restricted access “Then Began the Battle Royal”: Marion Michelle and the FIAF Crisis
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“Then Began the Battle Royal”
Marion Michelle and the FIAF Crisis

Car on peut vivre dans le mensonge, mais il y a un moment où tout éclate. (One can live in a lie, but there is a moment when all explodes.)

—Henri Langlois

Going through the files of Marion Michelle, kept by the European Foundation Joris Ivens in the Dutch town of Nijmegen, is like reading a crime novel. Her papers document important moments from the “war against FIAF,” as curator and historian Laurent Mannoni calls this long-lasting quarrel inside the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (International Federation of Film Archives; FIAF).1 This story is full of distrust and deception, betrayal and falseness, but it also reveals growing friendship among people trying to sort out an extremely difficult situation, which—as loyal servants to their cause—forced them to “murder” one of FIAF’s fathers, so to speak, to allow the association to become independent.

The main part of the FIAF story took place during the years 1959–62. Some of the best-known film archivists, such as Henri Langlois, Jacques Ledoux, and Ernest Lindgren, played a significant part. Several authors have written books about Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française and have mentioned the conflict between him and FIAF, but no one has analyzed the affair in itself.2 For these writers (as for us), it was difficult to decide who did what and when [End Page 199] in this amalgamation of accusations, insinuations, and calumniations—sometimes even unlawful actions—that formed the heart of the conflict. Therefore, instead of verifying every detail of the complex event, we will concentrate on Marion Michelle and her perception of the story as this position is reflected by the papers in her files. Her writings and the documents she collected provide one woman’s look at the archive world, which at the time was dominated by men. Being at the center of the crisis, she functioned as a catalyst in the period between November 1959, when her conflict with her boss Langlois as well as FIAF’s critical state became obvious, and the Executive Committee meeting in January 1960: she accelerated a development inside FIAF necessary to force a “club of old friends” with common interests who tolerated circumstance out of “a certain laziness or a sense of comfort,” to reform and become a professionally structured association with new rules and objectives.3

Who Is Marion Michelle?

Her formative years in Cleveland, Ohio, where Marion Michelle was born on June 19, 1913, in “a typical Jewish non-religious middle-class family,” taught her an important lesson: if she did not want to live like her mother—once a brilliant student but who gave up her career after her marriage—she needed to act independently.4 She left for the University of Chicago to study French and English literature. In 1933, she went to Europe and visited London, Paris, Vienna, and Moscow. Her father, Milton Kobletz, was a lawyer and educated her with a sense of justice and basic understanding of legal affairs.5 He helped exiled Europeans, such as Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, to enter the United States, providing support for the necessary legal procedures. Michelle met them and other well-known authors at her parents’ house. Fascinated by New York, Michelle started leading the precarious life of Bohemians and leftist artists in a big city, trying to make some money with photo-reportages: “My first teacher was Paul Strand with whom I worked as still photographer on the film Native Land, a full length film on the violation of civil rights in the US. With a highly exaggerated belief in my capacities, Paul recommended that I should replace him for a commission for the Mexican Government.” She married the leftist painter Joe Vogel and settled in Los Angeles: “In Hollywood I worked at Universal Studios as film editor and film supervisor for the Office of War Information. . . . During this time I had an exhibition with George Biddle and Man Ray, ‘Portraits’ on Sunset Boulevard.”6

In January 1944, she met Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens...