Michal Bregant: Restored classics can provide context for new Czech films
Czechia has a rich history of cinema and that heritage is carefully administered by the National Film Archive in Prague, which is currently celebrating 80 years of existence. I discussed the archive’s establishment during the Nazi occupation, the recent tradition of restoring classic Czech movies, how NFA archivists defied the authorities to save treasures and much more with its director, Michal Bregant.
A restored version of Ear by Karel Kachyňa was premiered at last year’s Venice IFF.
The NFA first opened its doors in 1943. Why was an institution like this initiated during WWII?
“The Nazis wanted to have order in everything, including the film industry.”
“There were two reasons, basically.
“One was that the occupying forces, the Nazis, wanted to have order in everything, including the film industry.
“And they were exploring the capacity and the knowledge and the professional level of the Czech filmmakers at the Barrandov Studios very much.
“They really believed that the film industry was something very rich and promising for the future, so they also wanted to have control over the film heritage, in a way.
“But, on the other hand, there were many people who were collecting films, and the cinema owners, who were afraid that during the war their films could be damaged.
“So it was collectors’ passion and a bureaucratic attitude that created the Film Archive back in 1943.”
I was quite surprised to discover recently that the Czechoslovak film industry was nationalised in August 1945, just three months after the end of the war. I had assumed that was done by the Communists a few years later. Why did that happen under Beneš?
“Well, that was the first nationalisation decree signed by the president in 1945.
“That could happen only because of the will of the Czech filmmakers and writers, intellectuals, who were thinking about the form and format of the Czech film industry after the war.
“They started preparing for that already during the war.
“[Director] Vladislav Vančura, for example, was involved in that, with other people who were not allowed to work, or didn’t want to work, during the occupation.
“They were thinking about the most efficient way of organising a film industry in such a small country.
“They were planning for the future. They knew that there was a rich history of the film industry, but they knew that after the war there would be a completely different market for Czech films.
“So they wanted to find the ideal structure for supporting filmmaking from the side of the state, or the government.”
The National Film Archive today possesses 150 million metres of film, half a million-plus photos and lots of other things. What are some of your most valuable items here at the NFA?
“Some of the items in our collection have the status of ‘national archival value’, so we have to take more care about them, which is rather a bureaucratic matter.
“But as archivists we cannot really say what is more and what is less valuable.
“There are some standards of care that have to be taken for each and every item in the collection.
“But obviously the oldest materials, which are the original prints and negatives of Jan Kříženecký, who was the pioneer of filmmaking in Bohemia back in the 1890s, is something that is really unique.
“You don’t have those materials preserved in many other archives.”
Are you able to say roughly what percentage of Czech films ever made, over all those decades, are preserved?
“Until the end of the silent era we have more than half of the overall production – which is a huge percentage.”
“We should look at the timeline.
“We can say that until the end of the silent era, in the end of the 1920s, we have more than half of the overall production – which is a huge percentage compared to other national film heritages.
“But since the 1930s, since the beginning of the sound era, we have, like, 90 or 95 percent of the overall production of Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic.”
What have been some of the major milestones in the history of your institution?
“In the 1970s it was also the responsibility of the archivists to hide, and then preserve, so-called blacklisted films.”
“Over the time, the Film Archive, like other memory institutions, always kind of reacted to the situation in the society, to the political realities of the time.
“Our predecessors had to somehow respond to the challenges.
“Back in the 1950s the authorities discovered that there were too many American films in the collection, so they wanted to destroy them.
“And that never happened, because the archivists are not only gatekeepers – they also feel responsibility for the coherence of the collection.
“Later during normalisation in the 1970s it was also the responsibility of the archivists to hide, and then preserve, so-called blacklisted films, forbidden films; some of them were even supposed to be destroyed physically.
“That never happened. So after 1990 it was possible to release those films again, or release them for the first time – even films that were not completed in 1969, let’s say.
“Nowadays the challenges are not ideological, obviously, but we have to keep up with the technology.
“Today the whole film industry is digital, so we need to be very careful about maintaining the digital data, which is growing very quickly.
“In regard to the public, we want to open the collection as much as possible, to make it available and lower the threshold.”
The NFA also does a lot of work on restoration. I know some years ago, maybe about eight years ago, there was a big debate about how restoration should be done. Is that still an issue? Or has your side won [the NFA had to defend itself from criticism from cinematographers and others in the industry]?
“We need to preserve the original film elements for the future, because we can never say our method is the best.”
“What we were saying from the beginning was that there is not only one correct method or way how to restore films.
“There are many of them and we have to think about digital and also chemical restorations – those are parallel methods which exist everywhere among archives.
“So yes, there is a whole variety of approaches.
“And the idea, or philosophy if you wish, is we need to preserve the original material, the original film elements, for the future, because we can never say our method is the best.
“So we have to make them available for future generations to get back to those elements.
“What we want is to make classical films available in a form which is as similar to the original form as possible.”
A restored version of Intimate Lighting, Ivan Passer’s 1965 classic, got its world premiere at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
I don’t know if there would have been many cases of living directors who saw their films restored, but there definitely have been some, such as Ivan Passer [with Intimate Lighting]. What has been their reaction to seeing their movies restored?
“Those reactions are very, very diverse.
“There were directors who were not satisfied with the result, because they wanted to touch their films again.
“A director or cinematographer feels that it’s kind of their child, so they want to touch it again and maybe make some improvements or changes.
“They don’t really understand that those films were produced by the state and that now they are now still the property of the state – and that we are only taking care of those films.
“Also it’s our responsibility not to falsify the history; this is why we need to be faithful to how films looked in the past.
“Then we have many directors and cinematographers who are very happy that we are digitising and restoring their films.
“That means that their films will be available in cinemas, on TV screens or any screens and online.”
It seems quite often that some major international film festival is premiering a restored classic Czech film. Is the work of restoring those films the thing that makes your organisation most visible?
“That is correct.
“It was one of the first challenges when I started working for the NFA [in 2011].
“That year, basically, the Venice film festival started its Classics section, and they wanted something from us.
“So that was very quick, and partly improvised, but the result was very good.
“Since, what, 2012 we have been each year at one of the major international film festivals at least, be it Cannes, Berlin or Venice, or other places.
“We are at specialized festivals, like in Lyon in France or in Paris and other places.
“It’s a kind of double thing.
“We basically remind international audiences that Czech cinema existed and exists, so we can be a kind of context for new films which are coming from this country to the international market.
“And for the NFA as an institution, it’s the best way how to maybe heat up the debate about presentation and valorization – as it is called, mainly in French – of classic films.”
I also wanted to ask you about the simple preservation of films and how that works. For instance, last year 30 or 40 new films were released in this country. Are they immediately preserved? Is there a delay? Is there a selection process?
“There is no selection, fortunately.
“In the legislation it’s very clear and all the producers are used to it and we communicate with them very smoothly.
“They now send files, not film material, and we keep the digital files in our database as data, and in our servers as what one would usually call content.
“Those are kept. We don’t get the rights with those films, but we keep the films as such.
“And it’s up to the future how the films from today might be explored.”
What are the criteria for what makes a film? Do they have to have a cinema release to be considered a film?
“Yes. That’s also in the law. A cinematic release is a condition for an audio-visual work to be considered an audio-visual film work.
“But we are really broadening our scope and now we are also archiving video art, or art of the moving image.
“Now we are at the beginning of a long research project focused on video games, so this is also something that is on our horizon.
“We need to figure out what are the optimal methods of archiving video games, which are also an audio-visual work of their own kind.”
The NFA is currently celebrating 80 years. How exactly are you celebrating?
“It’s not big, because there are anniversaries each 10 years, or each five years, but we basically celebrate first by continuing the work.
“Second by moving from the place in Žižkov where we are sitting now to another temporary place, because we still have the project to move to the NFA to the Žižkov cargo train station.”
I should say now we are very near the the Žižkov cargo train station and the building we’re in looks pretty old school.
“It’s very old school. It’s older than silent films, actually.
“It’s not possible to stay here any longer and I’m very happy that the minister of culture agreed that we have to move out from here, before we move back to Žižkov, to the cargo train station.
“So that’s also some sort of a celebration, in a way.
“And also on our website you can find a selection of eight items from our collection which show, basically, the diversity of the collection, and also the people who are involved in their preservation and presentation.”