According to the estimates of the Library Of Congress, about 75 percent of all films made during the silent era—a period of rapid development, technical change, and often tremendous creativity—have been lost. Many were junked, others were forgotten, and some were causalities of natural disaster and war at a time when few believed that movies could or should be preserved. Japan, for instance, has lost at least 95 percent of its silent productions—a figure that seems unbelievable for such a storied, well-developed, and commercialized film industry, and less so once you figure in catastrophic earthquakes and Allied bombing.
The work of the French stage magician and cinema pioneer Georges Méliès has had a comparatively strong survival rate, though that still means that only a portion of the 520 films he made during his career exist today, and then sometimes only partially. Méliès, best known for A Trip To The Moon (1902), is probably the most popular and referenced of the early filmmakers. His imaginative, innovative special effects and sense of the fantastical remain timeless because of all the promise they see in the then-nascent medium of film. (However, the curious are advised not to overlook his non-fantasy work, like 1899’s The Dreyfus Affair, which makes dramatic use of shadows and camera angles before either was technically feasible; they’re actually painted into the canvas backdrops.)
So, the discovery of a previously lost Méliès film over a century later is something of an event. In 2011, the Cinémathèque Française discovered an almost complete nitrate print of his 1902 adaptation of Robinson Crusoe (starring himself in the title role) in its archives. And now, The Guardian is reporting that Match De Prestidigitation (1904), in which a magician splits himself into dueling doubles, has been rediscovered in the Czech national film archive, where it had been mislabeled for decades. According to the archive’s spokesperson, there are plans to restore and screen the film.