Antti Alanen, Film Programmer at National Audiovisual Institute in Finland, has posted an announcement that the Finnish media are now confirming. Film historian and director Peter von Bagh, co-founder (with Aki and Mika Kaurismäki) and director of the Midnight Sun Film Festival and artistic director of Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, has died at the age of 71. “He died with his boots on,” writes Alanen. “New films and books were in the making. Retrospectives and trips had been booked…. His energy and wit were undiminished. He knew what was coming, and he faced it soberly. With a gentle sense of humor he created a jovial atmosphere even in terminal circumstances.”
Just last year, Alanen and Olaf Möller co-edited a collection of essays on von Bagh’s work, Citizen Peter. The year before, in 2012, the International Film Festival Rotterdam presented a tribute in the form of a series featuring 16 films by von Bagh and three films by Finnish directors he’d championed. Rotterdam also noted that von Bagh had written around 20 books, was the chief editor of Filmihullu magazine and taught film history in the University of Art and Design in Helsinki.
The new issue of Cinema Scope features an interview with von Bagh introduced by Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front: “Apart from 50-plus documentaries, his still underseen back catalogue includes one feature, a bizarre comedy, The Count (1971), admired by none other than Douglas Sirk. Chris Marker once made a bold claim that he preferred von Bagh’s Helsinki Forever (2008) to Walter Ruttmann’s esteemed classic Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). A man of truly encyclopedic knowledge, von Bagh is equally well-versed in film and music, literature and visual arts, architecture and politics. Moviemaking is his way of chronicling the history of his beloved home country; his movies are, therefore, brimming with biases and strong opinions, movies that peer inside the human soul with great intensity and ardor.”
Olaf Möller conducted a “Critics’ Talk” with von Bagh in Rotterdam in 2012
Updates: Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s posted his contribution to Citizen Peter: “It makes perfect sense that Chris Marker, a writer who regarded photography and cinema as literature by another means, would warm to Helsinki, Forever, a film that alludes to Kafka and Faulkner, Proust and Dostoevsky as incidental guides to what makes Helsinki so Helsinkian…. Marker, for a certain spell, was one of the regular visitors to the [Midnight Sun] festival in Sodankylä, and, luckily for me, 1998 was part of that spell—so that I’m proud to report that few seconds in Peter’s Sodankylä Forever (2010) actually captures the two of us chatting, during the only time we ever met. It also makes sense that Jean-Pierre Gorin sees Helsinki and Cinema as the two places where Peter von Bagh lives. The miracle is how thoroughly he can honor both at the same time, and in the same way, without getting either one to play second fiddle.”
From David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson: “Mention a film you hadn’t seen, and very likely a week or so later that film–at first in VHS and in later years a DVD–would materialize in your mailbox. I remember Peter asking if I knew Mika Kaurismäki’s films. I confessed ignorance, but when I got home from the trip, there was a parcel of his films waiting for me. Last year at Bologna, I wasn’t able to see Peter’s latest film Socialism; when our paths next crossed, he pressed a copy into my hand…. To call him a canon-buster would insult his gentleness, but through his writing, his lectures, and his programming, he drove home the idea that there was always another film out there that would speak to us, if only we would listen. A warm and easygoing elder brother to us–most likely, to everyone he met–Peter will be remembered wherever film lovers gather.”
Updates, 9/23: One of the retrospectives that Antii Alanen mentions will be taking place at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, where, working again with Olaf Möller, von Bagh “created a very personal parcours through Finnish cinema, reflecting his passions and assembling key works from the years 1937 to 2006. An additional selection of films from his own oeuvre help convey the ‘Benjaminian spirit’ that animates this program.” It opens on Saturday and runs through October 15.
“Peter von Bagh was one of the cornerstones of festival-hopping, magazine-subscribing film culture,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “For critics—especially those interested in the unexamined corners of cinema’s past—von Bagh was an invaluable resource and guide, and he was instrumental in getting wider exposure for Finnish films.”
In 2012, Gabe Klinger wrote about meeting up with Möller and von Bagh in Helsinki: “Peter is cut from the same cloth as Jonathan Rosenbaum (who introduced me to him), Robert Daudelin, Peter Kubelka, Freddy Buache, João Bénard da Costa, Miguel Marías, Peter Wollen, Charles Barr, Tom Luddy, and other critics, archive curators and festival programmers who began to devour cinema in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and defended a passionate spirit of cinephilia in places where the very notion was often seriously impoverished.”
Updates, 9/25: Olaf Möller looks back on a few evenings in Finland, one of them being the world premiere of Remembrance, A Small Movie About Oulu in the 1950s in Oulu itself:
Everyone present probably owned at least one of his books because he was responsible for nearly every standard Finnish tome on international film history. He also wrote a host of major works on popular music and theatre, and published other authors. As a result, von Bagh is an institution in the cultural life of post-war Finland, a maker and shaper of manners and ideas, a dreamer and fighter, a pathfinder and path-breaker; a man of quick wit whose sarcastic quips are famous, and whose ire nobody in his right mind would want to provoke. He’s also that rarest of creatures, a man of the people…. Von Bagh’s cinema constitutes one of the grandest and most moving examples of Benjamin’s notion of ‘revolutionary nostalgia.’ There’s a lot to be learned from Remembrance and everything that preceded it. Whichever von Bagh film one comes across first is as good a point of departure as any.
Also writing for Sight & Sound, Neil McGlone: “He mentioned he had a large number of interviews in his basement dating back to the 1970s conducted with some of the true greats of world cinema. Modest man that he was, he felt that nobody would be interested in them. I begged to differ, but he was adamant.” Von Bagh eventually relented, sending McGlone a list of nearly 200 interviews, an archive McGlone has begun to curate: “Earlier this year a deal was done with the Criterion Collection in New York to license the interviews so that Peter’s legacy can be upheld and live on through their current and future projects. The film world has lost a true friend.”
And speaking of interviews, Michael Guillén has posted his with von Bagh, conducted just last year.
Updates, 9/27: “The first time I met Peter von Bagh was on the rooftop terrace of a hotel in Brighton, during the legendary 1978 FIAF conference,” writes Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “The first thing he said to me was: ‘I have written the only multi-volume history of cinema in Finnish.’ It was a statement that was both bombastic and self-deprecating, and I would soon come to appreciate his dry, ironic, Finnish humor…. I last saw Peter in Italy a couple years ago, but I will always remember our countless discussions about movies. There was virtually no film he had not seen and could speak about without passion.”
David Cairns looks back on his last day at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato and, in particular, a conversation von Bagh conducted with Richard Lester. “The event assumes a melancholic afterglow now that Peter Von Bagh has been taken from us before his time. His festival is just about the best I’ve ever been to. For location and buzz, Telluride is miraculous. Being an old movies guy, Bologna does it for me.”
Update, 9/29: From Criterion‘s introduction to the video below: “Along with the entire film world, we are grateful that von Bagh devoted so much of his time to interviewing many of our greatest directors, leaving behind him a treasure trove of insightful discussions about life and cinema. Earlier this year, with his blessing, we made a home here at Criterion for his archives, including more than 120 filmed interviews and even more in audio recordings. In honor of this perceptive and generous figure of cinema, we’ve compiled a short reel of delightful moments from a handful of these interviews.”