Wolfgang Klaue, long-standing head of the GDR State Film Archive (SFA), provided me with the following report on this years’ Nitrate Picture Show. At this event, Klaue had read out my Call for Support and also pointed the bewildered audience to a claim disseminated by the BKM (Amt der Beauftragten der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien / Federal Government Representative for Culture and Media) and the Bundesarchiv which implies that nitrate film can self-ignite at 6° Celsius = 42,8 Fahrenheit. This information was provided by the BKM on March 8th, 2016, in response to a query by member of Parliament Tabea Rößner (Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen).
“The greater the decomposition, the faster it proceeds and the more likely self-ignition is to occur. Finally, it can set in abruptly even with the provided optimal cooling of 6° Celsius and then pose a concrete danger to materials stored nearby and to the personnel as well.” (See here, p. 1.)
As a matter of fact, the risk of auto-ignition occurs only if the films are exposed to a temperature of at least 39-40° Celsius = 102-104 Fahrenheit over an extended period of time.
Wolfgang Klaue: The dangers can be managed
In early May 2016, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester organized the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show, Festival of Film Conservation.
Here in Germany, this Festival must trigger astonishment and horror: Don’t they know that nitrocellulose is severely hazardous explosive material and that decomposing nitrate film – though only in Germany – can self-ignite at 6° Celsius (42,8 Fahrenheit)? One can be sure that in Rochester, for decades one of the centers of film stock manufacturing, they are well aware of the characteristics of nitrate film. And of course, they are also aware of nitrate-caused fires, disasters, explosions in cinemas, film laboratories and archives that have been triggered by technical failure and / or human error. On the other hand, they know that, during the last decades, there have – with very few exceptions – been no nitrate-induced accidents at film archives. Archives have learned to deal with nitrate and to control dangers by creating optimal storage conditions and by strictly regimenting the handling of the films.
The George Eastman Museum had invited two veterans of the film-archive scene: David Francis, long-term head of the National Film Archive in London and of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, and my humble person. Both did we report about our archival practice and the handling of nitrate without encountering fires, explosions or cases of auto-ignition. Our experience shows that the dangers can be managed.
The Nitrate Picture Show lasted three days. Nine feature films and nine shorts have been shown, altogether nitrate originals. There have been courses on the handling of nitrate film, the fabrication of nitrate film, the screening of nitrate film. All those interested were able to visit the nitrate vaults. Nearly all screenings at the Dryden Theater (500 seats) were sold-out. The expert audience was fascinated and thrilled and rewarded the museum staff and the two guests with a lasting applause.
The nitrate prints came from archives in the US, Mexico and England. The oldest print originated from the Reichsfilmarchiv (Reich film archive), now part of the collection of Gosfilmofond in Russia, an 88-years-old American picture with German intertitles. All films were of excellent technical quality. Film Shrinkage did not hinder a flawless projection.
Will today’s digital records still be available 88 years from now? Who can say? Doubts are justified. I have always considered it as a duty for archives to retain originals of written materials, documents, maps etc. even if they present a considerable fire load. Nitrate films should not be treated differently. Decades of experience have proven that nitrate-related risks and dangers can be controlled.
With thanks to Paolo Cherchi Usai and his staff for their courage, their expertise and their care in preparing and conducting the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show.