Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Peter Von Bagh

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Peter Von Bagh

Article excerpt

"If you have four unfinished projects and don't know how to pull them off, start another one."

Peter von Bagh1

Peter von Bagh (1943-2014) was a Renaissance man: film critic and historian, programmer, festival director, editor, author of around 40 books (many of them major works), publisher, and concert impresario. He also had a career in radio, for which he produced, among other things, a hundred hour-long features on Elämää suuremmat elokuvat / Films Bigger than Life (1984-1993), as well as making more than 60 films and television programmes. He was also a university professor, well known to generations of film and theatre students. In addition to all this, Peter found time to be curator of the Finnish Film Archive between 1967 and 1970, as well as its film programmer until 1984.

Already a cinéphile by the late 1950s, Peter von Bagh discovered an international network of like-minded contacts when, at the age of 19, he attended a seminar about American cinema, in Kiel, where he got to know members of what would become Britain's Movie circle.

Von Bagh wrote about film in Ylioppilaslehti, the Helsinki university student magazine, and in Parnasso, the mouthpiece of literary modernism. He lambasted Finnish populist cinema mercilessly and became known as "Elitist Peter". He was active as a critic and historian in newspapers and journals, on the radio, and on television. He proved a master of the interview (among his early subjects were Carl Th. Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, and Fritz Lang) and his talking headswerenevermeretalking heads. He established an atmosphere of confidence, an intimate connection with another human being, talking about a vital experience. Though an interview might last hours, he never looked at his watch.

A key figure in the emerging cultural radicalism of the early 1960s, his friends included writers, musicians, theatre people, cultural critics, and new wave filmmakers, most importantly those of Filminor, the company established by Risto Jarva and Jaakko Pakkasvirta in 1962. Between 1969 and 1972, von Bagh cowrote three films for Jarva and Kesäkapina (Summer Rebellion, 1970), for Pakkasvirta. This last was both a Brechtian and a Godardian film, an original Finnish exercise in the art of collage and compilation.

Von Bagh started his own directorial career with 8mm underground home movies such as Elämäö suomalaismetsissä / Life in the Finnish Woods (1967). He was active in the Finnish Underground movement generally, and hosted P. Adams Sitney's New American Cinema tour at the Finnish Film Archive in 1968, an event which left a lasting mark on the Finnish art world.

Of von Bagh's films as a director, the earliest officially released films were exercises in satire (Pockpicket eli katkelmia helsinkiläisen porvarisnuoren elämästä / Pockpicket: Recollections of a Helsinki Bourgois Youth (1968), and Joulukuu / December (1969). He also made an ironical study of cinéma-vérité (Liikemiehen muotokuva / Portrait of a Businessman (1970)) and participated in irreverent productions such as the cinétract, Vanhan valtaus / The Storming of the Student House, in 1968.

Peter von Bagh's single fiction feature film Kreivi / The Count (1971) transgresses the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. It was coproduced by Filminor and FJ-Filmi (thus involving Jörn Donner), and marked a step in the evolution from "Elitist Peter" to "Popular Peter". In fact, von Bagh had always ignored the demarcation line between elitist and popular cultures.

Finnish filmmakers Roland af Hällström, Nyrki Tapiovaara, and Jörn Donner had also started as critics, but von Bagh's approach to filmmaking as a continuation of film criticism was more profoundly meditated, in ways comparable with the work of Chris Marker, JeanLuc Godard, and Edgardo Cozarinsky.

Peter von Bagh wrote numerous books on cinema, including Elokuvan historia / The History of the Cinema (1975 and 1998), and Chaplin (2013). He was a co-founder, in 1968, of Filmihullu (Movie Crazy) magazine, and later its editor-in-chief. …

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