Although modest in scale and production values, the engaging documentary “Peter von Bagh,” helmed by Tapio Piirainen, provides a perfect cinematic requiem for its eponymous subject, the legendary cinephile who died in 2014 at the age of 71. Von Bagh was the longtime artistic director of both the Midnight Sun Film Festival in his native Finland and the Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. The doc contextualizes and pays tribute to his many facets: film critic, magazine editor, teacher, curator, author (with more than 30 books to his credit) director and television and radio presenter. Already broadcast on Finnish TV, this inspiring portrait would be the ideal accompaniment to a season of von Bagh’s own documentaries.
Filmed over a number of years and comprised mostly of von Bagh’s erudite, articulate and humorous commentary over archival photos and footage, the doc traces his upbringing in the melancholy atmosphere of a mental asylum in Oulu, northern Finland, where his father, an émigré from Russia, was the supervising doctor. Von Bagh’s mother died when he was six and a friend suggests that his early infatuation with cinema might also be a search for a mother figure.
Von Bagh’s turning point as a budding cineaste came at the age of 11, when he saw the English film “The Man Between,” directed by Carol Reed and wrote his first fan letter to the star, James Mason. As a teen, he founded a film club in Oulu which he describes as the single most significant achievement of his life, noting tartly, “The town of Oulu, the world record holder in hypocrisy, had not before this crusade of 15-year-old boys been civilized with cinema and hasn’t been ever since.”
In 1962, von Bagh took up medical studies in Helsinki, but soon ditched that discipline for literature. He also began writing about cinema for a student magazine. He recalls, “It was kind of a missionary work for me … defending, quite aggressively, the values that were important to me.” Choice early television footage from “Film Circle” demonstrates that he could be quite merciless in his opinions, as he dismisses one Finnish film as “regrettably feeble both as a film and as a statement.”
In typically witty fashion, von Bagh laments the state of contemporary film criticism. “Today, film criticism has been made impossible, but we shouldn’t put too much blame on the critics. With such small column space as they are given nowadays, it’s impossible for them to work in a responsible manner. … If, for four weeks, critics were asked to say the brutal truth, they’d have to summarize the films of the week by saying, ‘Unfortunately, there were no films worth discussing so there is nothing to write about.’”
Certainly von Bagh’s frank opinions created anger and enemies in some quarters. When he made his feature directing debut in 1971 with “The Count,” the critical knives were out and the film was cut to shreds. Thereafter, he directed only cine-collage documentaries, a number of which, including “Olavi Virta,” “Tapsa,” “The Year 1952,” and “Helsinki Forever,” are sampled here.
Along with Aki and Mika Kaurismaki, von Bagh founded the egalitarian Midnight Sun Film Festival, which takes place beyond the Arctic Circle in the summer months of 24-hour daylight and shows films around the clock. Among the picture’s most touching footage is a spirited, on-stage interview of the visibly ailing von Bagh and Aki Kaurismaki at the festival in 2014. Kaurismaki asks, “If you could choose between life and cinema, what would you choose?” Without missing a beat, von Bagh replies, “Cinema.”
Editor Jorma Höri’s thoughtful assembly adds immeasurably to this picture of von Bagh as both private person and public intellectual whose lifelong commitment to international cinema was infectious.