Situation Report

Disposal of film documents at the hands of the Bundesarchiv


Film as document

In 1967, Russia’s most celebrated director Andrei Tarkovsky defined film as “imprinted time”. According to Tarkovsky, film provided man “for the first time in the history of the arts with the means of capturing and reproducing time, thus turning back time as he desires. Man was provided with a matrix of actual time. Reviewed and recorded time could now be stored in metal boxes for a long period – theoretically indefinitely.” (1)

What could be more precious to the historian than the hereby described possibility of “reproducing time, thus turning back time as he desires”? However, due to the traumatic experience of National-Socialist dictatorship, especially its propaganda and media reverberation, German historians have until today made less use of this possibility than, for example, their Anglo-American colleagues. In Germany, historical documentary footage is often undeservedly equated with propaganda. The critical stereotype of the ‘lying pictures’ still prevents a thorough and overdue recognition of film as an historical document – regardless of the fact that, for example, Stig Hornshøj-Møller demonstrated how many authentic, even unique historical images can be extracted from a highly manipulated and manipulative propaganda film such as Der ewige Jude / The Eternal Jew (1941, Fritz Hippler).(2)

In contrast to digital recording media, the physical film negative cannot lie – in terms of being a “savior of the outer reality” (Siegfried Kracauer). (3) When time, location and context of a film document can be ascertained under critical consideration of contemporary manipulative techniques, it is also possible to filter historical facts even from films that originally served the purpose of distorting these facts – as is equally the case with written documents or other sources. However, reducing historical film records to their documentary quality would be misguided as films are always also documents of their respective affective or instructional aims.

‘Imprinted time’. Prisoner of Buchenwald concentration camp, April 13, 1945. (Kodachrome record taken by US-American Air Force Unit.)

But if it is true that historical film records are documents, they must receive appropriate conservational protection: Their physical substance, the analogue material, must be retained as long as possible – be it negatives or duplicate negatives, intermediates, distribution or reduction prints. But in the Federal Republic of Germany, the disposal of historical film documents is common practice. The Bundesarchiv that holds the biggest and most important part of German film heritage – first and foremost official reports of the World Wars, state documentary films and newsreels – discards nitrate film systematically, thereby following an antiquated archival strategy („Nitrate won’t wait“) that has been abandoned by most European and Western film archives since the 1980ies.


Chemically unstable and hazardous – reasons and justification of the Bundesarchiv’s film disposal policy

From the dawn of the film age to the 1950ies, nitrocellulose was used to manufacture film stock – even though cellulose acetate / safety film was becoming more common in the 1930ies. The bulk of all 35mm cinema films before 1945, however, consists of nitrocellulose which is, on the one hand, chemically unstable and passes through an irreversible autocatalytic process of decomposition. On the other hand, nitrocellulose is highly flammable and explosive – therefore it falls under the German Federal Republic’s Explosives Act. Both negative qualities, degradation and combustibility, are closely linked because the potential explosion hazard increases with the amount of nitrogen gas the decomposing film gives off. The course of degradation depends on the manufacturing quality of the film stock: Nitrate film, if produced and stored properly, has proven to be more durable than safety film which is non-combustible yet chemically unstable as well.

Decomposing nitrate film from the 1920ies

In the Federal Republic, the Bundesarchiv has a de facto monopoly on storing nitrate film. Its nitrate holdings are deposited in air-conditioned bunkers at the external depot of Berlin-Hoppegarten which had been installed after large amounts of nitrate from the former State Film Archive of the GDR entered into possession of the Federal Republic as a consequence of German reunification. The original provenance of most of these nitrate films was the former Reichsfilmarchiv (Reich Film Archive) collection, large parts of which had been seized by the Soviets in 1945 and retransferred to the GDR in the early 1950ies. In order to accommodate these precious items, the Hoppegarten depot was built with an investment volume of about 11 Million €. However, this depot was then granted only temporary use under the conditions imposed by the Amt für Arbeitsschutz und Sicherheitstechnik / State Office for Industrial Safety and Safety Technology in Frankfurt (Oder) that the nitrate holdings would be reduced in the long term. This decision was taken on the basis of an assessment by the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung / Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM). (4)

The regulatory provisions imposed by the authorities corresponded with the Bundesarchiv’s in-house-policy as it conducts a rigid copy-and-destroy-practice recorded in the internal instruction 6.4. (5) This so-called Kassationspraxis corresponds with the international consensus 30-40 years ago. With few exceptions, nitrate films are systematically discarded after having been copied (until now film-to-film, from 2016 in digital form). According to internal instruction 6.4, the following material is excluded from disposal:

  • films “from the early period of cinematography from the production period [Produktionszeit; meaning is unclear, D.A.] to the introduction of film censorship by the German Reich in 1920”,
  • special cases of color and sound technology, namely “all predecessors of three-layer-color-film-technique” and “all predecessors of optical sound recording that do not comply with standardized 35mm-optical sound process”

However, it is explicitly noted that also in these categories only unique items are protected from destruction. The following example illustrates the tight limits of these exception conditions: early three-layer-Agfacolor-features such as Die goldene Stadt / The Golden City (1942, Veit Harlan) or Münchhausen (1943, Josef von Baky) are not excluded from disposal; according to Anna Bohn, the original, well preserved negative of Die goldene Stadt was destroyed in 1999. (6) Excluded are only “predecessors of three-layer-color-film-technique”: a more than vague description that could refer to subtractive two-color processes and that would not include other early color film processes, foremost the entire family of additive color processes, as they are not necessarily to be seen as “predecessors of three-layer-color-film-technique”.

Internal instruction 6.4 also states that, in “isolated cases”, also the following material can be excluded from disposal:

  • “films with tinting or toning” but only if “these techniques are used to achieve a particular dramaturgical effect”
  • “original negatives of films with special historical or film historical status”

Likewise, these definitions leave ample room for discretion.

Lists of films that are destined for “long-term storage” have to be submitted to the director of the Bundesarchiv for approval “at least once in the calendar year”. On this occasion the director is also informed on “the changes of inventories in the nitrate depots”.

Despite the fact that its policy of nitrate destruction elicited opposition and protests both on a national and international level, the Bundesarchiv holds on to this practice. In 2008/2009 institutional members of the Kinematheksverbund (KV) made an ill-fated attempt to stop it with no details coming to the public’s attention. Equally unsuccessful was pressure exerted on the Bundesarchiv by the International Federation of Film Archives / Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF).

Towards critics, the Bundesarchiv justifies the destruction of nitrate films with regard to

  1. the Explosives Act,
  2. official requirements of the Amt für Arbeitsschutz und Sicherheitstechnik / State Office for Industrial Safety and Safety Technology,
  3. and the inherent dangers of nitrate film.

However, the Explosives Act that is frequently referred to does not require nitrocellulose to be destroyed. According to a legal opinion delivered by Berlin lawyer Winfried Bullinger, neither the Explosives Act nor “the regulation regarding safety film nor the celluloid directive nor the directive regarding the storage of explosives nor the SprengVwV (General Administrative Regulation to the Explosives Act; D.A.) nor the 1. and 2. SprengV (Regulations on the Explosives Act; D.A.) provide a duty to destroy nitrocellulose.” (7) Bullinger concludes that the “latent danger” emanating from nitrate film is not sufficient to justify the policy of nitrate film disposal. (8) On the contrary, Bullinger sees a contradiction between this policy and the axiom of conservation laid down in the Bundesarchivgesetz / Federal Archives Act §1 that obliges the Bundesarchiv “to preserve the Federal Republic’s archive material for the long term” (9). Furthermore, Bullinger considers the nitrate policy to be potentially contradictory to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of information. (10)

Burning nitrate reel (© Helmut Herbst)

As a determining factor for the Bundesarchiv to cling to its policy, the traumatic experience of January 1988 must be mentioned. Back then, a technical defect led to a nitrate explosion at the storage site of Koblenz-Ehrenbreitstein with film canisters being hurled through the air “discus-like”. (11) A room with 2.000 nitrate reels was destroyed. The explosion had been triggered by a defrost heater that had been “heating the room permanently over a long time before the explosion”. (12) As a consequence, Hans Booms, then director of the Bundesarchiv, issued the instruction “to immediately and completely destroy all nitrate films after copying”. (13)

Despite the fact that the cause of the fire was determined and published in Mitteilungen aus dem Bundesarchiv / Messages from the Bundesarchiv (see citations above), representatives of the Bundesarchiv even today relate these events to nitrate’s alleged unpredictable tendency to self-ignite. Whilst Hans Barkhausen, long-term head and in-official founding father of the Bundesarchiv’s film department, declared in reaction to the disaster that he never witnessed such auto-ignition (14), the fictitious threat scenario still serves as justification for the copy-and-destroy-policy.

As a consequence of the fire at Ehrenbreitstein, the destruction policy had its most devastating effects in the 1990ies. According to former staff members, material was even disposed without prior examination. Harald Brandes, then technical head of the film department, indicated that, at this time, annual quotas for the disposal of nitrate reels had been communicated. (15) After the Reunification, the Bundesarchiv’s nitrate holdings comprised 140.000 reels (16) of which today only less than 70.000 exist. Thus, more than half of the authentic physical substance of German film heritage has been destroyed by the Bundesarchiv within 25 years – a loss that would be terrible enough if it had been caused by fire, disasters or force majeure. Instead, it’s the consequence of a systematic practice which must be stopped if we do not want to lose the remaining records as well.

Although the extent of the destruction policy has decreased in comparison to the 1990ies, there is, at the present time, no prospect that the Bundesarchiv will abolish its nitrate policy. On the contrary, the explicit commitment to the FIAF principles on the Bundesarchiv website (17) could be interpreted as an effort to obscure the facts to the outside world while, at the same time, the website suggests the view that film heritage on nitrocellulose is, first and foremost, a “fire load” that has to be “reduced”. (18) This disregard for vulnerable cultural assets should probably be seen in a wider context.


Mentality of discarding?

In Germany, the appreciation of film heritage is still insufficient. This was reflected symptomatically in July 2015 when the audit and consulting company Pricewaterhouse Coopers presented a “cost assessment of the digital preservation of the film heritage” that had been commissioned by the Filmförderungsanstalt / Film Funding Board (FFA). In order to finance the project of extensive digitization, the author of the assessment, Bernd Papenstein, suggested a “very selective analogue preservation” for the future as well as the “reduction of analogue archive holdings” (19) – a scandalous proposal, all the more when considering the yet unsolved problems of digital long-term preservation. Even though this expert opinion met with justified, and in some cases vehement, criticism, (20) it must be noted that the proclamation of such an abysmal digitization strategy would have been hardly conceivable in great cinema nations such as France or the USA. This demonstrates not only that, in the Federal Republic, films are still “perceived as volatile artifacts of a volatile plastic world” (Helmut Herbst), (21) but also the Germans’ fractured relationship with national history. Thomas Frickel, Thorolf Lipp and Cay Wesnigk, board members of the German Documentary Filmmakers’ Association (AG Dok), even considered the aggressive collecting policy of the National-Socialist Reichsfilmarchiv / Reich film archive as a causal factor for the Federal Republic’s “surprisingly irresponsible handling” of the national film heritage. (22) Frickel, Lipp and Wesnigk summed up their “impression that, in this country, one feels still a bit ashamed of the megalomaniac collecting mania back then.” (23)

It remains an open question whether such psychological sensitivities exist or not. However, if they exist, they might explain the embarrassing fact that the Bundesarchiv does not seek to expand its pre-1945 holdings – which would comply with its significance, purpose and responsibility as Germany’s de facto national film archive. Instead, with the extreme financial and personal constraints given, the Bundesarchiv makes efforts to reduce its inventory in the most acceptable manner according to obsolete archival conceptions. This means bureaucratically regulated, allegedly mandatory destruction of historical documents – a view which is supported by the methodical disposal of acetate films as yet overshadowed by the Bundesarchiv’s nitrate policy. Duplicate copies are especially affected, but also unique items have been disposed of. The destruction of duplicates is ill-advised for several reasons as they could not only be usefully kept as safety copies but also function as exchange goods: One must keep in mind that considerable numbers of German pre-1945-films, both fiction and nonfiction, are still in the hands of the Russian government and therefore hardly accessible.

Wilhelm II. Schorfheide
Wilhelm II. in the Schorfheide. If stored properly, this 100-year-old nitrate film could last for another 200 years.
Immer bereit 8
Immer bereit (GDR 1950, directed by Kurt Maetzig and Feodor Pappe) was the first feature-length GDR propaganda film in color. The original nitrate negative doesn‘t exist anymore, but leftover footage still remains. (© Defa-Stiftung)

Preserving artifacts instead of destroying them

Experts estimate that nitrate film, if properly manufactured and stored, has a life-span of 300 to 500 years. Since nitrate films meeting these criteria have proven to be more stable than acetate copies made from them, an international consensus emerged to preserve nitrocellulose holdings for the long term, with only few archives deviating. It has been widely acknowledged that the copy-and-destroy-practice had been a mistake – for example, in the UNESCO-survey Audiovisual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles from 2004, it says: “Practicality and politics encouraged both archives and film companies to destroy their nitrate holdings after making acetate copies, thus avoiding the cost of storage. […] We know now that such destruction was a mistake.” (24)

The international association of film archives FIAF imposes on its members a code of ethics that demands not to needlessly destroy material – even if it has been copied. (25) Long-term preservation of film relics including nitrocellulose has also been incorporated in the statutes of several important film archives. The Cinémathèque Francaise, for example, refers to the principle of reversibility: „it should remain possible to go back later to the original item, whether through new duplication procedures, or advances in historical research.“ (26) In a similar way, Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive justifies the long-term preservation of filmic artifacts with the expectation that „future technologies are likely to be developed that will enable improved recovery of original audiovisual content over that which is currently available.“ (27) Likewise, the Swedish Film Institute commits itself „to preserve the source elements used in the restoration work, in order to make new restorations in the future possible, with known and hitherto unknown means.“ (28) The statutes of the Swedish Film Institute also demand to avoid at all costs any restauration method that is likely to endanger the further preservation of the original material. (29)

Such statements reflect the painful experiences caused by the copy-and-destroy-policy and its pitfalls which are also apparent in Germany. Not only do the Bundesarchiv’s earlier optical transfers fall short in comparison to what is technically possible today; the practice has also proven to be highly prone to errors that are impossible to correct due to the disposal of original artifacts. Errors include incomplete transfers, incorrect aspect ratio, black-and-white instead of color, color distortion etc. Such accidents even affected undisputed classics of German cinema like the Ufa’s famous sound film operetta Der Kongress tanzt / The Congress dances (1931) directed by later emigrant Erik Charell. According to Anke Wilkening, film conservator of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation, Der Kongress tanzt had been transferred with an incorrect aspect ratio “so that the actors’ heads had been severely cropped. The only solution is searching for original material abroad, e.g. in Tokyo.” (30)

For historical research, the destruction policy leads to substantial losses of primary sources. Beyond the loss of image information that is de facto neither avoided by optical transfer nor by digitization, all physical characteristics of the authentic material are lost, such as grease pencil inscriptions, incisions, embossing stamps and the like. Specific color aesthetics of tinting and toning and early natural color processes cannot be reproduced adequately, neither on film nor by digital means – the same is true for nitrate’s special visual qualities and its luminosity which is ascribed to the silver content of the film base.

Asylrecht (1949, directed by Rudolf Werner Kipp) is a key film document of the suffering of German refugees in the post-war era. Nitrate negatives of this film survive in the collection of the SDK / Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek. (© GFS)

Document or fire load?

Until now, artistic and cinematic concerns dominated the dispute over the Bundesarchiv’s destruction policy. With regard to these aspects, the losses incurred to date and the losses bound to occur in the future are both dramatic. But at least as serious, if not more severe, are the consequences on commemoration policy: If it cannot rely on documents, historiography is at risk of turning into arbitrariness. At worst, the disappearance of analogue infrastructure (film stock manufacture, processing laboratories etc.) and the latest consideration on mass digitization could result in a state of infinite electronic manipulability that would endanger all achievements that have been gained in historical research during the last decades by means of a serious approach to film documents.

The effect on the collective perception of historical testimonies would be disastrous: What is the validity, what the significance of a digitized film record when authentication by means of recourse on a physical document is not possible anymore? Will combat footage of the world wars even then signify more and something else than the fantastic spectacles and monstrosities brought forth by the audiovisual entertainment industry? Who can then rely on the truthfulness of such images as of the economic misery in the Republic of Weimar, of National Socialist party rallies in Nuremberg, of anti-Semitic oppression, of air raid victims or of concentration camps? To cite the Bundesarchiv website, what will be left of the “intrinsic value” after the fire load is dealt with?

Taking into consideration, on the one hand, the waning control over global data flows and their ever increasing diversity, and on the other hand, media representations of history that mix archival footage with “re-enactment” and even digitally generated “reconstructions” in the most unscrupulous manner, it would appear that the need for “salvation of the outer reality” is more urgent than ever. This calls for the preservation of film artifacts as historical document for the future.



(1) Andrey Tarkovsky, Die versiegelte Zeit. Gedanken zur Kunst, zur Ästhetik und Poetik des Films, Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1984, p. 65.

2) Stig Hornshøj-Møller: „Der ewige Jude“. Quellenkritische Analyse eines antisemitischen Propagandafilms (Beiträge zu zeitgeschichtlichen Filmquellen, Band 2), Göttingen, Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film, 1995.

(3) Siegfried Kracauer, Theorie des Films. Die Errettung der äußeren Wirklichkeit, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, 1964.

(4) See Bundestag printed paper 17/6834, 23. 08. 2011: response of the Federal Government to a brief enquiry of parliament members Angelika Krüger-Leißner, Siegmund Ehrmann, Petra Ernstberger, other parliament members and the group of the Social democrats – printed paper 17/6531 – preservation and usability of the national film heritage, p. 8.

(5) Available at:

(6) See Anna Bohn, Denkmal Film. Band 2: Kulturlexikon Filmerbe, Cologne: Böhlau 2013, p. 142.

(7) 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, cited here: p. 55.

(8) Bullinger, p. 60.

(9) Bullinger, p. 55.

(10) “Every measure of an addressee of fundamental rights that forbids or delays the intake of information or makes it conditional upon authorization is an encroachment on the freedom. If on occasion of copying a film the disposal of the original can be expected, it means effectively that third persons are held from the intake of information or the copying of the film because they fear the subsequent disposal of the nitrate films.” (Bullinger, p. 60)

(11) Rolf W. Abresch, Dienstag, 26.1.1988: Ein schwarzer Tag für das Bundesarchiv, Mitteilungen aus dem Bundesarchiv no. 1 / 2008, p. 11.

(12) Abresch, Ein schwarzer Tag für das Bundesarchiv, p. 11.

(13) Abresch, Ein schwarzer Tag für das Bundesarchiv, p.13.

(14) Abresch, Ein schwarzer Tag für das Bundesarchiv, p. 11.

(15) In an interview recorded by Helmut Herbst and Daniel Kothenschulte on September 9, 2013, Brandes remembered “that it was said we had to dispose such-and-such tons of nitrocellulose the next year.” Audio and transcript of the interview are available at:

(16) As communicated by Wolfgang Klaue in regard to the recently merged holdings of SFA and Bundesarchiv. (Four tasks of film archives: records of the international film symposium Tokyo 1990, Tokyo: Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art 1992, p. 128.)

(17) “After copy-transferred nitrate films have been discarded more extensively due to the nitrate fire in 1988, it is, since the year 2000, possible to retain nitrocellulose film after transferal if this is justified by the intrinsic or historic value and also the conservation status of the film base itself.” (


(19) Bernd Papenstein, Cost Assessment of the Digital Preservation of the Film Heritage (2015), p. 21, p. 18. (Available at:

(20) In his comment on the assessment, Helmut Herbst, co-founder of the initiative Filmerbe-in-Gefahr (Film Heritage in Danger), warned of an impending “cine-cide”. ( Rainer Rother, Artistic Director of the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek (SDK), and Martin Koerber, head of the SDK film archive, declared in a joint reply to Herbst’s comment: “Such vandalism surely will not be supported by us.” ( On August 19, 2015, Rother repeated this verdict in an interview for the Deutschlandradio programme Fazit, explaining: “Nobody would think a drawing by Dürer was represented in its digital copy. Similarly, the drawing of light on celluloid is not represented via digitization.” In the same radio programme, one day earlier, also Bernd Neumann, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the FFA and formerly culture minister, had rejected the PWC proposal.

(21) Helmut Herbst, Lautloser Zerfall, Frankfurter Rundschau Nr. 248, 25.10.2013, p. 31.

(22) Film & TV Kameramann & AG Dok, special print „Unser Filmerbe braucht uns. Jetzt!“ (“Our film heritage needs us. Now!”), February 2015, p. 4.

(23) Film & TV Kameramann & AG Dok, special print, p. 5.

(24) Ray Edmondson, Audiovisual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles, Paris: UNESCO, 2004, p. 46. (Available at:

(25) Code of ethics, 1.8: “Archives will not unnecessarily destroy material even when it has been preserved or protected by copying. Where it is legally and administratively possible and safe to do so, they will continue to offer researchers access to nitrate viewing prints when asked to do so for as long as the nitrate remains viable.” (Available at:

(26) La Cinémathèque Francaise: Heritage Values, Paris 2008, pp. 16-17.

(27) Australian Government / Australian Film Commission: National Film and Sound Archive. Collection Policy, November 2005, p. 20. (Available at:

(28) Svenska Filminstitutet: Policy of the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute, March 2011, p. 13. (Available at: of the Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute (2011).pdf)

(29) Svenska Filminstitutet: Policy of the Archival Film Collections, p. 13.

(30) Anke Wilkening, Vorsicht bei der Digitalisierungsoffensive. Nur der Erhalt des Originalmaterials gewährleistet die künftige Verfügbarkeit des Filmerbes. (Available at: