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Ritrovato 2015: Tributes to a great friend

Peter poster 600 [1]

Poster in memoriam Peter von Bagh, Bologna June 2015. Text: “For in and out, above, below,/ ‘Tis nothing but a magic shadow show/ Played in a box whose candle is the sun/ ‘Round which we phantom figures come and go.” “Only if I could screen ‘The Other Side of the Wind.'”

DB here:

The absence of Peter von Bagh, who died last September, was keenly felt at this year’s session of Cinema Ritrovato [2]. It wasn’t just that Peter was no longer there, striding from session to session wearing a big smile and checking the schedule he carried on a small card in his shirt pocket. The loss was made palpable by the reminders of what he had done for world film culture. We know in the abstract that Peter was at once critic, historian, archivist, programmer, festival director, festival founder, and filmmaker. But all over the Cineteca Bologna and environs you find traces of his astonishingly busy life.

Walk into the book room and you’ll see a table groaning with massive volumes. A particularly bulky one is devoted to the Midnight Sun Film Festival [3] he created in Sodankylä, Finland. There’s also a bulky autobiography. On the same table you’ll find DVDs of his films. Above the whole ensemble you’ll find the pensive poster that surmounts today’s entry.

Book table 400 [4]

Cinema Ritrovato is the world’s most comprehensive festival of restored and rediscovered movies. Mixing new editions of classics with heaps of films mostly unknown, it’s unique. It’s been called, not only by us, the Cannes of cinephilia. Peter was artistic director of the event during its years of intense expansion. It’s still growing, with bigger crowds and yet another screening venue added (making five in all, not counting the city’s central plaza for the big evening shows). Its size owes something, I think, to Peter’s enormous appetite for cinema–his urge to show as much as possible, to remind us of the majestic (but not solemn) tradition that cinephiles must treasure.

Peter and Gian Luca [5]Books and DVD displays go only so far. Despite all these competing attractions, this year’s event has found plenty of occasion to celebrate Peter’s legacy. Threaded through this year’s vast offerings are tributes to the man who, with his colleagues Guy Borlée and Gian Luca Farinelli (with Peter, right, in 2008), has made the whole mad machine go. There are several screenings of his films coming up, and an evening on the Piazza Maggiore will be devoted to his memory.

First off yesterday was a screening of Aki Kaurismaki’s TV film Les Mains sales (“Dirty Hands,” orig. Likaiset Kädet) from 1989. Peter had long wanted to screen it at the Ritrovato, and this rare item came forth as Kaurismaki’s homage to Peter. Shot in seven days on 16mm, it fits comfortably into the director’s personal world. Ironic humor mixes with dread, people in desperate situations act with surprising impassivity, and powerful figures bully and deceive pathetic, trusting innocents. A vaguely noir exercise shot in flat, drab color, Les Mains sales shows a political convert eager to become an assassin. At the start, his return from prison is interrupted by a flashback, complete with old-fashioned focus-pull transitions, showing how he got there. The usual Kaurismaki deadpan demeanor undercuts the brooding anxiety of noir, not to mention the source play. “It is Sartre read like a telephone directory,” Peter noted.

Peter projected 350 [6]The screening was followed by “The 1000 Eyes of Dr. von Bagh.” Here several people shared memories of Peter. Gian Luca’s moving memoir of Peter in the catalogue was echoed in his opening remarks at the round table. Several people shared striking moments of what one called Peter’s “holy enthusiasm.”

*Peter’s sardonic humor: He introduced his Third Reich series last year with the call, “Welcome, Hitler fans!”

*He explained why he brought 70mm equipment to Sodankylä for Play Time: “A film  has the right to be screened as it was filmed by its author.”

*All cinephiles feel themselves somewhat out of step with normal living, noted Cecilia Cenciarelli, one of Ritrovato’s programmers. “Peter made this feeling of non-belonging noble.”

*Peter the educator warned how easy it was to show movies that would ingratiate the teacher with the class: “Always go against the tastes of the students.”

*Marianne Lewinsky, stalwart programmer of the Early Cinema events, observed Peter’s pleasure in selecting films: “He knew the joy of being judgmental.”

*Peter in a Russian museum: “Look, this painting is almost as good as a Tashlin movie!”

Peter panel 400 [7]

*Peter’s daughter Anna (above, with Cecilia and Gian Luca) recalls that Peter’s grandson, now talking, wants to fly to meet Peter. “I’d like to do that too.”

Antti Alanen, the preeminent Finnish archivist (and no mean blogger [8]), will supervise the organization and presentation of Peter’s vast posthumous legacy of writings on cinema. During his lifetime Peter already donated his 8000 film books, heavily annotated,  to the National Library of Finland [9], to be housed in a dedicated room in 2016. His archive includes interviews (most running 2-3 hours), and many manuscripts. He took notes during screenings and, unlike most of us who scribble by screenlight, immediately typed them up, embellished with ideas and associations.

Peter never stopped writing (often in bed, Anna says). There are several unpublished works nearly ready for the press, including books on Hitchcock and Welles, a study of comedy, a survey of cinephilia, and most daunting: a twelve-volume history of world cinema, one decade per volume. There are, Antti reports, passages ready to print, passages in a stream-of-consciousness mode, and passages in bullet-point outlines. They will find a home in the Website, “Peter von Bagh: The Memory of Cinema,” expected to go online, with English translations, in 2016.


Antti Alanen’s obituary [10], a thorough and moving career survey, is must reading. The meticulous David Hudson entry on Fandor [11] gathers many tributes and other material. A book of admiring essays, Citizen Peter, can be ordered here [12]. A brief review of Peter’s memoirs, published in Finnish in the year of his death, is here [13].

This site’s tribute to Peter is here [14]. You can find references to him in our Bologna blog entries [15] over the years.

28 June 2015, later: Thanks to Antti Alanen for corrections and elaborations of this entry.

Aki directing 600 [16]

Kaurismaki directing Les Mains sales.