All posts by nitrate1982

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 Save-German-Film-Documents.org. 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 Save-German-Film-Documents.org.

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.