The Concise Cinegraph & doing film history

When I was still a student doing film historical research, I often consulted the Cinegraph Lexicon, which existed since 1980, and yearly issued new entries on German actors, directors and other people from the German film world. While previously a lack of reliable and extensive reference books was a ‘pain in the ass’ (pardon my French), from 1980 on, slowly but clearly, a corpus of solid biographies and filmographies started to appear, which were extremely useful for anybody working on German cinema. When I worked in the nitrate archives of the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now strangely called EYE), the Lexicon was a treasure trove, even if many entries were still lacking, and even if many content descriptions of films dearly lacked, in contrast to the present website www.filmportal.de (on which Cinegraph works as well). The Lexicon started in a time when thorough film historical research just started to develop, resulting  in other countries in reference books such as Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue (1973), the detailed 21-volume series Il cinema muto italiano (1991-1996) by Aldo Bernardini and Vittorio Martinelli in Italy (which included both content descriptions and excerpts from reviews), and the books by Raymond Chirat in France, catalogued by decade and issued in the 1980s and 1990s. Reference books on individual film companies also came into being, such as Henri Bousquet’s multivolume series on the silent productions by Pathé (now partly available on the site of the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux). In our days of easy access of film data with IMDb and other sites this seems like the stone age of film history. On the other hand, let’s not overestimate the net. Many nations such as France or Italy still provide very limited data on the internet on their national film production (and I am just talking about fiction film; let alone non-fiction!). IMDb shows many gaps and also mistakes. IMDb dates films for the first known release date, even if that might be years after its national release or its production year. It also shows incomplete information which could be retrieved elsewhere, such as on sites like www.filmportal.de. And it doesn’t care about non-fiction as well. Working for foreign encyclopedias (Schirmer, Einaudi), I also discovered that IMDb doesn’t doublecheck data provided by amateurs in the field, so for European cinema it is almost as unreliable as Wikipedia. Why doesn’t IMDb integrate the data and content descriptions from Cinegraph, Chirat, Bousquet and Bernardini/Martinelli?

Call me old fashioned, but I still cherish paper and I still appreciate good reference books, especially when the researchers are known, reliable and even controllable, because you can contact them and ask about their sources. Quite unlike, that is, Wikipedia and IMDb, where mistakes and gaps continue to circulate, in particular concerning European cinema. So, in addition to the excellent www.filmportal.de (I occasionally also use www.filmzeit.de) an encyclopedia like The Concise Cinegraph. Encyclopedia of German Cinema (Berghahn 2009), I browse with great satisfaction. The individual films I can now check on the sites, but for biographies on German filmmakers, actors and producers, The Concise Cinegraph is a valuable complementary source. And whenever I am in doubt, I can check with the two editors: Hans-Michael Bock and Tim Bergfelder, two kind and open scholars whose academic ‘rigeur’ stands for reliable information, while their writing style lacks unnecessary jargon. I don’t have a big problem reading German, but of course English makes me reading this all much quicker. Would be nice to have an English written Concise Cinegraph for France, Britain, Italy, Russia and a few other countries… Film historians of Europe, unite!

~ by Ivo Blom on December 22, 2011.

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