Dr. Michael Hollmann declares systematic nitrate disposal terminated (December 24, 2016)

Over the past six months, there had been rumors and unofficial statements implying a temporary halt to nitrate disposal at the Bundesarchiv and the prospect of an eventual renunciation of the archive’s copy-and-destroy-policy. The president of the Bundesarchiv Dr. Michael Hollmann now provided clarity on this question on behalf of an interview he granted me.
An abridged version of this interview was published in the weekly newspaper der Freitag.
See here for the full version.
It has been confirmed that the archive’s practice is being reformed in a way that will finally make the Bundesarchiv’s film department compatible with other Western film archives in terms of film heritage preservation. However, the revaluation of the Bundesarchiv’s policy was made possible only by the sad fact that fewer than 80.000 nitrate reels are left at the Hoppegarten depot: hence, the number of remaining reels falls below the limit approved by authorities. This allowed the president of the Bundesarchiv to suspend the automatism of nitrate destruction after copying.
As stated already during his interview with Sonja Schultz for Professional Production in mid-2016, Hollmann again emphasized the primacy of occupational safety but declared at the same time that “the Bundesarchiv never dealt with the question of nitrate films in a careless manner”.

Michael Hollmann:
The loss of each film that has been destroyed even though the material did not show evidence of decomposition and, hence, increased combustibility, is certainly bitter. I would like to emphasize that memory institutions ideally aim for the preservation of the originals. However, one must not lose sight of the fact that it has also internationally been a communis opinio to dispose nitrate films after copying their visual content. It did take a few decades until a more differentiated approach to nitrate was generally accepted. Due to the accident of 1988 and resultant construction planning, this took the Bundesarchiv somewhat longer than comparable foreign institutions. An important aspect in this context was the realization that nitrate was more durable than had generally long been assumed. The revaluation of nitrate’s danger potential and its previously unexpected stability allow us to give more weight to the material’s intrinsic value and its aura in the archival context. After all, nitrate films represent a particularly valuable part of the German and the international film heritage.

However, the Bundesarchiv will continue to destroy decomposing films – Hollmann: “In cases of decomposition, legal requirements effectively leave us no latitude at all.” At present, technical specifications are being worked out to clarify what material condition qualifies as decomposition.
Despite the uncertainties involved, Hollmann’s statements confirm the hope that the Bundesarchiv’s misguided path of copy-and-destroy is now being abandoned at last.

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