A restored blast from the past

The historic six-hour version of 1925's 'Les Misérables' graces the Jerusalem Film Festival.

A SCENE FROM the 1925 film ‘Les Miserables’ (photo credit: JERUSALEM FILM FESTIVAL)
A SCENE FROM the 1925 film ‘Les Miserables’
Most of us know the storyline of Les Misérables, the classic 19th century novel by Victor Hugo. We might had read the book, seen one of the many movie renderings or caught the eponymous musical somewhere on our travels. While Hugo’s work has, with some justification, been hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, probably far fewer of us have had the opportunity to enjoy early cinematic adaptations of the gripping and emotive story.
On Thursday, July 26, Jerusalem Cinematheque will offer local movie buffs a rare opportunity to catch a painstakingly restored version of Henri Fescourt’s 1925 rendition of the Hugo tome, as part of the Jerusalem Film Festival, which later in the day will hold a gala opening at Sultan’s Pool of the film The Unorthodox.
Mind you, if you are planning on going over to the Cinematheque for Les Misérables, you might want to clear your diary. The screening lasts a minute shy of six hours, and with a breather scheduled between the two three-hour slots, should account for most of the day.
The resurrected film is being brought here by Franck Loiret, head of the Cinematheque of Toulouse who oversaw the protracted remedial process. Listening to Loiret describe what went into bringing the ancient celluloid to a digitally reprocessed, restored version worthy of the gala screenings it enjoyed over the past three-and-a-half years, one gets some idea of the effort he and his many comrades-in-creative-arms put into the venture. Actually, “adventure” might be a better word.
“It was something we had prepared for, for a long time,” Loiret says. “There were a lot of us working on the film, and on the project, because there was the team of the CNC [Centre National du Cinéma et de L’image Animée - National Center for Cinema and the Moving Image, which is responsible for ensuring the unified conception and implementation of French state policy in the film sector and other industries relating to the moving image], a team from Toulouse and the team of [Fondation Jérôme Seydoux] Pathé.” Loiret adds there was comfort, and security, in numbers. “We couldn’t go wrong, really. We shared a lot to put it all together, but it took a long time.”
All told, the restoration work was spread over three years, although there were some intervals, including some that were forced on the teams en route. “It took us at least 3 years,” Loiret notes. The delays were largely due to funding logistics and tackling the sticky business of copyright.
In fact, the latter almost scuppered the escapade entirely. “We had lots of problems during the restoration, but we knew we had a treasure in our hands. We had to succeed. At one point I thought it might not work out because of the rights of the film. For a time everything stopped. But we all had lots of passion for it.”
THAT ENTHUSIASM duly saw the process through to its happy end, and Fescourt’s film has been making the rounds of the globe for a few years now.
Although the copy in question is more than 90 years old, it was not the first attempt at putting Hugo’s book on film. The storyline clearly fired the imagination of many filmmakers in the early 20th century and later. In fact, Fescourt was the twelfth director to try his hand at conveying Les Misérables on screen, with the first brief offering by the Lumière brothers coming out as early as 1897.
Dedicated as Loiret and his colleagues may have been, they had their work cut out for them. Still, they did have access to good source material, although in fact, you could say they almost had access to too much material. “The version we had in Toulouse is tinted. The one before that was in black and white, and it was much shorter. I think it was around four, four-and-a-half hours,” Loiret explains.
Naturally, Loiret et al., had to ensure they ended up with a sequential and coherent product that included all the relevant scenes from the story, and in the correct order.
“We had that version here in Toulouse, but it was not complete,” Loiret continues. “We had some gaps. We had to work with the CNC, who also had some material, and also with Pathé Productions, who had the negative. We had to work altogether. It was a huge work, because it was the three of us, because it was a very long film, and because we had different versions. We had to compare each version with the original script.”
That script was a boon. “We were lucky because we had the script, and we had lots of notes by Fescourt. Because of that we were able to produce this new restored version, using the Pathé negative, the CNC copy and the unique copy held in Toulouse with the colors. It is a tinted version, so we have some sequences with red, blue or yellow, as it was made in the 20s. We got as close as we could to what people would have seen in the 1920s.”
The strong sense of throwback which, no doubt, will be experienced by the Jerusalem Cinematheque audience, will be enhanced by the presence of an acclaimed French composer, pianist, an expert on music for silent films, Jean-François Zygel, who will accompany the on-screen action live on piano.
That role has been filled by various musicians around the world at the various screenings, and by all accounts Zygel will earn his pay for his contribution to what has been termed as a ciné-concert. “The music makes the film very accessible to the audience as well. Live music is part of the film as well,” says Loiret. “There was no score for the film, so Jean-François Zygel will improvise.”
That’s six whole hours of on-the-fly keyboard work, although Zygel won’t be entirely winging it. Having seen the film several times, and as most people who attended school in France, he read the book as a youth, so he will have a good idea of the storyline and how to tailor the music to it before he sets his hands to the piano in Jerusalem.
While Zygel will be actively involved, does Loiret expect the festival goers – even with a recess mid-screening, – to be challenged by the sheer length of the restored rendition? “You just follow the story,” he says. “I know it’s six hours, but the story’s so great you forget about time.”
Loiret says the audience at the debut screening at his cinematheque in December 2014, clapped enthusiastically at the end, although he is aware that there maybe those who have difficulty staying the course. “Some may leave before the end,” he says, “but the story is so great, the characters and the actors are wonderful, and it’s a universal story, not just a French story. It is timeless. A story of redemption.”
Everyone involved must have had a sense of relief when they finally managed to put all the pieces of the project together, and people were able to sit down in cinemas across the world to enjoy the fruits of their labors. “It is making the film come alive again,” says Loiret. “It’s showing the work, again, on the screen. We’re not the director. We’re not the actors. But we are taking our part in this magic thing. That’s what cinema is.”
For more information about the Jerusalem Film Festival, go to www.jff.org.il