Peter von Bagh was one of the cornerstones of festival-hopping, magazine-subscribing film culture, an erudite and prolific historian, writer, curator, filmmaker, and all-around Renaissance man who spent a lifetime sharing his passions—movies, literature, music, Finland—with the wider world. Finnish and Italian news outlets are now confirming an earlier report that von Bagh passed away after a long illness on September 17. He was 71.
Von Bagh was the editor of Filmihullu magazine for more than 40 years; the co-founder of the Midnight Sun Film Festival, famed for its 24-hour programming and egalitarian atmosphere; the artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato, the world’s preeminent showcase for film restorations and rediscoveries; the author of more than 40 books and director of nearly 60 documentaries. For critics––especially those interested in the unexamined corners of cinema’s past––von Bagh was an invaluable resource and guide, and he was instrumental in getting wider exposure for Finnish films, including the work of his longtime friend and collaborator Aki Kaurismäki. The remembrances have started rolling in, and nearly every one of them features a variation on the same story––of packages arriving, unannounced, with VHS or DVD transfers of rare films from von Bagh’s seemingly limitless collection.
In addition to championing and preserving films, von Bagh also made them, producing dozens of short and multi-part works, mostly for Finnish television. His 2008 essay film Helsinki, Forever was something of an international breakthrough; his latest, Socialism––a subject von Bagh described as “the 20th century’s greatest dream and source of some of its darkest nightmares”––premiered this summer.
Von Bagh’s career was defined by continual work and discovery. A book of essays about him, Citizen Peter, was published last year. Film archivist Antti Alanen, who initially broke the news of von Bagh’s death on his blog, writes, “He died with his boots on. New films and books were in the making. Retrospectives and trips had been booked.”