The Reincarnation of “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” and How the Cohen Film Collection Restores Soul to Cinema Classics

A rare independent production with a budget of more than a million dollars in 1951, Albert Lewin was intent of making sure it all showed up on screen in “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman,” filming on the beaches of Catalonia in Spain. Enlisting cinematographer Jack Cardiff at the height of his powers filming in lush Technicolor, following his collaboration with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on “A Matter of Life and Death,” “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes,” the director takes full advantage of the magic that can be found along the coastline, particularly at night where the way time slips away with the breeze, an elusive quality that is shared by the film’s title character (Ava Gardner), a local chanteuse who is lusted after by all the men in the small town of Esperanza and is believed to be the reincarnation of a wife of a widowed sailor (James Mason) who has spent centuries on the sea looking for her.

Time has been kind to the reputation of “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman,” which was dismissed by critics upon its initial release as an overly fantastical misfire only to be seen in the context of Cardiff’s career as a crucial bridge between the Powell-Pressburger masterpieces to “The African Queen” and a showcase for the work of Man Ray, whose surreal visual art had long inspired Lewin. But it had not been to the celluloid strips it was printed on, necessitating a restoration in 2008 by Martin Scorsese’s preservation nonprofit Film Foundation that did Herculean work in bringing together a set of 35mm nitrate, black and white, and separation positives made from the original camera negatives when the three-strip Technicolor negative no longer existed, but the process of combining the available elements created an unstable viewing experience when the colors didn’t exactly coalesce as they once did in Cardiff’s viewfinder, with the night skies, once full of mystique, rendered into dull grey.

“The more robust capabilities of working in the digital realm really made it possible to complete the work began in the photochemically [in 2008] and take the restoration all the way,” Tim Lanza, the archivist and vice president of the Cohen Media Collection, recently said in an e-mail of “Pandora,” which has been lovingly revived and rereleased into theaters this month. “In particular, the color grading done at the George Eastman Museum’s Film Preservation Services brought back the look of a 1951 Technicolor print in a way that just wasn’t possible with the modern film stocks used in 2008. The other component that digital made possible was the extent of dirt and scratch removal completed by Prasad in India. The film really has not looked this good since it’s original release and it is all due to the work of the many partners we’ve had, going back to that first restoration through the release today.”

“Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” is just the latest in the long line of films that Lanza has given new life to as part of the Cohen Film Collection, which holds a unique position in keeping film history alive. Named after the billionaire real estate developer and avid cinephile Charles S. Cohen, the Cohen Media Group has become a model of responsible stewardship, having built up a library of film classics that have been receiving the royal treatment since Lanza and his network of magicians have been afforded the time and resources to restore them to their original glory, and beyond restoration, the company has the ability to bring these films back to the big screen as both a distributor and exhibitor, presiding over some of the best venues in the country such as the Landmark Theater chain and Quad Cinema in New York.

While preservation work begins with materials that have fallen into degredation, the Cohen Film Collection couldn’t have a stronger foundation to repair them than Lanza, whose eye for detail hasn’t only led to resplendent restorations, but to the discoveries that the Collection itself was built on. As he was helping to program a Buster Keaton Festival at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, Lanza learned that Rohauer Collection, which held the rights to Keaton’s films as well as other essential titles that cinema history couldn’t be written without, from the silent films of Rudolph Valentino and D.W. Griffith to early Hitchcock, was stored nearby. He eventually came to look after the 700-strong archive from a humble four-room office and facilitated its move to comfier quarters when the Rohauer estate sold the collection to Cohen in 2011, which also allowed for an expansion of staff and grander ambitions.

A scene from Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust"“The core library covers a lot of years of film history that I love – from the silent era through mostly the late ’50’s, but that’s only half of that history,” says Lanza, who has presided over the collection’s growth as it’s come to include the films of Merchant Ivory and notably, a number of underappreciated films from female filmmakers such as Joan Micklin Silver (“Between the Lines”), Diane Kurys (“Peppermint Soda”) and Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”). The last of those of particularly meaningful to Lanza, who first saw it when he was working behind the counter at Aardvark Video in Columbus (“Probably the best film education I had,” he notes) and after noticing how often it was being checked out, put it on for himself and the film never left him. When the film attracted renewed attention as an influence for Beyonce’s visual album “Lemonade,” Cohen Media Group put “Daughters of the Dust” back into circulation for many to see it for the first time, or at least feel like it as it did even for Dash and cinematographer Arthur Jafa.

“I was truly thrilled when I had the opportunity to work with Julie and AJ to restore it to the way they had originally wanted it to be seen,” says Lanza, who notes that a benefit of working on more contemporary films has been involving the filmmakers. “We’ve been lucky enough in some cases to work with the original cinematographers or directors to guide the restoration work, especially when it comes to the grading, [and] “Daughters of the Dust” had never been properly color graded before the restoration, so they were particularly happy that we were able to do that for the re-release.”

As the Cohen Film Group has created a path for these films to maximize their accessibility, whether in theaters, home video, where Lanza regularly helps to produce lavish special editions, or on streaming – Cohen titles can currently be found on the Cohen Media Channel on Amazon Prime and Kanopy – Lanza continues to build up a global network that comes together to restore films to their original luster. One of his proudest achievements came when he shared a ride from the airport to the restoration festival in Bologna, Italy with a preservationist who had recently started work at Universal and the subject of James Whale’s “The Old Dark House,” which had been part of the Rohauer Collection, came up, and after Lanza had spent eight years attempting to gain access to the original nitrate camera negative stored at the Library of Congress that was owned by the studio, the conversation paved the way to create a new 4K negative within the year.

“For someone who cut their teeth on classic and not so classic horror and sci-fi, it was really nice to bring that one out,” says Lanza. “It is especially gratifying whenever I get to work collaboratively with colleagues from archives such as the Library of Congress, UCLA, the British Film Institute, the Cineteca di Bologna, etc. There are so many hardworking and generous people in this field that I only get to see at festivals, but always come back with more information and encouragement.”

The restoration of “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” is a result of such international cooperation, as Cohen Media Group struck a deal with OCS, a broadcaster in France where the film has always had its share of admirers, and becomes the 72nd feature that the company has played a part in reviving with no signs of stopping, though the process requires great patience when one film can have various elements spread out across the globe and some require frame-by-frame reconstruction. Still, it can feel as if no time has passed at all when looking at the vibrant images of one of the Collection’s restorations and like “Pandora,” their exquisite work is bound to keep other cinematic gems from slipping quietly into the night.

“Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” is now in theaters, including the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles and the Quad Cinema in New York.