Section's director mulls history in digital age

This year’s Berlinale Retrospective, “City Girls”, is a look at the portrayal of woman in the silent era of the teens and 20s and marks the first year of Rainer Rother as director of the Retro section.

It’s perhaps fitting that this new beginning harks back to the beginnings of cinema as we know it, but this program of big screen projection, live music and hand coloring also makes a marked counterpoint to this year’s new initiative at the Talent Campus, Garage Studio, which concentrates on digital filmmaking and non movie theater formats such as Internet and gaming.

This juxtaposition of the old and new raises questions about the Retro, and Rother’s new tenure stands to be as much about illuminating the past as dealing with the future. Can the Retro be relevant in the age of new media, or is it simply, well…retro?

“The Retro makes every effort to show films as they are meant to be seen,” says Rother, “and in the best quality possible, with good prints and restorations. And that means we can see the films projected, and to experience that image has it’s own unique and powerful effect.” Particularly as current generations may only know these films from TV or video.

“But at the same time the direction that cinema is going in now is beginning to pose a danger to the Retro,” Rother adds. “Films are more and more readily available on DVD, a restored version with bonus material, and documentation that you can have at home, maybe casts us in the light of a museum, with specimens under glass.”

Ironically, however, the Retro has actually been benefitting from the DVD market, which has made it easier to get the films. “The studios are now more aware of the market worth of their older films, which has made restoration a more viable issue,” Rother explains, “so new prints become available.”

But the irony goes deeper – with current technology, all restoration is now done digitally to get the optimum picture and sound. The result being that once that original source print becomes worn, the films will only exist only as digital information.

“This is going to have a big effect on the Retro, says Rother, ” because we have been going under the assumption that you are going to show only ‘film’ and this is going to become an endangered species. At the same time, you can’t shut out what’s happening now. In five or ten years the whole thing could change and you accept and include work that is being made in different formats and for other forms of viewing.”

One example he pointed out would be a Retro on documentary filmmaking. “That could be very interesting because so much has changed in the way documentaries are made, from early 35mm silents, 16mm with synchronized sound, as well as various video and digital formats. And you would include these all in the whole.”

And believe it or not, works for the Internet are already coming into the discussion.

“You start to think, as an archivist, what about work made for the Internet since 1989? What you see on YouTube today, would, perhaps in a year or so, not only be forgotten, but probably won’t even exist – it will be dumped to make space. Because there’s no more interest in it and no particular feeling that it may represent any kind of cultural heritage. And that’s what happened with cinema and also with television. The first years no longer exist. So that’s a question we are now wrestling with.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more