All posts by nitrate1982

February 11, 2017 – Open letter by the Verein Board of CineGraph Babelsberg

CineGraph Babelsberg belatedly published issue no. 60 of Filmblatt which includes an open letter to the president of the Bundesarchiv Dr. Michael Hollmann. In this open letter, the Verein Board (Michael Grisko, Ursula von Keitz, Philipp Stiasny and Fabian Tietke) appreciate the change in the Bundesarchiv’s nitrate policy:

“We are particularly pleased about this news as the nitrate destruction policy is being viewed very critically by many of our members and it has resulted in painful losses. This policy is all the more incomprehensible to us as most European film archives, especially the great cinema nations such as France and the UK, aim at preserving their nitrate holdings permanently or as long as possible. We very much welcome the fact that also the Bundesarchiv will now seek to preserve nitrate films for the long term instead of copying and destroying them. We believe that you have made a crucial step in the direction of a responsible and modern archival practice, and we encourage you to consistently pursue this path.”

At the same time, the Verein Board expresses its concern about the decision to close the Bundesarchiv’s analogue film laboratory and to digitize film items in the future only instead of copying them on photochemical film. In this context, the Verein Board refers to the EU study „Digital Agenda For The European Film Heritage“, according to which “the transition to digital presents a threat to existing archival collections”. The CineGraph Board “would like to see the Bundesarchiv following international practice and experience not just in terms of saving the original item but also in the field of long-term preservation”.

Looking back at the year of change (December 31, 2016)

With the change in the Bundesarchiv’s nitrate policy, 2016 marked a turning point in the history of film archiving in Germany. Upon my question, I received from Dr. Tobias Herrmann, head of the Bundesarchiv department GW 1, the following details on the internal decision process:

“Since March 2016 the Bundesarchiv as well as the administrative and technical supervision at the BKM (Amt der Beauftragten der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien / Federal Government Representative for Culture and Media) looked intensely on the subject of the handling of nitrate films after having been copied. This assessment took place with regard to the growing public debate not only on the storing of nitrate films but also on modern strategies for securing films and on the question of the ‘national film heritage’. Among other things, inquiries by members of parliament Carsten Müller und Tabea Rößner are to be seen in this context. […] Following a legal assessment that involved several persons at the Bundesarchiv including the head of department Z (Zentrale Verwaltungsangelegenheiten) and the Bundesarchiv vice president, the Bundesarchiv president in April 2016 drafted for internal use the future direction of already-duplicated nitrate films: These films should generally be kept as long as they have not reached the state of decomposition. Henceforth, this position has also been expressed in dialogue with the administrative and technical supervision at BKM which, by decree of July 14, 2016, notified the Bundesarchiv: ‘Provided that the Bundesarchiv is capable of ensuring overall control on the film material in question, […] the renunciation of preventive disposal is acceptable at least as long as the films do not show any signs of decomposition’.”

The era of the preventive disposal of nitrate film documents has therefore, at least at the Bundesarchiv, come to an end. I would like to express my gratitude to the two persons named by Herrmann, MdB. Carsten Müller (CDU) and Tabea Rößner (GRÜNE) standing for many others who supported the campaign against the Bundesarchiv’s copy-and-destroy-policy.
In terms of film heritage preservation, the news from the Bundesarchiv are certainly the best to come for a long time. In this respect, the lack of publicity work of the institutions involved, including the Kinematheksverbund, is somewhat surprising – even more so, if one considers that the decision has been made in mid-2016. Shouldn’t this change be worthy a press release on the part of BKM after state minister Monika Grütters has frequently emphasized her concern with the German film heritage?

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.

At the city’s request: German Röntgen Museum destroys 200 nitrate films (November 20, 2016)

The Fachverband Medizingeschichte e.V. / Professional Association of Medical Historians has issued a statement on the preservation of films of medical historical relevance. In this statement, the Fachverband laments the Bundesarchiv’s copy-and-destroy-policy and emphasizes the fact that the “Bundesarchiv’s security risk assessment appears to serve as a model for other institutions.”
As an example, the Fachverband reports on the disposal of 200 X-ray films that had been part of the collection of the German Röntgen Museum at Remscheid. The museum had been given “a deadline of only a few months” to get rid of the combustible films. The Bundesarchivhad to reject” the museum’s request “to temporarily store” these films; 200 nitrate reels then were “destroyed by the company EST Energetics at the request of the city’s head administration”. These unexplored film documents had been made by Prof. Dr. Robert Janker who was promoted as professor in 1930 after specializing in radiographic cinematography. As a consequence of the “request of the city’s head administration”, the practical results of Janker’s work will never be the subject of medical historical research.
The described procedure is nothing less than a shame for the “Röntgen City of Remscheid”; it deserves widespread attention of the expert public and the media.

The Fachverband’s statement can be viewed here. I vigorously support their appeal to the Bundesarchiv “to stop the disposal of, in the view of the Bundesarchiv, ‘unimportant’ films”.

Official statement of the Verband der deutschen Filmkritik e.V. (Association of German Film Critics) (October 23, 2016)

On behalf of the public hearing at the Ausschuss für Kultur und Medien (Committee on cultural and media affairs) of the German Bundestag on October 19, the Verband der deutschen Filmkritik e.V. (VdFk, Association of German Film Critics) has published a statement requiring the Bundestag not to delay the preservation of German film heritage any further.
In the context of this statement, the VdFk also criticizes the disposal of historical films at the hands of the archives themselves:
“Until now, German archives have been negligent towards the first half of cinematic history which exists, for the most part, on nitrate film. Original items were destroyed after digitization, or they were quietly transferred to foreign archives. However, the head of the Restoration Department of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation just recently demonstrated with the example of the disposed camera negative of Josef von Baky’s Münchhausen (1943) the irredeemable damage that the established policy has caused.”
The VdFk make a number of demands among which one in particular deserves support on behalf of the German nitrate holdings. The VdFk demands “a legally binding directive obliging the archives to refrain from destroying film artifacts unless their state of degradation has to be regarded as a threat by international standards.
The statement can be viewed here.

Film:ReStored-Festival and symposium at Berlin (September 30, 2016)

Panel Discussion among (left to right) Rainer Rother, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Michael Hollmann. Photo: Alexander Zöller.

From 22 to 25 September, the Film:ReStored (digital) archive film festival took place at Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin along with an international symposium under the title “ethics of digitization”, both supported by the FIAF.
Normally well-informed sources had spread the hopeful rumor that, during his lecture on September 23, Bundesarchiv president Dr. Michael Hollmann would make a statement on the future handling of nitrate films at the Bundesarchiv. Regrettably, as it turned out, Hollmann did not publicly express his position on the matter. It was Prof. Dr. Martin Koerber instead who, being the host of the event, expressed his confidence that the Bundesarchiv will not conduct its nitrate destruction policy any longer.
Foreign guests Paolo Cherchi Usai of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester and Jon Wengström of the Swedish Film Institute both generally distanced themselves from the destruction of nitrate films without referring to the situation in Germany.

Wolfgang Klaue looks back on the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show (July 14, 2016)

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.

Revisiting the Hollmann interview (June 27, 2016)

In early June, the magazine Professional Production published a noteworthy interview with Bundesarchiv President Dr. Michael Hollmann from which I extensively quoted – see here. Now I’d like to add a few comments – even more so as the interview, in the meantime, has been critically commented on by my colleagues from Filmerbe-in-Gefahr, Dr. Klaus Kreimeier and Jeanpaul Goergen. They responded to Hollmann’s statements on the selection of film materials for preservation by questioning the Bundesarchiv’s evaluation criteria. Their commentary is titled “Save the medical education film of the 1920ies!” – see here (available only in German).
Kreimeier and Goergen ask: “What gives the Bundesarchiv the right to define the archival value of the film heritage and to decimate it by means of film disposal? Cut Footage which we are unable to identify today can be probably identified tomorrow. The time of origin and the subjects even of unidentified fragments can be recorded so they can provide valuable information on our film history of which regrettably only fragments exist.” Furthermore, Kreimeier and Goergen criticize the destruction of foreign films and incomplete prints. They explicitly refer to the example mentioned by Hollmann – an educational film on hygiene from the 1920ies: “We’d like to read a justification for why this film does not give any evidence on its era.
Kreimeier and Goergen ask the Bundesarchiv „to explain the reasons for disposing this film and other films and to publish these justifications online and accessible to everyone.” In addition, they demand that the film archives should be obliged to seamlessly collect and permanently preserve the film heritage “in analogy to the German Nationalbibliothek (National Library)” – a demand which I strongly support.

The example of the hygiene education film caused a stir not just at Filmerbe-in-Gefahr. Dr. Sabine Schlegelmilch, academic counselor at the Institute for the History of Medicine at Würzburg, wrote to me in an email on June, 13:
“No archivist is able to follow the multitude of expert debates in all branches of historical science. Therefore, it is not the fault of Mr. Hollmann and his staff that they are unaware about the medical history research on educational films from the first half of the past century. However, it is problematic that, due to this ignorance, film documents are destroyed according to criteria that do not consider a potential (ever-present) historical relevance but instead seem to rely on (highly subjective) views on cinematic art and history. Just these days a multi-annual project is launched with grants from the European Research Council. It aims to examine how the perception of health and bodies has changed throughout the 20th century due to visual mass media and their messages. To answer these and other socially related questions, sources with mass character are much more important than the erratic individual product that is conspicuous even to the layman. If now the already incomplete heritage is subjected to an additional irreversible selection, historical research will not be able any more to produce firm conclusions on mass phenomena on the basis of the remaining sources. Instead, it will have to confine itself to describe what individual archivists considered historically relevant at the beginning of the 21st century.”

Let us now turn to the safety aspects in terms of handling nitrate film. Hollmann emphasized these safety aspects just as much as the dangers of nitrocellulose: “There is no need to say that the employees’ safety is given absolute priority. […] Nobody can fairly criticize us for giving precedence to the safety of our employees.” However, the question must be allowed how archives in other European countries manage to reconcile the preservation of original artifacts and the safety of their personnel. If we assume that these other European archives are playing with life and health of their staff, the question arises why no accounts on nitrate-film-induced health damage have come to our attention during the last decades.
It is therefore much more likely that some kind of paranoia has established itself at the Bundesarchiv as a result of the nitrate fire at Koblenz-Ehrenbreitstein in 1988 (Hollmann himself speaks of a “trauma”). His statements echo the official depictions spread by the Bundesarchiv as well as the BKM (Amt der Beauftragten der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien / Federal Government Representative for Culture and Media) – which partially contradict the findings of the international expert community. I will go into the details in a forthcoming blog entry.

Finally, I’d like to comment on Hollmann’s appeasing explanations on the film losses of the last years. To me, this appears to be a strategy of downplaying. There has been no evidence in the past that newsreels from the Bund’s rights portfolio as well as silent films have been “generally preserved” as originals. This would also contradict the internal instruction 6.4 which allows only few exceptions from the rule of nitrate disposal.
In any case, the principle of transparency demanded by Kreimeier and Goergen would be a welcome first step towards coming to terms with the Bundesarchiv’s destruction policy. For now, its devastating consequences can only be estimated in quantitative terms and from isolated cases. Only the systematic evaluation of internal data and records will bring to light the true extent of the losses.

Nitrate film paper submitted by the Research Services of German Bundestag (June 27, 2016)

The Wissenschaftlicher Dienst (WD) / Research Services of the German Bundestag recently issued a paper entitled “The Handling of nitrocellulose based film in international comparison” – see here. The investigation was initiated by CDU member of parliament Carsten Müller.

On the one hand, the WD paper deals with the legal basis and conditions of nitrate film disposal and examines whether a disposal obligation exists or not. On the other hand, the paper compares the Bundesarchiv practice with the archival practice in other European countries as well as the US and Australia. Apart from this comparison, the paper takes an exclusively judicial approach, thereby ignoring cultural, historical and political considerations and focusing instead on the question whether or not the Bundesarchiv’s destruction policy is in conformity with the law. The WD’s conclusion is yes, the destruction policy is indeed legally compliant – however only under the assumption that nitrate films pose a threat that requires “their gradual reduction to protect the life, health and goods of employees or third parties” (p. 11).

The main reference of the WD paper is the well-known article by Winfried Bullinger: Sprengstoff im Bundesarchiv – Rechtliches zum Umgang mit Nitro-Filmen. (In: Paul Klimpel (ed.), Bewegte Bilder – starres Recht? Das Filmerbe und seine rechtlichen Rahmenbedingungen, Berlin: Berlin Academic, 2011, p. 53-61.) Like Bullinger, the WD concludes that in terms of the Explosives Act no legal disposal obligation exists. However, the “specific ancillary provisions of the former Amt für Arbeitsschutz und Sicherheitstechnik / State Office for Industrial Safety and Safety Technology in Eberswalde” (p. 4) that were imposed on the Bundesarchiv’s nitrate depot in Berlin-Hoppegarten, have a legally binding character even in case “the official order should turn out to be unlawful” (p. 9). This means the Bundesarchiv would be obliged to reduce its nitrate holdings even after the wrongful character of these requirements was recognized.
Considering the legality of the disposal obligation, the WD authors are cautious. Their assessment depends on whether storing nitrate film does indeed pose a concrete hazard to the Bundesarchiv’s personnel. If this is the case, the requirements are considered to be justified. However, the legal obligation would remain unaffected in the opposite case as well (p. 11).
Furthermore, the authors object Bullinger’s opinion that the destruction policy contradicts the principle of long-term preservation formulated in the Bundesarchivgesetz / Federal Archives Law. Even though Bullinger’s constitutional concerns are cited, they are not discussed: “There are certainly convincing arguments against this view.” (p. 15) – However, these arguments are left to the reader’s imagination.
By contrast, the paper’s final part is satisfying in the sense that the authors were unable to detect a similar nitrate disposal policy neither in France, Great Britain, Austria, Denmark and Poland nor in the USA and Australia. Hopefully, this conclusion provides the paper’s readers with food for thought.

The WD paper indicates that a final assessment of the Bundesarchiv’s destruction policy requires the clarification of several, hitherto unanswered questions – especially with regard to the disposal obligation imposed on the Bundesarchiv by the Amt für Arbeitsschutz und Sicherheitstechnik, and to the actual danger the nitrate holdings pose to the Bundersarchiv personnel. The paper itself appears questionable wherever archive-specific questions are raised – e.g. when erroneously assuming that all information and physical characteristics of the authentic film material, including traces of use etc., can be transferred by digitization (p. 13). The paper’s source references confirm the impression that the WD has failed to obtain expert opinions regarding this crucial point.

Statement by Eva Orbanz (June 14, 2016)

At my request, Eva Orbanz sent me a statement for publication on Save-German-Film-Documents. Eva Orbanz was long-term head of the Deutsche Kinemathek film archive and, from 2003 until 2009, president of The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). Her remarks concerning the doubtful link between nitrate decomposition and explosion hazards should be considered also with regard to the statements on this issue made by Bundesarchiv president Dr. Michael Hollmann which were recently published in Professional Production Nr. 6 / 2016 – see here.


Statement by Eva Orbanz:

Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.
The job of the archivist is to anticipate what the film may do
– and prevent it.
(Orson Welles)

Films are art.
Films are historical documents.
Films are part of our audiovisual heritage.

Art has to be archived. It must be available to all interested parties both today and in the future.
That is what archives and museums are for. They undertake the task of preserving materials. They take responsibility for the preservation of originals and accessibility in the future.

Original items.
While it is natural for archivists to preserve the original (paper) documents from all times and to secure original paintings – it appears to be possible to destroy film originals.
And speaking of the “Sprengstoffgesetz” (Explosives Act): It is not the case that the “autocatalytic decomposition of cellulose nitrate films” leads, in advanced cases, to “self-ignition”. Experts all over the world will reject this diagnosis. Without doubt: decomposition is existent – in the end, there is merely a heap of dust in the can. – And it is known that the explosion and the fire at the Bundesarchiv nitrate depot at Koblenz in 1988 was triggered by external factors and not by “autocatalytic decomposition”.

National audiovisual heritage.
National audiovisual heritage includes domestic film productions – regardless of the film base. According to the “UNESCO Recommendation for the Safeguarding and Preservation of Moving Images”, Belgrade 1980, it also includes foreign films “dubbed or subtitled in the language (…) of the country in which they are publicly distributed, which are regarded as an integral part of the moving image heritage of the country concerned or which are of significant value for the cultural needs of teaching or research (…).
Such films have been collected both by the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek and the GDR State Film Archive. They have also been preserved by the GDR State Film Archive and were handed over to the Bundesarchiv film archive.
There should be a general consensus to regard these productions as part of the audiovisual heritage.

Code of Ethics.
The Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, the German Film Institute, the Munich Film Museum and the Bundesarchiv film archive are full members of the FIAF (Fédération internationale des archives du film) which, with the consent of its members, adopted a “code of ethics”. This code has been signed by all member archives.
(…) Film archives owe a duty of respect to the original materials in their care for as long as those materials remain viable. (…) Archives will not unnecessarily destroy material even when they have been preserved or protected by copying (…).
The requirements to fulfil these obligations are in place. There are the storage facilities. There is trained staff. Archivists have the understanding and the will to store films in proper conditions, to preserve them and to make them available. – So there is still hope of retaining the original items of the audiovisual heritage

Eva Orbanz
Berlin, June 14, 2016