The Silence of the Silents
A heroic wiki project to identify lost and orphaned films.
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If you want to see something truly horrifying this summer, forget Survival of the Dead: What you need is a German firefighter training film from 1965. It takes a few minutes to really get going, but you'll be rewarded with something film archivist Dennis Nyback has called "more feared than Frankenstein": the sight of old nitrate movie reels burning insanely, even after getting buried under sand, thrust underwater, and blasted with fire extinguishers.
The nitrocellulose film used before 1951 was a pyromaniac's dream, and movie studios suffered catastrophic vault fires nearly every decade of the 20th century. Approximately 80 percent of the silent era's films are now thought to be lost. What flash fires didn't destroy, the studios themselves did by deliberately burning silent-era prints to recover the film stock's silver content; they saw little commercial value left in the outdated old films. The occasional discovery of forgotten and unmarked caches in far-flung locales like New Zealand—which just this month turned up a lost 1927 John Ford film—only makes the sense of what must have been lost all the more staggering.
But if you find one of those rusting, unlabeled canisters ... then what?
It's a question that drives the extraordinary German site Lost Films. Begun in December 2008 by the Berlin museum Deutsche Kinemathek, it's a collaborative effort with other archives that now encompasses an astonishing range of films: The more than 4,000 movies listed as M.I.A. range from an actual jazz-era version of The Great Gatsby(1926) to a re-enactment of The Battle of Gettysburg (1913) staged while the veterans were still alive. But even more curious is the site's "Identify" section—an open call to other museums and the public to I.D. films that sometimes survive without title cards, without canister labels, without so much as a cast or director or country of origin.
"For a working film archive, unidentified films pose a much more urgent question," explains Kinemathek staffer Oliver Hanley in an e-mail. Not knowing what scripts or other contextual materials to consult makes these orphans nearly impossible to preserve properly. As Hanley notes, "To the public, it renders them lost already."
Within the world of movie archives, the wiki format of Lost Films is a promising harnessing of worldwide film-nerdism: Anyone can register to comment on everything from a silent gangster film to a gleefully NSFW frolic between an Edwardian painter and his nude model. Identifications have already begun to turn up, as in this striking blue-and-yellow-tinted tale that proved to be the Hungarian film Farsangi Mamor (1921).
For every happy film reunion, there remain movies like Unidentified Film No. 103. It exists without a year, a name, or a plot—without anything but what appears to be a bowler-hatted comedy duo silently cursing each other and the world that forgot them. If anything can save these old reels from the slow burn of obscurity, it's not firefighters tossing sand or water; it's the curious surfers gazing upon them and wondering just where they came from and what they mean.
Click here to view a slide show on the world's forgotten silent films.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.