Should old nitrate film be destroyed after copying?

A debate is raging in Germany over whether highly combustible nitrocellulose film, the film all early motion pictures from the 1890s to the 1930s were shot on, should be preserved after a copy has been made or whether it should be destroyed like unexploded ordnance. The Federal Archives in Hoppegarten, outside of Berlin, keeps canisters of important film from the dawn of the movie era in 40 concrete rooms with steel doors. The temperature is a crispy 43 degrees Fahrenheit because nitrate film doesn’t even need oxygen to ignite; heat or pressure will do the trick. Once it’s set off, nitrocellulose film explodes with more force than gunpowder.

These preservation conditions are required under the German Explosives Act. As far as German law is concerned, nitrate film and land mines are in the same category, and understandably so. The Federal Archives take it a step further, however.

Since the old nitrate films are also potential explosives, the archive feels obligated to copy them onto newer acetate film and then destroy many of the originals. In particular, bulk film material such as weekly newsreels from the 1930s and 40s is handed over for disposal by companies that also specialize in clearing land mines. Only the most valuable works are returned to the storage facility after a copy is made.

Experts at another film preservation organization, the German Film Archive, disagree with this practice. Curator Martin Koerber points out that other countries preserve the original nitrate film without question. The originals are in fact the most valuable and important versions of any film, just as they are with any cultural work.

Although the Federal Archives employees work as carefully as possible, any copy will inevitably vary slightly from the original in coloring, exposure and range of contrast. The Federal Archives are “methodically and systematically destroying their nitrate inventory,” three professors complained in a 2007 appeal. Irreplaceable nitrate films had already been destroyed, they added, including a 1911 film featuring Danish star Asta Nielsen.

Winfried Bullinger, a Berlin lawyer, is working to change the law so instead of being governed by the Explosives Act, the handling of nitrate film will be governed by historic preservation laws. He points out that technology is ever-evolving so a few decades from now there will far more accurate ways of copying nitrate originals.

That was underscored painfully during the most recent restoration of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis. Twenty-five minutes of precious footage long thought lost was discovered in a Buenos Aires museum allowing an almost complete version of the film (it had been chopped to bits by artless distributors/butchers immediately after it premiered) to be patched back together so we could see the film as Lang intended it to be seen for the first time since 1927.

Scene from new footage of 'Metropolis'The newly-discovered footage was in horrible condition because all that was left was a conversion from the original nitrate to 16mm acetate done in the 1970s. They didn’t clean or restore the nitrate at all before making the copy so all the scratches and dirt transferred to the new medium. Once the copy was made, they destroyed the original. If restorers today had that original nitrate, they could do even more amazing things than they were able to do with the copy.

This has nothing to do with the debate, but since I’m talking about early film, I shall now take the opportunity to inflict upon you something that has haunted me since I first came across it a few days ago: the 1910 film version of The Wizard of Oz, wherein Dorothy’s BFF is Imogen the Cow instead of Toto, the Wicked Witch of the West is called Momba the Witch, and several donkeys play oddly prominent roles. Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1902 stage musical of his popular novel, Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the earliest surviving film adaptation of the book.