A force on Europe’s film archive scene, the Cinémathèque Suisse is near to finishing a restoration of “The Written Face,” regarded as one of the best films by one of Switzerland’s most prominent filmmakers, Daniel Schmid.
News of the reissue comes as heritage becomes an ever more familiar part of the major festival landscape – as a promotion agency, the Cinémathèque Suisse is at Locarno with six titles, far more than any sales agent.
Switzerland, moreover, has been chosen as the Guest Country of the Lumière Festival’s 9th International Classic Film Market, running Oct.12-15; and, post COVID-19, audiences are warming to heritage fare, says Frédéric Maire, director of the Cinémathèque Suisse and president of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF).
A close friend of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who starred in his 1976 Cannes competition entry “Shadow of Angels,” Schmid was known for his tales of romantic obsession and scathing satires, such as “Beresina, Or the Last Days of Switzerland,” his penultimate film, which played Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. Schmid himself claimed, however, that all his films in some way, were all about “illusions and dreams that dissolve.”
“The Written Face” would be a case in point, an attempt to portray, from the point of view of an outsider, Tamasaburo Bando, star of the vanishing Kabuki theater. Part documentary, part performance, “The Written Face” is “one of Schmid’s masterpieces,” says Maire. It was shot on 16mm, so rarely screened. The 4k restoration has been carried out in Paris at L’Image Retrouvée.
The Cinémathèque Suisse will also use Switzerland’s Locarno Festival to premiere its latest big Swiss reissue, “Dérborence,” directed by Francis Reusser. The screening is offered as part of both the fest section Histoire du cinéma and A Season of Classic Films, an initiative of the Association des Cinémathèques Européennes (ACE). The film will be introduced by Emmanuelle de Riedmatten, the director’s son Jean Reusser and Maire.
“Derborence” is described by the Locarno Festival as a “sensual Alpine Western.” Set in the high Alps, it also questions then current models of masculinity and marks Reusser’s first adaptation of an author, Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, who was to become a touchstone for the now disillusioned 1968 rebel.
Further Cinémathèque Suisse Locarno titles takes in Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear,” the film which Godard signed with Cannon on a napkin at Cannes, and two Henry Brandt’s docs, 1954’s “Nomads of the Son,” and 1964’s “Switzerland Ponders.”
Made up of five shorts examining not only Switzerland’s economic health but its conscience – via issues such as immigration and xenophobia – the latter anticipates the concerns of a young generation of Swiss filmmakers who broke through from last decade.
Brandt made highly important films in the 1950s to ‘70s which are now really hugely forgotten, says Maire. “I had a lot of people coming to me and saying, ‘Oh, they were great.’ And there was a lot of people in the cinemas,” he added.
Opening after COVID-19, given capacity restrictions, the Cinémathèque Suisse had to turn away spectators from screenings, Maire recollects. “In this time of crisis,” he adds, “my sensation is that people want to go to those films which have already the medal from their time, though they may not remember them at all and so, when we show them in restored versions, they have the feeling of seeing a new film.”
There’s also a bigger picture. Some archives have grown. In April 2019, the Cinémathèque Suisse opened a new archive, a state-of-the-art facility, and hosted the International Federation of Film Archives annual congress. One reason for choosing Switzerland as its guest country is its “emblematic” cinematheques, the Lumière Festival’s Classic Film Market said this July.
“Digital restoration means that when your restore a film, you have the impression you’re seeing a new one,” Maire observes. Digital distribution, including streaming platforms, as VHS before them, has expanded access to classic titles. Cannes Classics and the presence of heritage film at other major festivals has stoked interest in films from the past, Maire argues. “A whole new world of cinema has opened up,“ he enthuses.