As film consumption migrates from the cinema to the living room — and downsizes from the silver screen to the LCD screen — there’s something almost defiantly old-fashioned about a 70mm retrospective. It’s a reminder that, at their biggest, the movies provided a sensory experience that even the most costly home setup can’t hope to match.
This year’s Berlinale offers a showcase for this grand, now largely extinct medium, courtesy of “70mm — Bigger Than Life!,” a 22-film program curated by Rainer Rother, artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek.
“Many of the major studios, both in the U.S. and around the world, have recently done a lot of work in restoring and preserving their 70mm heritage,” says Rother, who notes with satisfaction that more than half the lineup is composed of entirely new prints.
For the Deutsche Kinemathek team, the prime consideration was the luxe quality of the experience: “We wanted to show only perfect or near-perfect prints,” says Rother. “That, to us, was by far the most important thing. And then we wanted to make a selection which drew from as wide a number of genres and countries as possible.
“We could have easily added more musicals, for example,” he notes. “Many of these were shot in 70mm, and a great deal of them have been recently restored. But this is such a unique, high-profile opportunity — a 10-day (session), taking place within the Berlinale, with so many international visitors — that we felt we should offer as broad a perspective as possible of the narrative and technical potentials of the medium.”
The selection features most of the expected touchstones — from classics like William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur,” Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “Cleopatra” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — to some slightly lesser-known greats, such as John Ford’s “Cheyenne Autumn” and Richard Brooks’ 1965 “Lord Jim.” And, of course, the film which, perhaps more than any other, has come to be synonymous with the format: David Lean’s 1962 “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Indeed, the 1960s marked the pinnacle of the form, spawning a host of big-budget productions, shot in a variety of competing formats: Todd-AO and Ultra-Panavision 70, Cinerama 70mm, Dimension 150, Metroscope … little wonder, then, that the decade should account for the overwhelming majority of Rother’s selection. The most recent entries are Ron Fricke’s pro-environmental travelogue “Baraka,” from 1992, and Olivier L. Brunet’s 1999 short “Le Mariage de Fanny.”
The selection process involved a certain amount of detective work, as prints were sourced from various studios, archives, distributors and even private collectors around the world.
Inevitably, there were difficulties, sometimes where least expected: MGM’s “Ben-Hur,” for example, turned out to be surprisingly elusive. (“Many of the existing prints are quite fragile,” Rother notes sadly.) Yet, after considerable inquiries, and a number of false leads, a brand-new restoration was uncovered that was recently struck by a small distrib in Melbourne.
Then there were the historical ambiguities to resolve. The U.S.S.R. had been at the vanguard of widescreen cinema, but, as Rother explains, “It was never clear exactly how many of the so-called 70mm Soviet films had actually been shot in that format.”
To Rother’s satisfaction, the result turned out to be an embarrassment of riches. Their nuclear arsenal might not have been quite as formidable as rumored, but it appears the Russians weren’t lying about their film industry, and Soviet pics account for almost a quarter of the lineup. Highlights include Julia Solnzewa’s magnificent 1960 drama “The Story of the Flaming Years,” to Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterly 1968 adaptation of “War and Peace” to Konrad Wolf’s rarely seen East German/Soviet co-production “Goya” (1971).
After the Berlinale, the retro is likely to travel: Already, Rother has fielded interest from Mannheim and Hamburg.