The 26th edition of the catalogue of “Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto”, pp. 121-122.
By the courtesy of Mr. Livio Jacob, President of the festival (Text by: Serge Bromberg, Eric Lange and David Sheppard).
This is the story of a cinema miracle – which is also still a mystery. All we have are a few clues pointing towards an explanation.
In March 2007, one can of film, with the name “Collection ELGE”, appeared in the window of an antique shop. With the kind complicity of Sabine Lenk, we went behind the window, and in the shop we found 93 small rolls of Edison-perforated 35mm nitrate camera negative, some in ELGE cans, others in Lumière cans. The shrinkage was greater than 6%, but the rolls were not decomposed. And on the first frames of each were written in Indian ink such amazing titles as Baydar Nazareth, Fontaine à Bethléem (Fountain of Bethlehem), Panorama de Tibèriade and Jésus en Croix (Jesus on the cross). The rolls bear numbers from 1 to 203 (many are missing), and those recovered include films rejected to technical defects. We brought them to the “Hagefilm Conservation Laboratory”, were they were printed onto 35mm fine grain positives, allowing further identification. They are proving one of our most exciting and important discoveries.
At this writing, some films and locations remain unidentified. Most of the negatives have small perforations with square corners, as do most Gaumont films from 1897 to 1903; however, some of those with the highest numbers have perforations with beveled corners.
The dozen films in Lumière cans reminded us that as of 1897 Lumière was selling Edison-perforated film. The cans indicating technical rejects reminded us of Gaumont’s unusual trading process. Before 1900, Gaumont provided independent cameramen with raw stock and equipment, in return for the right of first refusal to purchase whatever they photographed. The rejected films remained the cameraman’s property. This explains why the first Gaumont’s catalogues contain films made by George Hatot, Albert Londe, or P. Gers.
In his 1925 book Histoire du Cinématographe des origines à nos jours, film veteran Georges-Michel Coissac, Director of the religious publishing house Maison de la Bonne Presse, names another 19th century cameraman who provided films to Gaumont: The mysterious Albert Kirchner. We know very little about him, but we do know that in 1896, Kirchner, professionally known also as Léar, made religious lantern slides for Maison de la Bonne Presse, as the French Catholic Church was very interested in visual education at this time. Léar also filmed for pioneer filmmaker-producer Eugène Pirou the striptease from Louise Willy’s stage play Le Coucher de la mariée (The marriage bed), and probably many other erotic and risqué films, and, with Father Bazil, made knock-off versions of such popular Lumière films as L’arroseur arose (The sprinkler sprinkled), La Bataille d’oreillers (Pillow fight) and so forth.
We also know that in January 1897 Albert Kirchner filed a patent for a camera called the “Biographe Français Léar”. One of those instruments may still be seen at the “Musée des Arts et Métiers” in Paris. Amateur versions of the “Biographe Français Léar” were produced and sold by Léar (as well as by Jules Demaria under the name of “Pygmalion”). That same year, Léar claimed two other camera patents, although these seem never to have been produced, and establish a partnership with Paul Anthelme, a former agent of Pirou, and a Mr. Pacon, a wealthy printer. In the spring of 1897 kircner/ Léar left for Palestine with Father Bailly, a priest who would supervise the religious aspects of the life of Christ to be filmed on location.
Coissac’s book and Stephen Bottomore’s entry on Léar in who is who of Victorian Cinema, edited by Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan, indicate that in early 1897 Léar and Father Bailly photographed many films in the Holy Land, among them perhaps the first motion pictures taken in Egypt, Palestine and to-day’s Israel. Coissac names a few titles: Vies du Caire (Views of Cairo), Débarquement à Jaffa (embarking at Jaffa), Entrée des pèlerins dans la ville sainte (Pilgrims in the old Section). Coissac added that as Gaumont obtained 35mm cameras only in November 1897 (their previous output was on 60mm) they decided by the very end of that year to by all the Kirchner/Léar negatives, to be able to provide 35mm films as quickly as Possible. In the Gaumont catalogue of 1898, we find views of Cairo, Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher (also included among our negatives). Actually, Léar also took a lot of other views, probably intended for sale to Pathé and other companies.
Among the films shut by Léar we find Les dernières cartouches (The Last Cartridge), number 93 in Gaumont catalogue; not far from that number are, 56 t0 67 are views of Cairo and Palestine. Were all of these Léar films? Here is another clue: on some of our films, we see at the edge of the frame, as for a few seconds, the silhouettes of a priest. Could this be Father bailly?
Among the films we discovered are complete episodes of a Passion du Christ (Life of Christ), including variant takes for some tableaux. In the summer of 1897, Léar, in collaboration with Coissac, completed his Passion by photographing more scenes in Paris, with actors from a Tableau vivant version.
This first film of the gospel story was widely shown. In February 1898 it formed part of an illustrated lecture given by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, the future author of The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, upon which D.W. Griffith based The Birth of a Nation. That same year, Léar opened a short-live cinema in the basement of the Olympia theatre in Paris, and it seems that he also sold his negatives to Gaumont, which would explain the ELGE cans now in our collection.
The end of Kirchner’s life is also remains a mystery. Another cinema veteran, René Bunzil, writes in the margin of his copy of Coissac’s book that Léar died in an asylum shortly afterwards. But if so, who was running the firm Léar & company in Cairo, which was prosecuted in 1901 for exporting pornographic pictures to Europe? So many questions form one sure fact: if our conjectures are wrong, these films remain an unsolved mystery.