If politicians continue to ignore the advancing chemical decomposition of our collective film patrimony, then, in the coming years, we will have to accept the loss of most films from the last century. Under bureaucratic custody, the priceless analog original negatives and unique prints of our cinema legacy are falling apart silently, without causing a stir, without the benefit of new life. In the “Age of Technical Reproducibility” (Walter Benjamin), it is of all things film art that is in danger of dying, because so much of it can no longer be reproduced.
Apart from the easily flammable nitrate-based celluloid from the first fifty years of cinema, film archives are most worried about those works created on acetate-based safety film, since the 1950s: 35mm feature films, 8mm and 16mm films, photographic negatives, magnetic coated films, microfilms, as well as all negatives and copies in black & white and color. If, as is normally the case, the material is stored in rudimentarily air-conditioned rooms (20º Celsius and 50% humidity), it will only have a guaranteed lifespan of forty-four years. Beyond these values, as established by the Image Permanence Institute (Rochester, N.Y.), begins an unquantifiable risk zone.
The moving image only has one life in its perpetual reproduction. That is its nature. A single analog or digital original film print is always at risk of mechanical or chemical destruction or data loss. We have to think differently: to preserve the moving image means to permanently reproduce it at the highest technical level. That is the only guarantee that it can be anchored in the national memory.
In order to manage the digitization of our film heritage, we propose the creation of a central coordinating board from the Deutsche Kinematheksverbund (German Film Archive Network). Such a board must focus the existing expertise at the German film archives, prepare the digitization and negotiate contract terms with the technically-oriented film and television companies. This daunting task can only be attempted by all the German archives together. Without the close cooperation of still-extant film laboratories and image processing companies, this pending work cannot be accomplished. And when the film expertise to be found there is no longer available, the problem will have solved itself, so to speak.
For the digitization and copying of its own film heritage, France is spending 400 million euros over the course of six years. In Germany, there is only 2 million euros available annually for a few well-known film titles. In order to avert the pending decline of our film holdings, an investment of approximately 500 million euros by the end of this decade is necessary.
We demand an initiative at the federal level to digitize all endangered film inventories. We expect a reliable and substantial financial commitment from the next federal government. In future, the preservation of our film patrimony must be a national mission. This moving image legacy must be indelibly secured, in order to remain visible and accessible in the digital age. The Federal government must therefore strengthen the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv (Federal Film Archive) as the nation’s central German film archive, both through direct funding and human resources, while supporting the digitization of our film legacy through the establishment of a permanent Fund. We will watch closely to see whether the respective assurances of the Coalition contract of 26 November 2013 are followed with actual deeds.
Berlin, 26 November 2013
Jeanpaul Goergen (film historian), Prof. Helmut Herbst (filmmaker), Prof. Dr. Klaus Kreimeier (journalist and media studies scholar)