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Photographer Levi Bettwieser has an unusual passion: he hunts down and develops old film rolls left inside vintage cameras or forgotten by their owners in the backs of musty drawers. He sees himself as “rescuing” the images from oblivion. “I believe if we weren’t actually searching for and finding these rolls of film, they could be lost forever,” he explains in a new short film that chronicles his most remarkable find yet.
Bettwieser is usually lucky to find a couple of rolls shot by the same photographer. But last year, he received 31 undeveloped rolls of film taken by a soldier more than 70 years ago, during World War II. They had evocative, hand-written titles like “French funeral,” “Start of train trip,” and “1947.” Some were wrapped in deeply personal letters. “I’ve always had a lonesome life, dreaming of success and love,” one note confessed.
In the quiet of his home, Bettwieser set about carefully unwrapping and documenting each roll, a delicate process shown in the movie. Rust from moisture had damaged some, and there was a chance the negatives would be too far gone and faded to develop. Acting in faith, he loaded each negative strip onto a reel in his bathroom and painstakingly developed it in his kitchen.
“I pop the first [reel] open and I hold it up, and that’s when I kind of take a breath of fresh air and I’m just amazed at what I see,” he says in the film. In his hands hung exposure after exposure of wide-angle, landscape views that had never been seen by any other person. One image showed a group of soldiers standing in a harbor; another caught them walking out of church. “The photographer seemed to be interested in capturing moments that had a large significance to multiple people,” he said.
Seeing the images for the first time is a thrilling moment in the movie, a touching celebration of anonymity. Who was this photographer? What moved him to capture the moments he did? Why did he take so many pictures and never have any of them developed? “You really look at every roll of film as if it’s the photographer’s mark in history,” Bettweiser says. “It’s them saying, ‘Hey, I exist, and these moments in time were important to me.’”
The goal of Bettweiser’s Rescued Film Project is to reconnect the images to their photographer or, if the photographer is no longer around, his or her family. In this case, Bettweiser would like to find a venue to archive and exhibit the images, which clearly hold historical value — and not just because of what they might reveal about soldiers’ lives during the Second World War. Their unlikely survival stands out in an era when we take so many images we don’t even know which are worth keeping. They remind us of an earlier time when we still had to choose which moments we kept, imbuing them with weight.