The Deutsche Kinematek has initiated a ‘Lost Films’ project, the main expression of which so far is a Lost Films Wiki. As the site puts it:
We have set it up to bring together titles of films that are presumed to be lost. Furthermore we hope that archivists and film historians will add information about fragments and related documents. The idea is not to build up a comprehensive database but rather to focus on important movies, current restoration work etc. Besides the project we would like to work with this Wiki on a regular basis parallel to it and in the long run.
They invite researchers to look for films on the wiki, to add information if they have any, or to create a new record if the film is not recorded there. The emphasis is on German films, and many titles by Lubitsch, Murnau et al are listed. The site names participating archives in their project to “reconstruct and render visible the invisible legacy of German film”. All of which begs the question how people are supposed to know that is a film is lost for certain, and how many films might be added to the wiki in the belief that they are lost when they are not. Doubtless, in the way of wikis, all will sort itself out in the long run. At the moment there is little beyond a list of titles on the site. A Lost Films project web page is promised for summer 2008.
How curious is the cult of the lost film. Few other media can elicit the same amount of interest, nostalgia and speculation for those creations that are no more. Of course, one is always delighted when a ‘lost’ film re-emerges, even if the actuality frequently fails to match the anticipation, but some films actually seem better lost. Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons always have that extra allure through our sense of the footage that is no longer there. There is some other reality that lost films possess, a history that might have been, a virtual archive. Indeed, the Lost Films Wiki revealingly talks about creating “a collection of lost films”.
So, there are whole books about lost films out there: Harry Waldman’s Missing Reels: Lost Films of American and European Cinema; David Meeker and Allen Eyles’ Missing believed Lost: The Great British Film Search; Frank T. Thompson’s Lost Films: Important Movies that Disappeared (which is rather good on the background history to some elusive silents, liked Saved from the Titanic and A Daughter of the Gods).
And there are other websites dedicated to the theme – Moving Image Collections’ Lost Films list, which gives you updates on films that have been rediscovered, wholly or partially; and Silent Era’s Presumed Lost section, which naturally enough concentrates on silents, and likewise tries to keep things up-to-date by reporting on rediscoveries. Its long, long list of films previously noted as being missing and now locatd in archives across the world shows just how much good work is being done. Indeed, archivists have rather used the label of ‘lost’ to arouse interest in their work, and to encourage interest in key titles with the hope of footage turning up somewhere. Sometimes, in fact, they have been well aware that the so-called lost films are out there, and have used lost film ‘searches’ to tease them out of collectors’ hands. How hard it is too say with any finality that a film is truly lost.
Nevertheless, I’ve created a new category for Lost Films, and will regale you in due course with stories of some of the more fascinating examples, whose legend endures by simple virtue of their unavailability.