous spectators that I know all too well. The Cinematheque lost the rhythm of the times, it can’t handle the cosmopolitan atmosphere that sets various galas and film festivals into motion. And that is an incredible chance for those such as myself, who loathe cosmopolitan events.

André Bazin (who else?) wrote an unforgettable piece about a film critic thrown out of his cave onto the beaches of Cannes, “among these men and half-naked women, heroes and goddesses…”; and all of this in 1947. Following that – “The beach belongs to everyone, of course, and the sea too. But it would be pointless to deny the obvious: they are at home here. Not him.

Bazin would have been so happy to spend even just a single day at the Il Cinema Ritrovato! This is the first thing that passed through my mind as I looked at the seashell that I had just taken from a box that was free to touch in the art museum across the road (MAMbo). It’s Bologna, and Bologna only, to me, with its arcades arching across most of its central streets, that could host the odd collection of pale, photo-sensitive faces that converges at each year’s edition of the festival; and I have joined them for the first time.

Someone told me that Ritrovato started off as an event dedicated solely to film archivists, curators and critics, and slowly, yet surely, the audience arrived by itself. I don’t know if this is true, to the same degree to which I do not know which the festival’s spontaneous audience is. What I do know is that I saw many, many badges; in a pandemic year nonetheless.

Something awfully strange happens over there. Early in the morning, dozens, hundreds of individuals split themselves between, say, a ‘68-ist Márta Mészáros film and a handful of experimental German short films; or a small comedy written by Herman Mankiewicz; or a performance with film reel, or who knows what film that has traveled the seven seas in order to come here; even though nowhere seems too far. The voluble Gian Luca Farinelli, one of the festival’s directors, opens the evening screenings by asking the audience which of them has managed to see five films that day. Or four? As I said, this is the international of archive and newsroom people, so finely-calculated selections, stuffy catalogs and lists, eternal lists are a given here. But what I am rather more interested in is the sensation of a living organism – fascinating through its deformity, as if it were something spawned by the hands of Bertrand Mandico – which the festival invites. As such…

What could be more appropriate at this time and place than to render a homage to Lotte Eisner, the ruling queen of the New German Wave on her French Cinematheque throne? Timos Koulmasis is a careful documentarian, albeit a bit lacking in spark, who gathered and sorted out the needed materials to understand the path of a blindingly resilient intellectual. The young Jewish Eisner traveled from being the chic cultural critic of the twenties to headliner in ‘33, when the Nazis’ power grab takes place; and so she runs away to Paris, where she meets the young Henri Langlois and Georges Franju, those who planted the seeds of film archives and curatorship as we know them. The shadow of Langlois is massive, and still covers many of those who worked in the service of the legendary Cinematheque. Eisner helped them; rather, she was one of them, a co-founder, curator and long-time companion. It’s just that the road itself would include at least one massive detour – 1940, the year when Paris is invaded by the Nazi army, when Eisner is deported to a concentration camp which she then escapes from, spending her years as a fugitive as a nanny of the film copies which were hunted by the Nazis. Lotte Eisner – A Place. Nowhere, what a beautiful title for an otherwise tame documentary.

Lotte Eisner

“What are we talking about?”, two voices ask, one after the other. “Paris, Europe, 1940”, at first. “Paris, Europe, 1977”, then. Fluchtweg nach Marseille / Escape Route to Marseilles, by German directors Ingemo Engströms and Gerhard Theurings, hit me like a ten-ton piano. How did such a film end up being left behind? Forty years before Christian Petzold, the two take Anna Seghers’ Transit in hand, but not to adapt it, as they themselves said before the screening, but rather to use it as a leitmotif. Seghers wrote about a young man that escapes a Nazi camp by a hair’s breadth, coming, as many others, to the unoccupied Marseilles, a port city, in order to try to escape France. Here, he stumbles upon an entire town in a state of suspension, bursting from the desperation shared by refugees from all across Europe; each of them waiting for their departure. Except for a woman that is waiting for her husband. But, the husband has killed himself a short while ago, and the protagonist himself must be the bearer of bad news. Instead of doing so, he falls in love with her.

Fluchtweg nach Marseille (1977)

Children of Brecht and Benjamin, the pair of filmmakers take the story and split it into an overwhelmingly dense material. Escape Route to Marseilles is a research in the making, all along which Engströms and Theurings document the history of the forties, connecting the novel and biography of Anna Seghers with glimpses from the writings of figures such as Camus and de Beauvoir, interviews of survivors who have passed through Marseilles, archival images, at last, mostly everything that helps one construct a narrative in documentary cinema. On the one hand. On the other lies their conception regarding history – “which we do not want to represent, but to render present,” riding on the coattails of Benjamin. And so Escape Route… is about 1977 looking back at the forties; beyond a few shots in Paris, where a dozen-a-dime shoah film is showing, something at bordering comedy and action film at the same time, the two bring the history to the present day through a fragmented adaptation of Transit. A young actress with a Jean Seberg air about her poses as the female protagonist of the novel, only to later be interviewed by the filmmakers – “What does fascism mean to you?”. And, at a cafe sitting on the cusp of the beach, a man recites in Brechtian, in the presence of a young man who doesn’t even say peep, pages upon pages of the novel.

What are we talking about? Bologne, Europe, 2021. I will never forget how Helga Fanderl offered her thanks, out of a sense of collegiality – but nothing pompous – to projectionist Massimiliano Rossi right before they screened her small and precious lyrical documentaries, each displaying a sense of serenity that I’m yearning for. All except for one, a recording of a horde of tourists fighting to catch a shot of the Gioconda at the Louvre on their mobile phones. “Little do they care what is in front of them, be it an original or not,” Fanderl sighs after the screening.

What are we talking about? Orson Welles, international through and through, 1974. F for Fake– F for False, F for Farce. Welles plays a ruthless one on the idea of auteurism (and onto Pauline Kael, as Rosenbaum claims others may say). I wonder, has the faker Elmyr de Hory ever tried his hand at a Gioconda? Helga Fanderl would raise a brow – little do they care.

What are we talking about? About 1974, once more; Munich-Paris, Europe, 23rd of November to the 14th of December, Werner Herzog finds out that Lotte Eisner is lying on her deathbed. He has the power to keep her alive, or so Herzog believes, if he quickly leaves Munich on foot, like a pilgrim.

What are we talking about? Bucharest, Europe, 2021. I catch a screening of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) one day before departing for Bologna. While at the Henri Coandă airport, I toy with the thought that an individual such as Paradjanov was contemporary to airports. Now it’s clear to me that Paradjanov was much more contemporary to Herzog than he was with airports.

August, the month between seasons, is slowly inching closer.


Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.