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.