The Hour of the Digitalists (DA)

A report on the symposium “The Past needs a future! Strategies for sustainable practices for the audiovisual cultural heritage of Germany” (July 8th, 2016, Berlin)

Translation by Alexander Zöller.

On July 8th, 2016 the Deutscher Kulturrat’s section on film, radio and audiovisual media held a one-day symposium in the federal state offices of Saxony-Anhalt in Berlin. With many representatives of the Kinemathekenverbund (the association of film archives and film museums in Germany) in evidence, it aimed at reflecting the current state of discussion regarding the preservation of film heritage in Germany. This article’s author was involved in the first of three discussion panels which were held during the conference. The event was prepared and organized by Dr. Thorolf Lipp, deputy speaker of the section and board member of AG Dok. AG Dok had previously published a special issue of Film & TV Kameramann under the title “Unser Filmerbe braucht uns. Jetzt!” (Our film heritage needs us. Now!, February 2015) to call attention to this issue. In anticipation of the symposium a statement of the Deutscher Kulturrat had also been published, the full text of which may be found here.

Symposium-Teilnehmende-konvertiert
Discussion in times of disputed alternatives: left to right: Dr. Rainer Schäfer (Institut für Rundfunktechnik), Dr. Siegfrid Fössel (Fraunhofer Institut), Josef Reidinger (ARRI Media GmbH), Prof. Barbara Flückiger (Zurich University), Prof. Martin Koerber (Deutsche Kinemathek), Dr. Michael Hollmann (Bundesarchiv).

The symposium commenced with a misunderstanding that would prove symptomatic for subsequent debate: In his opening speech Dr. Gunnar Schellenberger, Secretary of State for cultural affairs in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, drew a connection between „saving film heritage“ and the broadcast of the European football championship’s semi-final between Germany and France which had taken place the previous day. That match’s recording, Schellenberger observed, was already digital – and as such no further thought should need to be expended as to its preservation. Schellenberger thus exemplified how firmly the fatal connection between the digitization and preservation of audiovisual media has already become ingrained.

This fallacy, which the head of Deutsches Filminstitut / DIF, Claudia Dillmann, had fiercely criticized during B3-Biennale des bewegten Bildes the previous year, would be supported, groomed and developed by representatives of the Kinemathekenverbund throughout the symposium. Two of the three panels afforded sufficient opportunities for this, commencing with the opening round („Why preserve anyway?“) which investigated the „importance of audiovisual heritage for a vital civil society“, as well as the final panel („state of the art of storage solutions“) which sought to inform about „strategies and technologies”, yet turned out to be a sham package – more on this below.

The remaining panel was given over to the epoch-making and undeniable advantage of digitization: the almost unlimited possibilities in making audiovisual content available. The panel examined „traditional strategies and innovative approaches“ to increase the visibility of film heritage. At the beginning of the discussion Claudia Dillmann voiced doubts if film heritage could ever be made profitable; this skepticism was reinforced in subsequent discussions, as the only successful business model appeared tied to a rather particular historical context: film materials from the Third Reich and the Second World War. „Hitler is always on“, suggested film archaeologist Hermann Pölking-Eiken, who augmented the discussion with a screening of amateur footage, with live commentary, from the thriving Agentur Karl Höffkes. A rather grim assessment emerged regarding the marketability of other historical film epochs, as none of the disconnected and at times ill-advertised online portals (alleskino.de, onlinefilm.org, the online film library of the German Federal Archives) are economically viable. Cay Wesnigk pointed to the „internet as a film cemetery“ and to the „many sleeping beauties“ waiting in vain to be kissed alive. Claudia Dillmann summed up the public’s lack of interest with her remark that film heritage simply „isn’t sexy“.

Such skepticism notwithstanding, the necessity to preserve film heritage emerged as the smallest common denominator of all participants of the first and third panel.

Complete agreement was reached regarding the the Kinematheksverbund’s „axiom of preserving the original“, postulated last summer to combat fears that had been raised by the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report on digitization, which included the dire deliberation of a systematic destruction of analog materials. Regrettably, a question from the audience seeking answers on how the nitrate film holdings of the Bundesarchiv, having previously been decimated for decades, would be handled in the future, went unanswered.

In consideration of the dramatic tear-down of the analog film infrastructure, including film manufacture and film printing plants, as well as the uncertainties brought about by digital storage solutions, the need for tried and tested preservation methods and a long-term preservation strategy appear to be of vital importance for the sustained existence of film heritage. This would also seem to be a matter of cultural as well as remembrance policy – for we are not merely negotiating the future availability of present-day football spectacles but the aesthetic, artistic, documentary and historical heritage of 120 years of film production on German soil. Taking as a basis the level-headed yet disillusioning baseline study of the EU Commission’s “Digital Agenda for European Film Heritage” (December 2011), which warned in a striking tone about the threat of digital preservation, one would do well to at least discuss these risks openly, and to contrast them with potential approaches to mitigate them in order to assess the sustainability of a digital approach to archival preservation. But that did not happen in the course of the symposium – despite appropriate interjections from the audience that should have fueled this debate; most notably a contribution by Dr. Barbara Fränzen, head of the film department in the Federal Chancellery of the Republic of Austria, who stressed that the Austrian approach was more inclined to trust analog preservation over digital solutions, and that they had recently acquired the country’s last remaining printing plant as well as its staff to retain these capabilities.

Representatives of the German political parties, notably those currently in opposition,  were also anxious to raise awareness of these issues. Critical opinions were shared during the first panel by two members of the German parliament: Tabea Rößner, representative of the German Greens, lamented a “digitization delusion” as well as the closing-down of the federally-owned printing plants; Harald Petzold, media policy spokesperson of the left-wing party, pointed to the French preservation model and made a stance for a sustained analog approach to archival preservation.

During the final panel the chair, Prof. Barbara Flückiger, called upon Prof. Martin Koerber (Deutsche Kinemathek) to comment on the digital disaster scenarios. This was unsuccessful as the representatives of the Kinemathekenverbund were clearly not interested to launch into a debate on principles. Tacit consent appeared to dictate that the If was not to be discussed, only and exclusively the What and How. This rejecting attitude thoroughly prevented the third panel’s investigation of the “question of principle: digital or analog long-term archive?”, which had already been projected as a slide by the chair – but that would have run counter to a strategy which painted the digital options as being without alternatives.

This stance was particularly reinforced by the president of Bundesarchiv, Dr. Michael Hollmann (who participated in both panels), by the artistic director of Deutsche Kinemathek, Dr. Rainer Rother, and by the head of the film archive of Deutsche Kinemathek, Prof. Martin Koerber. Michael Hollmann justified the digital-only film preservation strategy of the federal government with economical necessities on the one hand and the digital turn on the other: for in the future digital would be “the genuine format”, and as one would be increasingly forced to archive digital materials anyway it would only be logical to move into the digital realm entirely. He illustrated the obvious dilemma facing film heritage institutions as a result of these media upheavals with the image of bridge building: trying to span the divide whilst having the bridge collapse on the far end before the new shore had even been reached.

While Rainer Rother was ready to acknowledge analog film merely as a subject of “nostalgia”, Martin Koerber dismissed the analog printing of born-digital films (as well as the re-analogization of film scans) as the gratuitous creation of “just another analog problem”. Koerber characterized the storing of film cans as an anachronism, for letting them “lie about” would be equivalent to the “death of all media art”. This led him to the liberating (or self-soothing?) conclusion that a digital system, which – due to the necessities of migration and transcoding – would enforce “permanent data management”, should be clearly preferable.

Such calculated optimism, seemingly a way for some experts to paper over their own misgivings, appears to be an indispensable by-product of the current digitization strategy, which takes on the form of a surrender before the physical body of film heritage. Representatives of the Kinemathekenverbund who made contributions to this effect during the symposium hardly appear to be visionaries but actors driven by forces which Gerhard Midding in epd-film termed the “economical and political imperative” of the “digital revolution”. Naturally, these proponents do at present have ample opportunity to embellish their risk strategy – for the seductive power of the digital is still unbroken. This became almost tangible when Dr. Siegfried Fössel (Fraunhofer Institute, Erlangen) wowed the audience by holding up a USB memory stick, commenting that it would soon be possible to store the entire collections of Bundesarchiv on such a device. (He did not elaborate on how long the data would remain readable.)

It should be added that, even if the anxiously circumnavigated fundamental question of how to preserve had already been decided, the outcome of the symposium in terms of digitization strategies and parameters, as well as the institutional framework, must be called exceedingly poor – a result which explicitly ought not to be blamed on the organizers.

As such, attention should now be focused on an upcoming international conference which will take place as part of a festival under the trendy title “Film:ReStored” at Deutsche Kinemathek this September. It remains to be seen which positions will be contributed by the participating Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF) regarding the long-term preservation of film.

Symposium-Symbol-konvertiert
Analog film is dead – long live… (Atmospheric decoration at the symposium organized by the Deutscher Kulturrat)

With thanks to Dr. Thorolf Lipp for providing the illustrations used in this text.