Facts and fiction

Here, you find a quick overview both of the most important facts and the most frequent misconceptions about the systematic disposal of nitrate film in Germany.

 Facts:

  • Historical films with a film base of nitrocellulose (nitrate films) are chemically unstable, highly flammable and therefore fall under the German Federal Republic’s Explosives Act.
  • The German Bundesarchiv / Federal Archives discards nitrate films systematically – a practice often referred to as Kassationspraxis in German. Only films considered to have archival value are being copied or digitized before disposal.
  • Originating mostly from the first five to six decades of film history, nitrate films make up the oldest part of Germany’s film heritage and are therefore particularly valuable. They document a crucial period in German history and must be considered our most important primary film sources on the first half of the 20th century.
  • Being only surviving fragments of the original sources, nitrate films are even more valuable. The greater part of the authentic material has been lost as a consequence of the war or discarded during the post-1945 decades, especially after 1990.
  • Since the German Reunification and the merging of both German state film archives in 1990, more than half of the nitrate holdings held at that time have been destroyed. Out of then 140.000 reels, less than 70.000 remain today.
  • Until well into the 1980s, it has been a common praxis in national archives to copy and then destroy nitrate films. In the 1990s, an expert revaluation on this question led to a reversal in archival practice that has since been implemented by virtually all important film archives in the Western world. Nowadays, it is common to retain nitrate artifacts as long as possible instead of discarding them. In contrast to, for example, the film archives of Austria, France, Britain, Sweden and Denmark, the Bundesarchiv holds on to the obsolete copy-and-destroy-practice although it is frequently greeted with incomprehension abroad. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) ostracized this practice. Against this backdrop, the systematic film destruction also causes damage to Germany’s cultural image in the world.

 

Fiction:

The Federal Republic’s Explosives Act forces the Bundesarchiv to destroy nitrate films. The Explosives Act leaves no room for manoeuvre on this issue.

According to a legal opinion delivered by Prof. Dr. Winfried Bullinger, the Explosives Act does not stipulate a requirement to destroy nitrocellulose. However, the Bundesarchiv subjects itself to official requirements imposed by the Amt für Arbeitsschutz und Sicherheitstechnik / State Office for Industrial Safety and Safety Technology (Frankfurt / Oder) which granted the Bundesarchiv’s nitrate depot in Berlin-Hoppegarten only temporary use under the condition that the holdings would be reduced in the long term. Originally, in 2004, the depot in Hoppegarten had been built with an investment volume of about 11 Million € in order to permanently accommodate the nitrate film heritage of unified Germany.

 

Nitrate films can auto-ignite! They represent an incalculable risk of fire.

The research literature does not report any case of auto-ignition without external supply of heat. The nitrate explosion at the storage site of Koblenz-Ehrenbreitstein in 1988 was triggered by a defective defrost heater that had been heating the room over a long time until the fire broke out. Under the properly controlled conditions given at the Bundesarchiv’s nitrate depot in Berlin-Hoppegarten, the storage of nitrocellulose does not pose a threat.

Nitrate films are protectable cultural artifacts – and not merely a fire load.

 

Nitrate films decompose anyway, don’t they?

Like all types of material, films as well are subject to irreversible aging processes. In the case of nitrocellulose, preservation is significantly hampered by an incalculable autocatalytic process of decomposition which, once started, ultimately leads to the loss of the film. Through decomposition, the film also gives off nitrogen gas that increases the potential explosion hazard. However, the course of degradation depends on the manufacturing quality of the film stock: Nitrate films, if produced and stored properly, have a life expectancy of up to 300 years. They also have proven to be more durable than safety film (cellulose acetate) which is non-combustible yet chemically unstable as well.

An increasing number of voices from the academic community plead for greater consideration of nitrate’s advantages, e.g. its unreproducible visual qualities, instead of focusing solely on its dangers.

 

The Bundesarchiv will copy all films before disposal.

This is not the case. Only selected materials are being copied. The selection is carried out by archive staff who make their decisions knowing that, on the one hand, printing copies is expensive and financial resources are limited. On the other hand, there is pressure to “handle” the remaining nitrate films that are supposed to be viewed, evaluated and released for destruction. Therefore, in the past, even unique items have been disposed of without prior copying.

 

The Bundesarchiv will digitize films before disposal.

See above. In 2016, the Bundesarchiv turns from printing copies on long-lasting polyester film to an exclusively digital archival strategy. While it is true that digitizing historical films provides a much broader access for the public, exclusively digital archiving poses a new, as yet incalculable risk for passing the cinematographic heritage on to future generations. Until now, there are no long-term models for storing digital data available. Digital data require constant maintenance; they are open to manipulation and threatened by technological obsolescence.

Given such exclusively digital archival practice, retaining the original artifacts is more important than ever.

 

Film as information carrier is clearly anachronistic.

At present, nobody can tell what will remain of the information overflow of the digital age or whether the dire predictions of “digital Alzheimer” or “digital dark ages” will come true. One should, however, bear in mind that a film reel is still accessible and potentially reproducible even in a world without projectors. Digitizing a film renders it invisible; if we lose access to our electronic records, they are irretrievably lost. Moreover, film base – whether nitrocellulose, cellulose acetate or polyester – is more durable than all digital storage media so far available.

The assumption that digitization will solve the problems of the physical world is just as erroneous as the expectation of cutting costs at the same time.