In this blog post, I share some of my findings on the history of Nicole Vedrès’ early landmark of archive-based filmmaking Paris 1900 (France, 1947) at the Filmmuseum. The findings result from my research as Scholar-in-residence at the Eye Filmmuseum which I am wrapping up at the moment. As I wrote in my previous blog post on my research at Eye I was surprised to discover that Paris 1900 played a key role in the Filmmuseum’s early collection building in the late 1940s – back when the Filmmuseum was not yet the Filmmuseum but still two separate institutions, led by Jan de Vaal, the Nederlands Historisch Film Archief and the Uitkijk Archief (NHFA/Uitkijk). Paris 1900 was one of the first films bought by the Filmmuseum and was a high-risk acquisition because it was by far the institution’s most expensive acquisition so far. Beyond being a film which Jan de Vaal obviously liked, Paris 1900 was also acquired to make the case for film archiving in the Netherlands and as a starting point for building the institution’s circulating film library from the income the film’s screening fees would generate in the Netherlands.
Because the film’s history at the Filmmuseum seems both a bit forgotten today and is certainly not widely known, I wanted to dig deeper into the specific circumstances of the institution’s acquisition and distribution of it. To this end, I have been doing extensive research in the Filmmuseum’s early business archive. In total, I have gone through the business archives from four years – 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1950 – looking for mentions of Paris 1900, Nicole Vedrès, Vedrès book Images du cinéma français (Editions du Chêne, 1945) and relevant correspondence with the producer of Paris 1900 Pierre Braunberger and his production company Panthéon. The business archives from these years amount to five boxes, of which the contents are ordered alphabetically – but nevertheless not very easy to navigate as there is no clear index. Moreover, the business archive also has many gaps, for instance missing letter attachments or sometimes entire letters, which is something I kept in mind when studying the material. The image below shows what the business documents from 1949/1950 look like today.
Research at the Eye Collection Center. This is what the NHFA/Uitkijk’s early business documents look like, in this case documents from 1949/1950.
I proceded by going through all of the documents from said years and transcribing every relevant letter in full, with the exception of two-three handwritten letters that were too hard to fully decipher. This has resulted in a document of transcriptions which is currently 115 pages long, divided into five sections – one for each box. This document maintains the order of the letters in the order in which I found them. At a later stage, I am planning to make a different version of the document of transcriptions where I order the letters into different categories – in particular acquisition and distribution – and arrange them chronologically.
In doing this research I found a lot of useful information on Paris 1900‘s history at the Filmmuseum and also made some rather unexpected and exciting discoveries. Below I share four of the findings that I found particular interesting. I hope that sharing them may help scholars abroad in understanding the circulation of Vedrès’ work internationally to a greater extent than hitherto, and that in doing so I can also contribute to broadening the perspective of the current (and much needed) rediscovery of her work.
1. Acquiring Paris 1900
The first finding concerns the dating of the acquisition of Paris 1900 and its circumstances. Based on my research I assume that Jan de Vaal and other staff members saw Paris 1900 for the first time in Edinburgh at the International Festival of Documentary Films in August 1948 – the festival’s second edition – and subsequently decided to acquire it. In a letter from 27th of July to Norman Wilson – one of the festival’s early key figures – Jan de Vaal asks:
…if it is possible to see the most important films, such as THE LOUISIANA STORY, EDGE OF THE WORLD, GERMANY, YEAR ZERO, THE GREEDY BOY, PARIS 1900, and eventually other important films during that week.
In addition to this correspondence there is little to be found on Paris 1900 in the NHFA/Uitkijk’s business archive from 1948. However, there are several significant letters from late December that year. In that period, Jan de Vaal writes to various film societies and cultural and educational institutions in the Netherlands – for instance the Volksuniversiteit in Rotterdam or the Katholiek Instituut voor Filmscholing in Delft – asking if they would be interested in showing Paris 1900 and, if so, how many screenings they would be interested in organizing. The idea in asking this was to get a sense of whether it would be financially feasible to acquire the film with loans and pay it back by with money earned with screening fees and, subsequently, acquire additional films with the income generated. Jan de Vaal received positive reactions to this inquiry, and the decision to acquire the film must have been taken at a point in early 1949.
Promotional material for the first edition of Edinburgh’s International Festival of Documentary Films (now Edinburgh International Film Festival) in 1947. Paris 1900 screened at the second edition in 1948.
Subsequently, de Vaal asked the Dutch Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences for permission to take out a loan amounting to 200.000 French francs at the Dutch Bank (Nederlandse Bank) for acquiring the film (I am still trying to find a good historical calculator to figure out how much exactly that would be today). The permission for the loan was given by the Ministry’s Department of the Arts in a letter from 25 April, 1949, signed by Dr. N.R.A. Vroom.
It is clear from correspondence with film societies and educational institutions in 1949 that the acquisition of Paris 1900 was associated with a high financial risk and was intended as a foundation and test for the future Filmmuseum’s success. In a letter from June 20, 1949 to the secretary of the Volksuniversiteit Rotterdam Ida van Dugteren – who was particularly enthusiastic about the film and with whom de Vaal frequently corresponded and organized several screenings – Jan de Vaal writes in response to van Dugteren’s inquiry about a possible future collaboration:
We must attempt to overcome the acquisition costs of Paris 1900, first then does a collaboration (…) become valuable. This is our first big experiment. If we manage to cover our expenses for it, then we as well as you and other film groups who are participating will have won in the first attempt, and then it will be possible to continue working with greater confidence. I sincerely hope I can count on your co-operation. (Own translation)
2. Subtitling attempt at Haghe Film
The Filmmuseum’s copies of Paris 1900 were initially not subtitled, but were given a short Dutch introduction at screenings, which was added by the NHFA/Uitkijk. The reasons for this were mostly technical and – to a lesser extent – aesthetic. In the correspondence from 1949 between among others Jan de Vaal, Ida van Dugteren and Haghe Film – then located in The Hague – it is discussed at great length if the film should be subtitled and if it was possible at all to do it. Technically, it turned out not to be possible for Haghe Film to do it – as staff members at the lab explain in a letter to Jan de Vaal from 5 October 1949 – Pierre Braunberger did not provide a soft print of the film, which they needed in order to do a subtitling. The correspondence with Braunberger is not in the business archive, but it is quite clear from other letters, that the delivery of the print was heavily delayed and initially not of a quality which the NHFA/Uitkijk had expected and which allowed for subtitling according to the most standard procedures at the time. In the end, the print was therefore not subtitled. The business correspondence suggests this solution was mainly a compromise, but was also perceived to have the advantage of not tampering with the film’s aesthetics. While the NHFA/Uitkijk initially seemed to be in favour of subtitling the print, Ida van Dugteren – who was one of the first to rent the film, on behalf of the Volksuniversiteit Rotterdam, after its aquisition – preferred it without subtitles. In a letter to Jan de Vaal from 30 June 1949, she expresses that she is happy to hear the film will not be subtitled, as she finds it would destroy the image. At the first screening of the film in Rotterdam on 30 September 1949 – also announced as the film’s Rotterdam premiere – Jan de Vaal was present himself and gave a commentary in Dutch. In this respect, the Filmmuseum’s prints of the film differ from other versions.
3. Paris 1900 and Philips Experimentele Televisie
This is perhaps one of the findings I am most excited about. In a letter sent by Jan de Vaal on 23 June 1949 to the Philips department for Experimental Television (Philips Experimentele Televisie) in Eindhoven, it appears Paris 1900 was used for an early television broadcast on film archive work (filmarchiefwerk) on 21 June 1949. In the letter, de Vaal thanks the staff at Philips warmly for their hospitality and a great organisation while noting that Paris 1900 was delivered back on time.
An impression of what it looked like to watch Philips Experimentele Televisie together in 1950 in the Eindhoven region (available via this concise historical timeline in Dutch). Might these viewers also have seen parts of Paris 1900 when it was featured in one of the broadcasts in 1949?
That this broadcast happened is quite intriguing for several reasons. Television in the Netherlands at that time was in its earliest, pioneering stages and still far from being institutionalized (and certainly not held in high regard). As detailed in several historical overviews Philips Experimentele Televisie broadcast three times a week and could only be received by people in a 40km (or approx. 25 miles) radius around Eindhoven who happened to own a television set in that region (that is: very few people). Between 1948 to 1951, Philips Experimentele Televisie made 265 broadcasts before television became considered a medium with a future and television production moved to Hilversum where the radio industry had flourished since a couple of decades already. I am still looking for sources and accounts which document the broadcast on film archiving from 1949. Recordings of some of the Philips broadcasts still exist, but the material I have been able to locate so far is not the easiest to access and does not give a clear answer as to what is preserved, so this requires a bit more research – something I am extremely excited about doing.
4. Henri Langlois’ research trip to the Netherlands for Paris 1900‘s sequel
Another interesting find relating to Paris 1900 is a correspondence which involves Jan de Vaal, Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque française and the newsreel film company Polygoon. In a letter to Polygoon dated 31 August 1949 de Vaal details that Henri Langlois is currently conducting archival research in preparation for a sequel to Paris 1900 (Henri Langlois had been a possible candidate for the direction of Paris 1900 but was ultimately not assigned the task). The idea of this sequel was to go beyond a French context to cover the time during and after World War I from a European perspective, including the Netherlands. In his work for the sequel, Langlois has asked de Vaal if Polygoon would happen to have material depicting various events in their possession – among others WWI insofar as it involves the Netherlands and Germany, the Hindenburg disaster, Dutch popular life and material thematically related to inflation. On behalf of Langlois, de Vaal passes this request on to Polygoon to plan a research meeting between Polygoon and Langlois. In the answer which de Vaal receives from Polygoon dated 5 September 1949, the director Brand Dirk Ochse replies that Polygoon unfortunately does not have footage of these events as the company was only founded in 1919. Yet, Ochse kindly agrees to meet Langlois all the same, but on the condition that de Vaal communicates a precise time and date well in advance because, as he points out, Polygoon has not been able to rely on Langlois when previously setting up appointments.
As part of his archival research for a sequel to Paris 1900 Henri Langlois inquired the Polygoon company – via Jan de Vaal – about material relating to specific events and aspects of Dutch culture and life.
At this point I have not found other letters relating to the archival research for this sequel – this is where the business archive seems to have some gaps. Yet, it is interesting to see that there was an interest from the NHFA/Uitkijk to partake in the research for a sequel to Paris 1900 in collaboration with the Cinémathèque française and – on a more general level – a willingness to support the making of (poetic) compilation films at a very early stage.
Conclusion and Further research
All in all, it is safe to say that Paris 1900 was an extremely important film in the Filmmuseum’s collection building and key to the institution’s very existence. Beyond the findings I have discussed here, I am also discovering paper clippings at the Filmmuseum and beyond to create an overview of the reception of Vedrès film-related work in the Netherlands. I plan to write more about this at a later stage either on my blog or in an article. I am also currently making my way through the small corpus of (extremely interesting) literature which has been published on Vedrès work in the past few years. A few months ago I read Laurent Véray’s recently published Vedrès et le cinéma (Nouvelles Editions Place, 2017) and am currently diving into to the fascinating research which Catherine Russell and Paula Amad have done on Vedrès.
In other words, there is more to come and more to discover about Vedrès’ deeply fascinating work. However, one thing which surprises me is that I have found no direct correspondence with or reference to meetings with Nicole Vedrès in the Filmmuseum’s business archive – although Jan de Vaal went to Paris to sort out the acquisition of the film and posters for it. Usually, Jan de Vaal did not seem to hesitate to contact filmmakers directly (Jean Cocteau or Hans Richter for instance, to name some of the many directors I have come accross), to inquire about rights for or copies of films as well as related material, but not in this case. I guess that is to be continued…