The silent scream of lost data
Irrespective of what the future of our planet may be, we have a good chance that traces of our existence will remain – even if in fossilised form – to be excavated by… well, we haven’t established that yet.
Unfortunately, not all lost data can be retrieved. Sometimes, the fruits of labour of many people will get irretrievably lost, which is particularly sad when it comes to the destruction of the sole remaining copy of a film. Sadly, these cases are not rare. You are invited to the only film festival in the world during which you will not see a single film.
A long, long time ago, way before backup copies were ever invented, the Lumière brothers constructed a machine that allowed them to project moving pictures, imprinted on a celluloid tape. This is how cinema was born, which captured the imagination of men and created a new, hitherto unknown, brand of people – film stars. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Pola Negri, Greta Garbo, Rudolf Valentino, and Charlie Chaplin – starring in films which had no sound yet and were shown accompanied by a piano – made people laugh and moved them to tears.
Cinema was a revolutionary invention – it gave people a taste of immortality as it captured not only their image but also their movements. How suggestive its power was is best illustrated by cases when people would run out of early performances, horrified by cropped frames showing disembodied legs or seeing a train speeding straight towards them.
At the end of the nineteenth century, celluloid was a technological sensation, but from the perspective of contemporary data carriers it was a medium as impermanent and fleeting as writing in sand as the tide comes in.
This easily combustible substance (which was the direct cause of fires in many cinemas, as the famous Cinema Paradiso from 1988 recounts), sensitive to light and common chemical compounds, did nothing to guarantee the immortality of many of the early films.
The majority of Pola Negri’s films – the ones that made her famous and enabled her to start a Hollywood career – did not survive to the present time. The Secret of the Ujazdowskich Boulevard (1917), The Room No.13 (1917), or The Students (1916) are known to us exclusively from reviews and posters. These, and many other films, have perished during the Second World War.
Many American productions have shared a similar fate – including The Divine Woman (1928) with Greta Garbo, or Hollywood from 1923, which starred over thirty of the biggest stars of the era including: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Astor, Bebe Daniels, and the previously mentioned Pola Negri.
Many cinematic masterpieces have perished in the vortex of history. The turbulent twentieth century was particularly hard on cultural treasures. Many of the losses could also be ascribed to simple negligence. At its birth, cinema was considered a low form of entertainment, directed at an unrefined, mass consumer. Protection of the film reels was not considered a priority, which, as it turned out, spelled a tragic end for many of them.