Introduction: A New Source of History

This piece has an interesting cultural history. It was originally published in Le Figaro on 25 March 1898 and reprinted later that year as a twelve-page pamphlet, Une nouvelle source de l’histoire: création d’un dépôt de cinématographie historique . Then it appears to have been forgotten for sixty-five years – or, at least, I cannot find it mentioned in the books I have at hand. Perhaps it is not surprising that Terry Ramsay [1] and Paul Rotha [2] were ignorant of the piece, or that it escaped the Anglophonic compilers of the Film index. [3] But Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach do not mention it in their two-volume Histoire du cinéma, [4] nor does Georges Sadoul in volume 2 of the Histoire générale du cinéma [5] where it might have been discussed. It is not even cited in the third edition, published in 1973, with the collaboration of Bernard Eisenschitz.

However, in 1963 Jacques Deslandes devoted some attention to the “Nouvelle source” in Le Boulevard du cinéma, [6] even beginning his chapter on Les actualités reconstituées” with an epigraph drawn from [Boleslas] Matuszewski. He notes that claims for the “incontestable and absolute truth” of filmed images, like those made by Matuszewski, suggest that the first spectators’ comprehension of what they saw on the screen was “apparently so easy and so immediate” that “it seems that the first animated images were perceived with the particular vision of children or schizophrenics”. (p. 61) At the same time, Deslandes is about to make a case for Méliès’s reconstructed docu-dramas, and so he draws a kind of phenomenological accuracy out of what Matuszewski says: film may not quite be a “truthful and infallible eye-witness”, but for the ordinary man of the cinema and for the historian, “the cinema is indeed the most perfect means that can be given to anyone to re-live an event as-if-you-were-there and at-the-moment-when-it-happened”. (p. 61)

The translation by Julia Bloch Frey reprinted here, dates from 1974. [7] It appeared in an issue of the UNESCO journal, Cultures, entitled “Flashback: films and history”, built around the theme of the representation of history in film. The “Nouvelle source” was offered as an example of a very early attempt to “analyse the mutual relationships of these two forms of communication” by the issue’s editor, G. S. Métraux. [8] This is the way in which one lecturer at La Trobe University has used the document in teaching for more than twenty years. Métraux also provided some biographical information on Matuszewski, supplied by Professor Zbigniev Czeczot-Gawrak of the Art Institute of the Polish Academcy of Sciences:

Matuszewski was born in Warsaw where, with his brother Zygmund, he set up a photographic laboratory. It seems that in 1896 he had worked for a time with the Lumière brothers in Paris. In 1898 he created in Poland the “Lux-Sigismund” firm which produced several reels on life in Poland and on Polish folklore. One of his successors was Jan Skarbek Matuszewski, whose newsreels on World War 1 and on the origins of the Second Polish Republic are one of the main sources of visual information on these troubled years. (p. 217)

In the “Nouvelle source”, Matuszewski was arguing for a museum of historical filmed images – and for a job for himself. To do this, he had first to argue for the supreme significance of film as “a new historical source” – that is, for its infallibility and its truth. Deslandes points out that the “Nouvelle source” is a document of cultural politics “through which [Matuszewski] was trying to interest the civil authorities (who, of course, did not react), the powerful figures of the day, in his idea”. (p. 60) But Deslandes assigns little weight to the circumstance which has attracted most positive attention recently: that in 1898 Boleslas Matuszewski had a plan for a national film archive.

This is how Richard Abel deals with the piece in 1988 in a paragraph tracing the idea of a cinema museum up to 1913, [9] and how Paolo Cherchi Usai, Malgorzata Hendrykowska and Bernard Chardère refer to Matuszewski’s work more recently. [10] But in English, at least, Penelope Houston has made the strongest case for the significance of the piece. In Keepers of the frame , she calls the “Nouvelle source” “a paper which must rank as one of the most unexpected and remarkable in film history: a considered, reasoned proposal for the creation of a film archive”. [11] She approvingly cites Matuszewski’s proposals for selection by committee, preservation of negatives and the need to curtail viewing of some materials. She adds some specific detail to Matuszewki’s anecdote about a film of his having cleared up a diplomatic contretemps and fills in a little of his biography: that later in 1898 he showed a film of an operation to members of the medical profession in Warsaw, that he was in Paris in 1901, and that “two Polish researchers” were “inquiring into his life” in 1992. (p. 12) [12]

Houston offers a more sympathetic summary of Matuszewski’s argument for the historical value of film than Deslandes had been able to muster thirty-one years before. She emphatically agrees with the “Nouvelle source” about “the value and potential of film as historical evidence, as a primary source in its own right” (p. 10). Like Deslandes, she quotes one of Matuszewski’s lines about the cinema: “It has a quality of authenticity, exactitude and precision which is unique to it”. (p. 10) [13] But where Deslandes used lines like this as indirect confirmation of film’s propensity for recreating immediate experience, Houston seems to be making a case for the importance of film as proof in the way that visual evidence is often used in trials. Matuszewski himself made a distinction between “a proof of history” [document historique] and “a fragment of history itself” [parcelle de l’histoire] that appears to correspond roughly to the distinction I have drawn between Houston’s use of the “Nouvelle source” and Deslandes’s.

And what Houston says of Matuszewski is surely not foreign to his concerns. His idea of the cinema is that it is a record of what has happened in front of the camera, just as his idea of history is what might be recorded by an all-observing angel. But Matuszewski’s perceptions are so acute that in 1896 he can suspect, even rue, the non-fiction cinema’s dependence upon staged spectacle: “planned ceremonies”, parades, demonstrations and the like. In 1896 he tells us what we will witness in newsreel and television news coverage for a hundred years and more. What film can offer in its record of these events is mere accuracy, and Matuszewski is acutely aware of this. In contradistinction to such camera opportunities he places “the beginnings of action, initial movements, unexpected events which elude the camera exactly as they escape the news agencies” that it would be a good thing for the cinema to record, if it could.

At the same time, like the ordinary person of the cinema today, Matuszewski is electrified, vivified, precisely by the mere experience:

Thus this cinematographic print [épreuve] in which a scene is made up of a thousand images, and which, unreeled between a focussed light source and a white sheet, makes the dead and the absent stand up and walk, this simple band of printed celluloid constitutes not only a proof of history, but a fragment of history itself, and a history which has not grown faint, which does not need a genius to resuscitate it. It is there, barely asleep, and like those elementary organisms which after years of dormancy are revitalized by a bit of warmth and humidity, in order to reawaken and relive the hours of the past, it only needs a little light projected through a lens into the heart of darkness!

His case, argued in these terms, is intuitively compelling. And ultimately, the outcome of that argument is not really a question of choosing between the proof and the fragment. What is being celebrated in this passage, and throughout Matuszewski’s piece is specificity: the specificity of filmed images and the specificity of history. Indeed, the historical specificity of any filmed image is inescapable, and this is what finally grounds the potential productivity of filmed images for the study of history, a “human science” which must derive from and feed into specific events, circumstances, conditions. In this context, Matuszewki’s “poetic” diction is not a rhetorical strategy to compel submission to argument, but an integral part of the argument. For art ultimately validates itself in its specific incarnations, in individual works, rather than in general rules, just as the filmed image and the kind of history Matuszewski assumes are validated by their specificity. The style of his writing, then, performs his fundamental position.

The specificity of the filmed image is what is at issue in those legal proceedings where audio-visual materials are used as evidence. It is a prominent feature of some televised sports coverage as well. However, the use of film as “proof” in this sense is not a strong argument for historical film archives, although Houston suggests (p. 12) that it does seem to have played a role in the creation of such an archive – perhaps the first film archive in the world – at the British Imperial War Museum around 1917. After all, it is the specificity of the filmed image that makes the vision machine valuable in waging war and spying. “Imagine,” Matuszewki exults, “a military or naval manoeuvre whose phases have been collected on film by a cinematographer: any debate can be rapidly brought to a close” – and it is specificity in this sense which links Houston’s reading of Matuszewski with Paul Virilio’s argument for the inter-relation of the technologies of war and of cinema. [14]

Such arguments as Virilio’s and Houston’s presume that at least some people believe that the cinema is a machine for seeing better, like a microscope or a telescope. The history which would benefit from such a machine would be a scientific history, reasoning from specific instances to general rules: a history the aim of which would be to know for certain what really happened. Now, although there is a great deal in the “Nouvelle source” that feeds this sort of supposition, the passage that I have cited gestures towards another, slightly different, idea of the cinema: the idea of seeing anew. Other parts of the piece also hint at this theme: Matuszewski’s advocacy of the filmed “slice of life as the cross-section of a nation and a people”, his evocation of a class of school children looking at film which shows “the calm or troubled faces of a deliberating assembly”, “the imperceptible progress of things in motion . . . seized by the lens”, the effect of “the manifestations of a great nation” upon “simple souls”, and the hermetic allusion to “completely unexpected and compelling events” which Matuszewski has recently photographed in Paris. The history that would benefit from these images might well be a history that is constantly renewed, reframed – the aim of which would be to recognise uncertainly that one cannot ever know what really happened, although one may at times see it plainly enough.

If one part of Matuszewki’s plan for an archive was realised by the First World War in the secret sources of military intelligence, another may have come to fruition in Les Archives de la Planète, Albert Kahn’s project for documenting the world, which was actively pursued under the direction of Jean Brunhes between 1909 and 1931. According to Sam Rohdie, who is currently involved in working with the photographic and cinematic material collected under this heading, the Archives seem to have preferred cinematic footage for recording “history” and still photographs for documenting “geography”. [15] I do not know of any connection between Matuszewski and this project, but it would not be surprising if one were to be discovered.

The “Nouvelle source” was not the only thing on the cinema that Matuszewski had published in Paris during 1898. Again, it seems we may owe the rediscovery of La photographie animée, ce qu’elle est et ce qu’elle doit être[Animated photography as it is and as it should be] to Jacques Deslandes. At any rate, in 1968 Deslandes and Richard quoted a long passage from it in the second volume of their Histoire comparée du cinéma, [16] part of which was also quoted in 1985 by Steve Neale: [17]

The cinematograph is not, essentially, a thing of pleasure, a toy for big children. Being the absolutely faithful reproduction of the movements of the whole of nature, it realises the most astonishing conquest that humanity has yet made of forgetfulness; it preserves and reconstitutes what could not be revived by simple memory or by its auxiliaries, the written page, drawing, photography. And this new addition to the Treasury of Common Memories, this resurrection of what once appeared to be the most fugitive from the past that escapes us, can and ought to serve humanity as writing, printing, engraving and shorthand do.

Like them, the cinema prevents those things from yesterday that are essential to the progress to tomorrow from vanishing in forgetfulness. Among those things, things in movement, the elusive image of which one would not have dreamed a few years ago could have been made fast, are assuredly not the least precious to keep.

The new invention not only reproduces them, but, what is scientifically more important, it permits the acceleration of movement that is too slow to be observed, slowing it down if it is too fast, stopping one of its phases if one wants to see only a part. It suffices to turn the handle of the projector more or less rapidly or to stop it altogether to make the bud of a flower blossom in two minutes, to slow down or suspend a horse’s galop, the surgeon’s lancet, the violinist’s fingers and bow.

Chronophotographic projection . . . is an easy and subtle attention that supplements human attention.

Matuszewski, like Virilio much later, insists upon confounding the new vision offered by the cinema with the better vision demanded by science. As Deslandes and Richard stress, this misses the point so clearly grasped by the “simple souls” and school children Matuszewski uses as tropes for the audience: that the cinema is a spectacle, a transformation. Yet in tying what the cinema sees to the work of memory, La photographie animée and such projects as Les Archives de la Planète also appear to be moving towards establishing a link between the filmed image and that theory of images exposited by Henri Bergson in Matière et mémoire, [18] , and expropriated for the cinema more recently by Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 . [19] In the last paragraph of what I have quoted Matuszewki writes that the projected image manifests itself as ” une attention ” – an attention, as though there were many different attentions. This has the effect of positioning “attention” as a concept, and it immediately made me think of Bergson, who devotes about forty pages to attention in sections of Matter and memory dealing with “recollections and movements” and the “realisation of memories”. These sections introduce the concept of the “virtual image”, which Deleuze makes the cornerstone of his discussion of the “crystal image” in Cinema 2 (58-70). If this is not a line, it is at least a rhizome.

Established under the sign of Bergson, Matuszewski’s Depository of Historical Cinematography would operate as a subsection of the Treasury of Common Memories, other subsections of which would include the Fiction Film Archive, the Gallery of Art, and the Library of Babel. LikeLes Archives de la Planète and more sinister plans for global surveillance, Matuszewki’s is finally a powerfully impossible scheme, whose most passionate latter-day advocate is surely Valerio Camillo, the fictional creator of a Theater of Memory in Carlos Fuentes’s Terra nostra :

“You do not understand me, monsignore. The images of my theater bring together all the possibilities of the past, but they also represent all the opportunities of the future, for knowing what was not, we shall know what demands to be: what has not been, you have seen, is a latent event awaiting its moment to be, its second chance, the opportunity to live another life. History repeats itself only because we are unaware of the alternate possibility for each historic event: what that event could have been but was not. Knowing, we can insure that history does not repeat itself; that the alternate possibility is the one that occurs for the first time. The universe would achieve true equilibrium. This will be the culmination of my investigations…” [20]

[1] Terry Ramsay, A million and one nights: a history of the motion picture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926).
[2] Paul Rotha, The film till now: a survey of world cinema (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930).
[3] The film index: a bibliography, 3 vols (New York: Museum of Modern Art Film Library and the H.W. Wilson Co, 1941).
[4] Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach, Histoire du cinéma, 2 vols (Paris: 1935).
[5] Georges Sadoul, Histoire générale du cinéma: Les pionniers du cinéma (1897-1909) (Paris: Éditions Denôel, 1947).
[6] Jacques Deslandes, Le boulevard du cinéma á l’époque de Georges Méliès (Les Éditions du Cerf: Paris, 1963). Further references to this source appear as page numbers in brackets. The translations from sources cited in French are by William D. Routt, except for the translation of the “Nouvelle source”.
[7] Boleslas Matuszewski, “A new source of history: the creation of a depository for historical cinematography”, Cultures 2 , no. 1 (1974): pp. 219-222.
[8] G. S. Métraux, “Introduction”, Cultures 2 , no. 1 (1974): p. 217. Further references to this source appear as page numbers in brackets.
[9] Richard Abel, French film theory and criticism: a history/anthology 1907-1939 , vol. 1, 1907-1929 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 11.
[10] Paolo Cherchi Usai, “Origins and survival,” in The Oxford history of world cinema , ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 12; Malgorzata Hendrykowska, “East Central Europe before the second world war,” in The Oxford history of world cinema , ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 383; Bernard Chardère, Le roman des Lumière: le cinéma sur le vif (Éditions Gallimard, 1995) , p. 423.
[11] Penelope Houston, Keepers of the frame: the film archives (London: British Film Institute, 1994), p. 10. Further references to this source appear as page numbers in brackets.
[12] It goes without saying that Screening the past is interested in anything more that research has turned up on Matuszewski.
[13] Houston is working from what appears to be her own translation of the piece. The phrase about the “quality of authenticity” is attributed in Houston’s translation to “the camera” (10). The same phrase is translated by Frey as “It can be said that intrinsic to animated photography has [sic] an authenticity, exactitude and precision which belong to it alone”. The French, as quoted by Deslandes (60), is ” On peut dire que la photographie animée à [sic] un caractère d’authenticité, d’exactitude, de précision, qui n’appartient qu’à elle “. Houston’s omission of any English equivalent for ” on peut dire “, doubtless strengthens her position, just as the inclusion of the phrase strengthens Deslandes’s. “Animated photography” is an important concept in Matuszewski’s thinking, as should become apparent a little later in this Note.
[15]Paul Virilio, War and cinema (London: Verso, 1989).
[16] Sam Rohdie to the author, 2 December 1996.
[17] Boleslas Matuszewski, La photographie animée, ce qu’elle est, ce qu’elle doit être , pp. 10-12, quoted in Jacques Deslandes and Jacques Richard, Histoire comparée du cinéma , vol. 2, Du cinématographe au cinéma, 1896-1906 (Paris: Casterman, 1968), p. 13. This passage has been translated here by William D.Routt, with the help of Danielle Pottier-Lacroix.
[18] Steve Neale, Cinema and technology: image, sound, colour (London: Macmillan Educational, 1985), 54. The quotation of part of this passage in Neale’s book (in a different translation from that offered here) is referenced to Deslandes and Richard (p. 13), and Neale is, in turn, quoted in the context of discussing Matuszewksi by Richard Abel (see note 9), who does not refer to La photographie animée .
[19] Henri Bergson, Matière et mémoire (Paris: 1896).
[20] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1 (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1983) and Cinema 2 (Les Éditions de Minuit: Paris, 1985). A further reference to CInema 2 appears as page numbers in brackets.
[21] Carlos Fuentes, Terra nostra (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 646.

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →