All posts by nitrate1982

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

Sign of Hope: Dr. Michael Hollmann gives interview to „Professional Production“ (June 8, 2016)

Professional Production 06 2016For the current issue of “Professional Production” magazine, Sonja Schultz conducted interviews both with the President of the Bundesarchiv, Dr. Michael Hollmann, and with me. A preview of the article can be found here.
Contrary to his former position, Dr. Michael Hollmann announced a change of direction for the Bundesarchiv’s nitrate policy. According to Dr. Hollmann, a legal assessment is currently taking place “in which the BKM (Amt der Beauftragten der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien / Federal Government Representative for Culture and Media) as the Bundesarchiv’s administrative and technical supervision is also involved”. Although the result was still pending at the time of the interview, Dr. Hollmann expressed confidence that “the forthcoming legal evaluation on the relevant norms and regulations will leave the Bundesarchiv with broader margins for implementation.
When asked “You are hence not obliged to dispose nitrate film?”, Dr. Hollmann answered, “Propably not in the absolute manner in which we have interpreted the regulations until now. […] However, in any case, nitrate films must be destroyed immediately when the material is decomposing. We aim at a risk assessment on nitrate films’ danger potential. There is no need to say that the employees’ safety is given absolute priority. Therefore, the amount of explosive material is to be reduced as far as possible. However, in the future, we will give more attention to the precise state of conservation of a film before deciding whether to discard it or not.
Dr. Hollmann denied the claim that the Bundesarchiv treated the film heritage as “hazardous waste” by emphasizing the primacy of occupational safety: “nobody can fairly criticize us for giving precedence to the safety of our employees.
According to Dr. Hollmann, the Bundesarchiv during the last five years “almost exclusively” destroyed films “that were mould-infested or decomposing. Or incomplete films or duplicate copies.” Considering the pre-1945-era, the film disposal had been “in the one-per-thousand or ten-per-thousand-range. Silent pictures are generally preserved, and also newsreels that belong to our rights portfolio.”
Dr. Hollmann concluded that „we will […] probably relativize our position inasmuch as films of archival value will not be destroyed immediately but instead be preserved as originals as long as it complies with the regulations of the Explosives Act.

Dr. Hollmann’s statements prompt a number of questions – e.g. on the actual danger that nitrate films pose for life and health of the Bundesarchiv’s employees, or whether downplaying the effects of film disposal during the last five years corresponds to the facts or not.
However, more important at present is the signal of hope from Dr. Hollmann’s announcement. Could it be a prelude to the overdue turnaround with which the Bundesarchiv could finally catch up with the international film archive community?

Rumors that already reached me from the Bundesarchiv’s film department indicate that the legal assessment taking place when the interview was conducted has, in the meantime, come to a positive end. Hopefully, the Bundesarchiv will soon issue an official statement that provides clarity on the future handling of nitrate films.

The scans below contain Sonja Schultz’s interview with Dr. Michael Hollmann, with thanks to the author and to the “Professional Production” editorial staff. Quoted passages have been marked.

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.

“Call for Support” at the Nitrate Picture Show (May 18, 2016)

Nitrate Picture Show 2016

From April 29 to May 1, 2016, the second Nitrate Picture Show took place at Dryden Theatre in Rochester (New York). During this event that would be completely unthinkable in Germany, nitrate prints were shown publicly, among them Blithe Spirit (UK 1945, David Lean) and Ladri di Biciclette (IT 1948, Vittorio De Sica).
Wolfgang Klaue, long-standing head of the GDR State Film Archive (SFA) and ex-FIAF-president, held a lecture on the treatment of nitrate films at the SFA. On this occasion, Klaue took a stance against the Bundesarchiv’s destruction policy and also read out my “call for support” (see below). According to Klaue, “the fact that decomposing nitrate film will self-ignite in Germany at 6° Celsius = 42,8 Fahrenheit, encountered unbelieving amazement.

Originally, I had issued the following call on April 13/14 on behalf of the announcement of Among the addressees had been the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF), the Association des Cinémathèques Européennes (ACE), the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and the Visual Center of Yad Vashem – World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration.

The call reads as follows:

Please help to stop the German Federal Archives from destroying their nitrate film holdings.

To whom it may concern

Saving the original film artifact is and should always be a primary objective of film preservation – a principle that is nowadays also applied to nitrate film. Most film archives have long since abandoned the previously wide-spread copy-and-destroy-practice (“nitrate won’t wait”), and an international consensus has emerged to preserve nitrocellulose holdings for the long term.

Unfortunately, this reversal in archival practice has not been implemented in Germany. The German Bundesarchiv (Federal Archives) which holds by far the biggest and most important part of German film heritage, conducts a rigid destruction policy, systematically discarding original film artifacts after (selective) copying. Since the German Reunification and the merging of both German state film archives in 1990, more than half of the nitrate holdings have been destroyed. Out of 140.000 reels, less than 70.000 still remain.

Beginning in 2016, instead of preserving film as physical film copies, the Bundesarchiv will only digitize nitrate film artifacts before disposing them. With the authentic film elements gone, this exclusively digital archival strategy poses a new, and as yet incalculable risk for passing the cinematographic heritage on to future generations.

In light of this dire situation, this message is a call for your support. Please help to spread the word as widely as possible and use your influence in order to stop the Bundesarchiv’s film destruction policy before the remaining artifacts are gone as well.

For further information, visit my website

Kind regards,
Dirk Alt

FDP members of the NRW Parliament complain about nitrate disposal (May 6, 2016)

On behalf of a brief enquiry of Ingola Schmitz and Thomas Nückel, both members of the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) Parliament for the Liberal Party (FDP), the NRW Government made a statement on their strategy concerning “research, preservation and development of film heritage”.
The brief enquiry of March 7, 2016 was the result of an initiative of Gert Koshofer, Germany’s most important author on color film and color photography. His initiative was supported by FDP chairman Christian Lindner.
In their preliminary remarks to the brief enquiry, Schmitz and Nückel address the “Bundesarchiv’s so-called Kassationspraxis which leads to the destruction of original film material, especially nitrate film, after its digitization.” Schmidt and Nückel call this practice “deplorable from the cultural political and scientific point of view.
In their answer of April 13, the NRW Goverment emphasized the “basic archival claim of preserving the original whenever possible” but made it conditional upon “the financial and organizational means of the institution”. “Especially films of film-historic significance or of documentary or artistic value” should be “preserved as originals”. “In all other cases”, framework conditions must be considered, including the explosivity of nitrate films.

It is regrettable that the NRW Government has not expressed a clearer verdict on the Bundesarchiv’s destruction policy. Misleading in this context is the reference to the “enormous volume of film heritage”: The volume of the remaining nitrate is by no means “enormous”. The unanswered question “whether the Bundesarchiv’s depots allow the long-term storage of great amounts of nitrate film” can, of course, be affirmed.
The answer of the NRW Government can be viewed here.