Pordenone Festival Catalog Entry on the 1897 Middle East Films

For further background, please see my previous posts here, here, and here.

Following is the official English translation from pages 120-121 of the catalog for the 2007 Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto). I have added a few links where relevant; comments in [bracketed italics] are my own. The full bilingual (Italian/English) catalog can be downloaded from the Pordenone web site (PDF, 2.9 mb).

Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange are the co-directors of Lobster Films in Paris. David Shepard is president of Film Preservation Associates in California which, among other things, owns the old Blackhawk Films collection.

Bible Land Films

This is the story of a cinema miracle — which is also still a mystery. All we have are a few clues pointing towards an explanation. In March 2007, one can of film, with the name “Collection ELGE”, appeared in the window of an antique shop. With the kind complicity of Sabine Lenk, we went behind the window, and in the shop we found 93 small rolls of Edison-perforation 35mm nitrate camera negative, some in ELGE cans, others in Lumière cans. The shrinkage was greater than 6%, but the rolls were not decomposed. And on the first frames of each were written in India ink such amazing titles as Baydar Nazareth, Fontaine à Bethléem (Fountain in Bethlehem), Panorama de Tibériade, and Jésus en Croix (Jesus on the Cross).

The rolls bear numbers from 1 to 203 (many are missing), and those recovered include films rejected due to technical defects. We brought them to the Haghefilm Conservation laboratory, where they were printed onto 35mm fine grain positives, allowing further identification. They are proving one of our most exciting and important discoveries.

At this writing, some films and locations remain unidentified. Most of the negatives have small perforations with square corners, as do most Gaumont films from 1897 to 1903; however, some of those with the highest numbers have perforations with beveled corners.

A Lumiere film tin, containing Lumiere single-perf film.The dozen films in Lumière cans reminded us that as of 1897 Lumière was selling Edison-perforated film. The cans indicating technical rejects reminded us of Gaumont’s unusual trading process. Before 1900, Gaumont provided independent cameramen with raw stock and equipment, in return for the right of first refusal to purchase whatever they photographed. The rejected films remained the cameraman’s property. This explains why the first Gaumont catalogues contain films made by Georges Hatot, Albert Londe, or P. Gers.

In his 1925 book, Histoire du Cinématographe des origines à nos jours, film veteran Georges-Michel Coissac, director of the religious publishing house Maison de la Bonne Presse, names another 19th century cameraman who provided films to Gaumont: the mysterious Albert Kirchner. We know very little about him, but we do know that in 1896, Kirchner, professionally known also as Léar, made religious lantern slides for Masion de la Bonne Presse, as the French Catholic church was very interested in visual education at this time. Léar also filmed for pioneer filmmaker-producer Eugène Pirou the striptease from Louise Willy’s stage play Le Coucher de la mariée (The Marriage Bed), and probably many other erotic and risqué films, and, with Father Bazile, made knock-off versions of such popular Lumière films as L’arroseur arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled / Watering the Gardener [watch it on YouTube]), La bataille d’oreillers (Pillow Fight), and so forth.

We also know that in January 1897 Albert Kirchner filed a patent for a camera called the “Biographe Français Léar”. One of these instruments may still be seen in the collection of the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. Amateur versions of the Biographe Français Léar were produced and sold by Léar (as well as by Jules Demaria under the name “Pygmalion”). That same year, Léar claimed two other camera patents, although these seem never to have been produced, and established a partnership with Paul Anthelme, a former agent of Pirou, and a Mr. Pacon, a wealthy printer. In the spring of 1897 Kirchner/Léar left for Palestine with Father Bailly, a priest who would supervise the religious aspects of the first life of Christ to be filmed on location.

Coissac’s book and Stephen Bottomore’s entry on Léar in Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, edited by Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan, indicate that in early 1897 Léar and Father Bailly photographed many films in the Holy Land, among them perhaps the first motion pictures taken in Egypt, Palestine, and today’s Israel. Coissac names a few titles: Vues du Caire (Views of Cairo), Débarquement à Jaffa (Embarking at Jaffa), Entrée des pèlerins dans la ville Sainte (Pilgrims in the Old Section). Coissac added that as Gaumont obtained 35mm cameras only in November 1897 (their previous output was on 60mm), they decided by the very end of that year to buy all the Kirchner/Léar negatives, to be able to provide 35mm films as quickly as possible. In the Gaumont catalogue of 1898, we find views of Cairo, Jerusalem, and the Holy Sepulchre (also included among our negatives). Actually, Léar also took a lot of other views, probably intended for sale to Pathé and other companies.

Among the films shot by Léar we find Les dernières cartouches (The Last Cartridges), number 93 in the Gaumont catalogue; not far from that number, 56 to 67 are views of Cairo and Palestine. Were all of these Léar films? Here’s another clue: on some of our films, we see at the edge of the frame, or for a few seconds, the silhouette of a priest. Could this be Father Bailly?

Among the films we discovered are complete episodes of a Passion du Christ (Life of Christ), including variant takes for some tableaux. In the summer of 1897, Léar, in collaboration with Coissac, completed his Passion by photographing more scenes in Paris, with actors from a tableau vivant version.

This first film version of the Gospel story was widely shown. In February 1898 it formed part of an illustrated lecture given by the Rev. Thomas Dixon, the future author of The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, upon which D. W. Griffith based The Birth of a Nation. That same year, Léar opened a short-lived cinema in the basement of the Olympia theatre in Paris, and it seems that he also sold his negatives to Gaumont, which would explain the ELGE cans now in our collection.

The end of Kirchner’s life also remains a mystery. Another famous cinema veteran, René Bunzli, writes in the margin of his copy of Coissac’s book that Léar died in an asylum shortly afterwards. But if so, who was running the firm Léar & Company in Cairo, which was prosecuted in 1901 for exporting pornographic pictures to Europe? So many questions, for one sure fact: if our conjectures are wrong, these films remain an unsolved mystery.


Some Speculation Concerning Father Bailly

As noted above, a “Father Bailly” accompanied Albert Kirchner on his trip to Palestine in order to “supervise the religious aspects” of the filming of scenes from Christ’s life. Perhaps if this priest could be identified, further clues about these films might be found even through some tangential, non-cinema archive or reference.

As we’ve seen, Kirchner was associated with Masion de la Bonne Presse, which was founded by the Augustinians of the Assumption (aka the Assumptionists). According to Wikipedia, Father Emmanuel Bailly served as superior general from 1903-1917. I theorize this may be the “Father Bailly” referred to above.
It is apparent that this Father Bailly was a traveler, as I found Google references to letters he sent to France from Rome in the late 1800s. According to this web page (which I auto-translated using Google Translate) in 1900 a “Father Bailly” led a congregation of French Assumptionists on an Easter pilgrammage to Nazareth in Palestine, where he apparently gave a powerful sermon (if that’s the correct term to use). I’m only guessing, of course, but it seems probable to me that this was Emmanuel Bailly — if he was prominent enough in the order to become the superior general three years later, it seems likely that he would be entrusted to lead an Easter pilgrammage to far Palestine. This suggests (barely) that he may have traveled there previously…perhaps with Monsieur Kirchner/Léar.

My online research is greatly hampered by the fact that I can’t read French. But I can’t help but wonder if the archives of Bayard Presse (the antecedent of Maison de la Bonne Presse) or an Assumptionist order in France might hold any further clues about the 1897 film expedition that could perhaps positively identify the films recovered by Lobster Films?

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