France, Les Films du Compas, 1946, 40 minutes
“The Birth of Cinema” is an popular-science, educational film by Roger Leenhardt, commissioned by Henri Langlois for the 50th anniversary of cinema. Leenhardt is a renowned documentary filmmaker, theorist of sound film and film realism, and a critic whose articles in “Esprit” magazine were valued both before the war and after it (they were subsequently published by “Cahiers du cinéma” as a separate book). The Objectif 49 film club that he founded together with Jean Cocteau and Robert Bresson, was for several years a mecca for intellectuals and film connoisseurs and became one of the backbones of the French New Wave.
Langlois’s commission was logical and justified. During the Occupation, French culture was severely shaken. Ever since the liberation of the country, French filmmakers were increasingly turning to the past. Over the next decade, they made films about great events that changed the history of France, and about great personalities who in one way or another influenced the development of various spheres of culture.
“The Birth of Cinema”, which deals with early film cameras and early filmmakers, falls into a line of such films. It talks, however, not only and not so much about cinema, but about the visual image in general: from ancient bas-reliefs to the thaumatrope, from the invention of photography to the experiments of Michael Faraday, Étienne-Jules Marey, and Eadweard Muybridge. It shows how exactly the eye perceives moving objects, how we are able to see a galloping rider in separate drawings of a man on a horse, and how in a fast gallop of a living horse, we can see each phase of the movement of its legs. The film is also interesting for the fact that in it, with the help of reenactment, an attempt was made for the first time to reconstruct the first shows of William George Horner’s zoetrope, of Émile Reynaud’s praxinoscope as well as his optical theater, constructed according to the surviving drawings especially for the film.
The film uses the devices from the collection of the French Cinematheque, and it ends with fragments from several films by Thomas Alva Edison and the Lumière brothers, the creators of the first film cameras. As an epilogue, Leenhardt also reconstructs the first paid film screening by the Lumières at the Grand Café on Boulevard des Capucines.
The premiere of “The Birth of Cinema” took place at the Cannes Film Festival. It was immediately bought for distribution in the United States, where the last 2 (out of 4) reels were shown under the title “Biography of the Motion Picture Camera”. In France was released a little later and was shown for several years at various film theaters. Leenhardt’s student André Bazin spoke highly about it, and Leenhardt himself was soon afterwards recognized as the spiritual father of the New Wave.
A documentary with some fictional episodes about the emergence and development of cinema. In it, for the first time, an attempt is made not only to recreate the entire evolution of film cameras, but also to show, through reenactment, how the screenings of the late 19th - early 20th centuries looked like..