Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Peter von Bagh in memoriam (obituary for FIAF)

Peter von Bagh directs Kreivi / The Count (1971)

"If you have four unfinished projects and don't know how to pull them off, start yet another one" (Peter von Bagh).

Peter von Bagh (* 29.8.1943 Helsinki, † 17.9.2014 Helsinki) was a Renaissance Man: film critic and historian, film director and programmer, artistic director of festivals, editor, author (34 books, many of them huge, major works include The History of the Cinema, 1975, 1998 and Chaplin, 2013), book publisher, and impresario of huge theme concerts during four decades. Von Bagh had also a full career on the radio (including a hundred one-hour long features called Films Bigger Than Life, 1984–1993) and television (with award-winning series and programs), and he was a university professor well-known for generations of film and theatre students.

Already as a teenager cinephile comet in the late 1950s Peter von Bagh was getting noticed in his hometown Oulu and the country at large. He started to discover an international network of cinephilic contacts at age 19 when he travelled to a seminar about American cinema in Kiel in 1962, getting acquainted with what would become the Movie circle of cinephiles in Britain.

Peter von Bagh become known in Finland as a serious young man, an angry young man, and an irreverent young man. The most inspired cultural trends in 1950s Finland were rooted in cultural modernism. That was the era when universities were still elite universities, soon to turn into mass universities. Von Bagh wrote about film in the bright and ambitious Ylioppilaslehti (the journal of the Helsinki University students), and Parnasso, the mouthpiece of literary modernism. He lambasted Finnish populist cinema mercilessly. He became known as "the Elitist Peter". He was active on the radio and on television since the early 1960s, always on a serious note, dressed in dark suit and tie.

Von Bagh become a key figure in cultural radicalism as it started to emerge in the early 1960s. His friends included writers, musicians, theatre people, cultural critics, and new wave film makers, most importantly the team of Filminor, a film company established by Risto Jarva and Jaakko Pakkasvirta in 1962.

Von Bagh was active as a critic and historian in newspapers, journals, on the radio and on the television. He was one of the dynamos in the Jyväskylä summer festival, a co-founder of the Filmihullu (Movie Crazy) magazine in 1968, later its editor-in-chief, and the curator of the Finnish Film Archive in 1967–1970 and its film programmer until 1984.

Von Bagh's fellow students of sociology, Pekka Gronow and M. A. Numminen, started to rehabilitate popular music, and not just to épater le bourgeois. Innovative labels such as Love Records were established. Von Bagh's was active in all of this. Numminen was (and still is) the anarchistic central figure of the Finnish Underground movement, inspired by but not copying Americans with happenings, concerts, and films. Von Bagh started his film career with 8 mm underground home movies such as Life in the Finnish Woods (1967). Peter at the Finnish Film Archive was also instrumental in hosting P. Adams Sitney's New American Cinema tour in Finland in 1968, leaving a lasting mark in the Finnish art world.

A critic becoming a film-maker: the nouvelle vague trajectory of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette was also the one for Peter von Bagh who started as a film critic in the late 1950s. In  Finland, Roland af Hällström, Nyrki Tapiovaara, and Jörn Donner had also started as critics, but von Bagh's approach to film-making as a continuation of film criticism was more profoundly meditated, in ways comparable with Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, and Edgardo Cozarinsky.

Having essayed fiction in his early years von Bagh later focused on non-fiction and became a master of the compilation film, a topic on which he also wrote his dissertation (The Mirror Which Had a Memory, 2002). Olaf Möller and von Bagh have divided the compilations into roughly two epochs: the Emile De Antonio epoch without commentary, and the Chris Marker epoch with commentary, and a new level of density and mastery continuing in the 2010s.

The film studio era had ended in Finland in 1962 with the coming of television. The new wave had started in Finland in the 1950s, and von Bagh was a Filminor screenwriter in 1969–1972 for three films directed by Risto Jarva, and Kesäkapina (Summer Rebellion, 1970), directed by Jaakko Pakkasvirta. Kesäkapina was a Brechtian and Godardian film, an original Finnish exercise in the art of collage and compilation.

Of von Bagh's films as a director the earliest officially released films were exercises in satire (Pockpicket, 1968, Joulukuu / December, 1969). He also forayed in an ironical study in cinéma-vérité (Liikemiehen muotokuva / The Portrait of a Businessman, 1970) and participated in a ciné-tract, Vanhan valtaus / The Storming of the Old Student House, in 1968. (The Finnish students stormed their own house.) All this with an irreverent slant.

Peter von Bagh's single fiction feature film Kreivi (1971), which transgresses the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, co-produced by Filminor and FJ-Filmi (involving Jörn Donner), marked a step in the evolution from "the Elitist Peter" to "the Populist Peter", but it was not a turn from one extreme to another, but rather a widening of perspective, a stage in a constant evolution towards new syntheses. In fact, von Bagh had never been an elitist, as he had always ignored the demarcation lines of elitist and popular cultures.

Disappointed with Kreivi's lack of commercial success von Bagh turned to non-fiction and television and started to create an oeuvre which grew into a work-in-progress about the history of Finnish popular culture, the history of Finland, and the history of Finnish culture. He started with portraits of Finnish legends (the singer Olavi Virta, the runner Paavo Nurmi, the entertainers Reijo Helismaa and Tapio Rautavaara, the actor Tauno Palo). An early synthesis was Sinitaivas / The Blue Sky (1978), about the meaning of entertainment. Vuosi 1952 / The Year 1952 (1980) was another synthesis about a symbolic year of national recovery from WWII. The Suomi-Pop I–V series (1984–1985) extended the view to the history of independent Finland.

Vuosi 1952 also launched von Bagh's "years series" of Finnish history: 1917–1918 (Muisto / Memory) (1987), Vuosi 1939 (1993), and Viimeinen kesä 1944 / The Last Summer 1944 (1992).

The SF Story 1–6 (1991) started von Bagh's project of covering the great Finnish film production companies, inspired by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's Hollywood. It was followed by The Suomi-Filmi Story 1–5 (1993) and The Fennada Story 1–3 (1993). Separate feature films on major film personalities von Bagh dedicated to Armand Lohikoski, and Edvin Laine. Exceptionally distinguished is the three-part documentary on Mikko Niskanen. Relevant here is also Lastuja / Splinters – A Century of an Artistic Family (2011), which includes the story of the Aho & Soldan company, which established the documentary as an art form in Finland.

Von Bagh's magnum opus is the tv series The Blue Song: The Story of the Arts of Finland. A Cultural History of Independent Finland, 1–12 (2003–2004), which had been preceded by the series Oi kallis Suomenmaa: The Story of Independent Finland 1–8 (1997–1998). Ever since Pockpicket (1968, its motto: "The past is a part of us… and we are on our way to the past… "), von Bagh's films were un recherche du temps perdu, with affinities with the streams of consciousness in Proust, Benjamin, and Marker. His master's thesis von Bagh wrote in 1968 about Vertigo, about the obsession with the hidden past.

The montage principle was central, the art of the collage and compilation was evolving into a personal syntax of the documentary essay. The films were built on multiple levels of associations and interconnections. From the cultural radicalism of the 1960s von Bagh inherited a Brechtian sense of material aesthetics, a philosophy of history, and a passion for dialectics. Coincidentia oppositorum and paradoxes abound. And conflict: von Bagh not only tolerated conflict – he thrived in it. Like John Ford, von Bagh juxtaposed the sublime with the ridiculous. The small and the big, the intimate and the grandiose, the temporary and the eternal clashed with each other in his montage.

But like Godard, von Bagh believed in the continuity in the breaks: "We do not live only in the present. The past with all its memories, events and experiences lives in us". In his dissertation about the compilation film von Bagh states that his films are essentially "studies in Finnish happiness" (already a motto in Kesäkapina). The experience of the war was central. Something had been broken, and a compilation film was a form of vital redemption of something that had been lost. In the background there was a feeling of the presence of death, a cosmic homelessness, and the vital need for reconstruction via the life-affirming power of art.

Peter von Bagh's voice was one of the most recognizable in Finland, acknowledged by awards, imitated by every imitator. In the beginning it was the omniscient voice of the narrator, but with the years it changed into something more confidential.

Von Bagh was a master of the interview. Among his early subjects: Carl Th. Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, and Fritz Lang. Among his models, the classic of the American interview, Studs Terkel: "an epic scale, the full impact of a folkloric tradition caught in the present, and an intimate, personal, almost poetic tune", Peter summed up the Terkel legacy. Von Bagh's talking heads were never mere talking heads. Immediately von Bagh established an atmosphere of confidence, an intimate connection with a living human being talking about a vital experience, sometimes for the first time for someone who truly understood. The watch was never glanced at, there was never a hurry, and the interview might last hours. Von Bagh's masterpieces such as Sodankylä Forever and The Blue Song, bringing together voices of people who never met, he called "dialogues conducted in heaven".

Von Bagh never stood still, and Helsinki, Forever (2008) was a turning-point to a new density, to an even more pure and multi-dimensional art of the documentary essay. It was his international breakthrough film, leading to several major international tributes to him, most prominently in the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2012, for which Olaf Möller wrote the first comprehensive essay on Peter von Bagh as a film artist.

As cinephilia can thrive only as a shared experience, an essential part of von Bagh's work was reconstructing cinephilic paradises in the festivals of Sodankylä (Midnight Sun Film Festival) and Bologna (Il Cinema Ritrovato).

Peter von Bagh died with his boots on. Those were seven league boots.

He was busy to the end with projects of new books and movies, travel plans to introduce retrospectives, and concepts for festival programming. His literary legacy includes unpublished manuscripts for several books, including a 12 volume history of the world cinema.

Unlike Stroheim, Peter owned an authentic "von" prefix, but he loved to be a man of the people and never liked to travel first class. Like Jean Renoir he believed in the spirit of generosity and the aristocracy of the soul. In the Finnish tax paradise he got world class care – just like everybody. I met him a week before he died. He knew what was coming but refused to play the role of the dying man. With a gentle sense of humour he created a jovial atmosphere even in terminal circumstances.

As Peter's death became known, the internet came alive with tributes. The film critic Tarmo Poussu predicted that Peter would be welcomed in heaven by Erich von Stroheim to watch the complete Greed, after which Orson Welles would invite him to see the uncut The Magnificent Ambersons.

Antti Alanen

By permission of FIAF. An edited version of this obituary will be published in #91 of the Journal of Film Preservation at the end of October.

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