What we see and understand of film is actually very limited. It's limited in a cultural sense, as the means we have to learn about movies are through the processes of popular word of mouth and canonization. It's limited in a corporate sense, as large, multi-billion dollar corporations largely control what we're able to see at theaters and on streaming services. But moreover, our outlooks are limited because most films we aren't at all able to watch!---so much stuff was never released, or is stuck in rights management limbo, or played at some festival without accruing distribution, or is just private art.
But they're there, which is more than can be said for lost films.
The high majority of films made in the early 20th century simply don't exist anymore. The reasons for this are numerous: fires started and fueled by highly flammable nitrate film, damage and recycling from the two world wars, neglect and misplacement, and censorship and targeted destruction.
Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery
It might be easy to handwave lost films as ones that were never significant enough to have been saved in the first place, or at least think that they probably weren't widely printed or shipped. This isn't true at all of course. Many lost films were considered some of the finest works of their time. Here are a few of the most notable:Arirang
A Korean film named after a national folk song that was made under the Japanese occupation, and whose story was directly about resisting the occupiers. It was an enormous success, and is considered one of the most formative Korean films ever made. Apparently the audiences would conclude the film singing the titular song in protest. It was lost during the Korean War, but a print was said to be in the possession of a Japanese collector. When this man died in 2005, his collection was possessed by the Japanese government and there has been no confirmation of Arirang's existence within it.The Last Moment
An expressionistic Hollywood film from Hungarian director Paul Fejos, about a suicidal man's final moments as he drowns himself. As a silent film, it reportedly used no inter-titles and utilized experimental editing techniques to express its subject's story in a flashback narrative---making it an especially unusual and noteworthy item. Reviews at the time were enthusiastic, and there are no known rumours of its current existence.4 Devils
Directed by F.W. Murnau, the influential German Expressionist pioneer responsible for Nosferatu and the Oscar-winning Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, this was his second American film, reteaming with Janet Gaynor. It was apparently a sleazy and imaginative film about a group of trapeze artists, and was considered one of Murnau's finest achievements. He died three years later in a car accident at the age of 42. The only surviving print was said to have been borrowed by Mary Duncan, one of the lead actors, who never returned the reels to Fox. There's held hope that one of her heirs may still have it.Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery
One of the most important Chinese films ever made, this massive wuxia film, which ran 27 (!!!) hours long, was exhibited over the course of three years in 18 feature installments. It's considered by many to be the most influential prewar Chinese film, and is credited with creating much of the iconic wuxia film style we still know today. None of its reels are known to exist because of Kuomintang censorship and destruction brought on by the combination of the Chinese Civil War and the war with the Japanese.
The devastating wars in East Asia erased a lot of cinematic history from the 30's back to its origins in the region. It's said that 90% of Japanese cinema made before the war is completely gone---and they were second only to America in the volume of films produced in the 1930's.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Still, these films are lost, not necessarily gone forever. Many films exist in fragments, and many have been found complete many years after the fact. There are some interesting stories of rediscovery, like:
-How a large portion of the iconic German silent Metropolis
was considered lost for eight decades, only to be discovered in Argentina in 2008. Now there's only a five minute chunk missing---it's almost all there!
-How Carl Theodor Dreyer's masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc
from 1928, which was censored by the French government to begin with, was partly lost practically a year after its release due to a film laboratory fire. A much shorter rerelease and later compromised cut with a host of 'creative' changes were all that existed for decades; Dreyer was unhappy with both. Then in 1981 a complete version of the original cut (before initial state censorship) was discovered in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital.
-How Tomu Uchida's landmark independent film Tsuchi
from 1939 was lost during the war, then a seriously damaged print reemerged in Germany with German subtitles thirty years later. Thirty years after that a more complete version showed up in Russia, with Russian subtitles. Neither of these versions have the ending of the film.
-How Teinosuke Kinugasa personally rediscovered his most notable film, the innovative avant-garde silent film A Page of Madness
in his garden shed. He had forgotten that he hid it there during the second world war 30 years prior.
-How the highly regarded 1971 Australian outback madness film Wake in Fright
was considered lost for decades until the film's editor rediscovered the negatives himself after an eight year search. They were all the way in Pittsburgh PA, in a shipping container marked "For Destruction".
So there's some hope that films that are lost might reappear one day from their hibernation in a dusty store room or mine shaft or belly of some large mammal. Until that day comes, let's discuss the films that we have seen and the ones we can expect to, with a little more certainty, see one day.