Then a night or two ago I saw the new 4K digital restoration. Image-wise it was amazing how much detail was revealed – and how fine the grain! All this is in stark contrast to even the best 35mm film prints, which wobble slightly (a phenomenon called ‘weave’) and jump very slightly when passing from shot to shot (‘neg hops’ because joins are never perfect). The 4K pictures were steady as a rock – algorithms in the restoration process had wiped out weave and hop . All this seemed like a marvellous service to Ophüls whose attention to detail, and technical command of the medium with ravishing, serpentine camera choreographies and brilliantly layering of foreground and background are such endless delight.
To begin with I registered just how rock steady this image realm had become. Questions and hesitations entered my mind. Was this now uncomfortably preternatural, intolerable for me after so many years of watching the weave at play? Did I miss the humility of the medium, never perfect despite the endless labours of perfectionists? Did I miss the aura of craft and materiality? Was about the clean, hoovered absence of dirt, neg sparkle (dirt on the negative comes out white), the absence of scratching of print and negative (an inscription surely of the print’s history of screening), and the anxiety-raising wriggle of hairs in the gate? Was this now too much like a glossy product in a cinematic Apple Store?
Above all, I wondered who exactly decided how a restoration should look. The example of controversy surrounding the ‘remastered’ Berlin Alexanderplatz, which had resulted in images that looked nothing like those graded by Fassbinder himself, sprang to mind. Who made this new Madame de… look and sound so sharp, rebalanced the voices in this way, ordered the removal of all dirt and smoothing out of visible grain?
Now, clearly to be seen, is that the sets built by the great designer Jean d'Eaubonne
are rather poorly made. Does a painted line in place of real gessoed detailing sabotage ready belief in the veracity of setting? The 4K film restoration reveals what the camera negative faithfully recorded – but with far finer grain and higher resolution than the interpos/interneg/release print process could deliver to the cinema viewer in Ophüls’ day (Wikipedia has entries on all these terms). The sets were once good enough. Not now.
The sound too is odd – the engineers in mid-Century who chose ambient sounds, recorded and mixed music, effects and voices, were working with that Academy roll off in mind. They did not expect full-range frequency reproduction. The silences in this new version are disconcerting, not at all what would have been the experience in 1953. Voices in this restored world become isolated in a vast new acoustic space. The figures seem now lonely, isolated in a cavernous void.
Taken all together, the restoration - arguably all restoration - of films from the era of optical sound track and all-photochemical work-flow must strictly speaking be regarded as brand new works. They bear resemblance to their originals but they have a distinctly (no other word) plastic look about them. They sound odd and look odd. Restoration is a wonderful thing if it can bring to light forgotten and lost work, but I would prefer to see a new print made according to the technology of the day. There is of course no hope of that.
I point vainly to the gallery context where no-one would dream of exhibiting a digital reproduction of a da Vinci fresco, with all missing fragments reinstated and colours restored to some imagined primal condition.
Some objects matter more than others. For me Madame de… is an object I worry about.