A barn. A warehouse. A closet at a mental institution. These locations have something in common: They all contained films or parts of films that were missing and presumed lost forever.
French film pioneer Georges Méliès’s classic short film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), an inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film, Hugo, was discovered in its most complete form in a barn in France in 2002. Japanese director Teinosuke Kinugasa rediscovered his brilliant avant-garde film A Page of Madness (1926) in his own warehouse forty-five years after he made it. Last, a pristine, unexpurgated copy of renowned Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most iconic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), turned up in a janitor’s closet at the Kikemark Sykehus mental institution in Oslo in 1981.
According to reliable estimates, at least 50 percent of all films made for public exhibition before 1950 have been lost. Move into the silent era, and the estimate shoots up to 90 percent. The cellulose nitrate film on which movies were recorded until 1950 is flammable and highly susceptible to deterioration. The medium that replaced nitrate, cellulose acetate, solved the flammability problem, but is vulnerable to disintegration, shrinkage, and breakage. All or parts of thousands of films from virtually every era have burned up, broken down, or ended up in a dumpster.
The digital age may seem to provide a greater degree of safety for the durability of our new digitally produced films. But if you have ever had a hard drive crash or a virus corrupt your files, you know that digital information is fragile, too.