Nitrate film disposal = book burnings? (May 29, 2016)

Since the announcement of my website Filmdokumente-retten on February 22, 2016, and its English-language sister site Save-German-Film-Documents on April 13/14, I received a number of responses and comments not just from members of the expert community. First of all, it seems worth noting that some of the most dedicated comments came from readers not related to film heritage institutions but rather to, for example, monuments protection – such as Christian Jonathal of the Hochbauamt (Building Department) of the city of Augsburg, who wrote to me in an e-mail:

“Just imagine: papyri can be a fire hazard. Therefore, and in order to work with them and to comfortably store their content, they are digitized. But if we assume that the originals were destroyed after their digitization as they could pose a fire threat (avoidable by proper storage), it becomes obvious how outrageous the destruction of historical moving images is.”

Also remarkable is the fact I received more emotional and straight-forward statements from international experts than from German colleagues.
On the AMIA website (Association of Moving Image Archivists), Paul C. Spehr, former Assistant Chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress / Washington D.C., stated than “German film heritage deserves something better than copy and burn.
Also on AMIA, Ron Merk of the Metro Theatre Center Foundation declared, “To toss nitrate film onto the fire of history is a mistake. I think we’ve seen more than enough of that in Germany in the last century. Just citing history here. I’m not saying this to offend or upset our German colleagues in the archive world, but to remind them that what happened in the past should not be repeated.
In my email-correspondence with Merk, he admitted that this comment “may seem, pardon the pun, a bit inflammatory to some Germans”. Yet he reiterated his view that the German film destruction policy is “no less an outrage than the famous Nazi book burnings, although for totally different reasons.”

In an e-mail to me, Australian collector and author William Gillespie, known for his publications on NS propaganda film director Karl Ritter, underlined that “the destruction and permanent loss of NS original prints of such historically important films as Die große Liebe or Stukas, is unforgivable. As a researcher and author on NS films and directors, I wonder if the ‘threat’ of spontaneous combustion … is a way for the BA to conveniently put such troublesome Tendenzfilme down the proverbial ‘Memory Hole’ as articulated by George Orwell in his novel, 1984?

Paul Spehr, Ron Merk, William Gillespie and experimental film director Bill Morrison (Decasia, US 2002), gave me permission to publish their statements on my websites. The unedited comments can be found here – along with statements by color film and photo expert Gert Koshofer who compared the Bundesarchiv practice with the demolition of historic buildings, and by animation film artist Helmut Herbst who drew attention to the fact that “one would also not destroy the Mona Lisa just because good copies of it exist but instead, one would always return to the original.”

Finally, I received a single critical remark concerning the supposedly biased view on the Bundesarchiv in my “Situation Report” (the term “bad guy” was used). The Bundesarchiv regularly submits lists of titles selected for destructions to the other institutions of the Kinematheksverbund (KV), such as the DEFA Foundation or the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek. According to the remark, these other institutions possess a right to object and thus to prevent titles from being destroyed, but they make little use of it. – It is true that the KV institutions receive lists of such titles that belong to their respective rights portfolio, and they also have the right to protest against the imminent destruction of the titles in question. However, confidential discussions have confirmed the view that this right of objection is extremely restricted. Furthermore, this provision does not apply to the large group of films of which the German state takes the rights. Concerning these films, the other KV institutions have no right of objection whatsoever, and there is a total lack of institutional control over what is being destroyed.

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