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Cinematic History

DW staff (nda)December 23, 2007

Ever wondered why everyone gets so excited when German films succeed these days? It’s usually a celebration of a return to form of one of the world’s most renowned film industries.

Marlene Dietrich as caberet singer Lola in Josef von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel" from 1930
"The Blue Angel" starring Marlene Dietrich is one of the archive's prize possessionsImage: AP

As befitting one of the birthplaces of cinema, Germany enjoys a position of great standing in the world of film. After all, Max Skladanowsky presented the first "living pictures" in Berlin on Nov. 1, 1895, beating France's Lumiere brothers to the honor by a month.

As a result of Germany's long association with the moving image, the country today possesses a huge number of archived film rolls, a heritage lovingly cared for by the Federal Film Archives, which operates out of Berlin and six other cities. All in all, Germany has in storage around 150,000 movies on 1 million rolls of film.

The Berlin department is the home of the original Skladanowsky film, which is stored along with many other historical works in what is one of the most comprehensive film archives in the world, documenting more than 100 years of movie history.

Reflecting German cultural tastes

A still from F.W. Murnau's classic vampire film, "Nosferatu"
F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" is a classic vampire film

Since the Federal Film Archives were established in the 1950s, this venerable institution has acquired and catalogued a vast collection of films of all genres, digitally restoring a portion of them.

"We seek a wide variety of films, refusing to restrict ourselves purely to top cultural and famous feature productions," Karl Griep, a departmental head at the archives office in Berlin explained in an interview with DPA.

"This means our collection is comprehensive and reflects the society, fashion and cultural tastes of Germany at different periods, from the silent movie era onwards, through the Weimar and Nazi periods to the present time," he said.

One of the most prestigious periods in German film is catalogued at the Berlin facility.

When a production company called Ufa (later DEFA) in 1921 gained control of the Babelsberg studios, south of Berlin, a legendary era in film-making and film history began in Germany.

A collection of classics

Among films made there were "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Nosferatu," the Fritz Lang classic "Testament to Dr. Mabuse" and the 1930-made "Blue Angel," starring Marlene Dietrich. All these are stored with pride by the Federal Archives.

This shimmering cinematic bubble, however, burst with the Nazis' rise to power. Ufa was quickly turned into a propaganda factory by Hitler's close associate and minister Joseph Goebbels. The studio's mission was perverted into churning out anti-Semitic and rabble-rousing films like “Hitlerjunge Quex” to motivate Germans to support the war.

The Nazi period in German history and the Wochenschau films made during that time form an inevitable part of the Federal Archives.

The Archives' extensive collection and thorough historical chronology attracts visitors from many parts of the world every month. Some are movie-makers, others film researchers, historians or television program planners, eager to view or loan the available material.

Post-war plundering

A scene from Fritz Lang's "Testament to Dr. Mabuse"
Fritz Lang's "Testament to Dr. Mabuse" is one of the protected films

"The Japanese are strong users of our archives and frequent visitors to our access rooms," Griep said. "So are film representatives from Scandinavia and other European countries, but not Russia. They keep the material they seized in 1945… Sometimes my impression is that that they don't know themselves precisely what it is they have of ours anymore.”

Griep admitted that there was a degree of confusion over the ownership and place of origin of many of the disputed Russian films, some of which were originally German before being translated into Russian by the Soviet Union's cultural authorities and then translated back with no record of the film's original titles.

He believes that at least 100 rare German films had been lost in this way.

Literally explosive

In addition to housing some of the most precious examples of German film-making, the Berlin premises also host Germany's largest nitrate-film storage facility, which is equipped with a staff of 80 archivists, restorers, technicians, historians and photo specialists. Five of the staff are engineers, experts in electronics and chemistry.

Considerable care is taken there, due to the explosive nature of cellulose nitrate -- the plastic which was commonly used for film-based photographic materials up to the 1950s. Strict fire regulations are in force, and technical devices deployed to save all sources of heating.

Large outside earth safety mounds face sensitive parts of the facility, so that if explosions occur the blasts can be cushioned.

Considering what treasures are held in the nearby archives, there is no such thing as being overcautious at the Federal Film Archives.