Comments

I find it appalling that tens of thousands of meters of old film prints, including original negative prints, of pre–safety film motion pictures are being neglected and even destroyed by the Bundesarchiv. Their excuse that a possible spontaneous combustion of nitrate films inside their throughly modern and highly professional storage facility is a lame one, in my opinion. 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 and also one about lack of sufficient funds to transfer such prints to safety film, is a way for the BA to conveniently put such troublesome Tendezfilme down the proverbial ‘Memory Hole’ as articulated by George Orwell in his novel, ‘1984‘? I have found the BA-Filmarchiv staff to always be wonderfully helpful and thoroughly professional in every way, but I wonder about such a policy being emanated from above? I understand that the film archive has spent hundreds of thousands of euros on the most modern film preservation and transfer equipment, but has not used this laboratory very much at all…. instead of destroying Germany’s film treasure, the energy for a campaign for sufficient funding to rescue and preserve ALL pre-1945 films should be spent. Is the purpose of the Filmarchiv still dedicated to preserve and protect Germany’s film heritage or to oversee its disappearance forever?

William Gillespie, author of Karl Ritter–His Life and ‘Zeitfilms’ under National Socialism, The Making of ‘The Crew of the Dora.’ and co–author of Film Posters of the Third Reich.
(e-mail to the author)

The Bundesarchiv must end its nitrate destruction policy as digitalization and copying can reproduce only part of the original. One would also not destroy the Mona Lisa just because good copies of it exist but instead, one would always return to the original. Regrettably, in Germany, it has still not been understood that motion pictures are the most important art form of the 20th and that, consequently, these originals are among the great treasures – not just Caligari and Metropolis, but the entirety of the material.

Helmut Herbst, (animation) film director, co-originator of Filmerbe in Gefahr (Film Heritage In Danger), along with Daniel Kothenschulte founder of http://kinematheken.info
(e-mail to the author)

Film negatives and early film prints are precious cultural and technical artifacts. Destroying them is equivalent to the demolition of historical buildings. Moreover: Who knows whether we will still be able to read out digital data in the future.

Gert Koshofer, author on film and photo history, honorary member of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie e.V. (German Photographic Society)
(e-mail to the author)

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. If there are no good safety film copies of these nitrate films, then before any strikes a match, funding should come from the German government to make these copies as soon as possible, and to delay the disposal of nitrate until it becomes unstable or dangerous. To empty the shelves of nitrate is pure madness.

Ron Merk, Director of Film and Cultural Programs / The Metro Theatre Center Foundation
(AMIA-mailinglist, April 19, 2016)

I am surprised to learn of this policy by the German government, especially from a state that has a history of relatively generous support for the arts. (This is coming from the perspective of an American artist!)
Indeed, copying to acetate film, or digitizing images, does not solve any longtime preservation problem. All acetate must be restored every 20 years anyway as it suffers from fading and vinegar syndrome. And we really don’t know what fate awaits our digital archives, but on a personal level, we all are unfortunately too familiar with outdated and corrupted files, or worse, loss of our archives, in our relatively brief exposure to digital media. It is not hard to imagine a modern equivalent of the Library of Alexandria in the form of some magnetic tsunami.
Institutionally, archives would be better off investing in proper storage facilities and staff for our priceless nitrate masters. Nitrate can last indefinitely where temperature and relative humidity is kept low, and where proper ventilation does not permit fumes to accumulate in storage.

Bill Morrison, director of the experimental feature film Decasia (US 2002) that artistically explores the visuals of nitrate decomposition
(e-mail to the author)

The nitrate copies of German productions have suffered a great deal of abuse over the years. When I started work with the film collection at the Library of Congress in 1958 the Library had just finished a decade plus of destroying nitrate film, primarily German productions. During and immediately after WWII the Library received huge quantities of German films that had been seized during the occupation — and some films that the U. S. government had purchased. … Library management was very paranoid about the danger of a nitrate fire so a program was initiated to get rid of as much nitrate as possible. This began with a project to identify and destroy duplicate copies of German films. The destruction was quite wholesale. Thousands of reels were destroyed. … The primary reason was the management’s paranoia about keeping nitrate. But it was also because Kodak and other film manufacturers assured us that nitrate film had a maximum life expectancy of fifty years and that once deterioration started, the film became more flammable and would ultimately self destruct. In the 1960’s very few in archives had experience with long-term cold storage of nitrate. We would learn that properly prepared and stored, nitrate lasts longer than 50 years and that even films kept in very marginal condition can last for years. The copy and burn policy was dropped in the late 1960’s when the American Film Institute began a national program to collect and preserve nitrate film.
I have related all this, because German film heritage deserves something better than copy and burn. It was a bad policy in the 1950’s and we know better today.

Paul Spehr, former Assistant Chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
(AMIA-mailinglist, April 19, 2016)