Nations partner to save heritage

Budget cuts hit sector but cross-border action keeps restoration thriving

Europe’s rich history, its devotion to art and culture and its glorification of cinema means that it houses some of the most comprehensive and sophisticated film archives in the world. Yet while most major countries boast state-of-the-art facilities and vast film collections, plenty of state-run institutes are grappling with budget cuts, personnel shortages and the indifference of the film business.

The major European nations do have one key distinction vs. the U.S. when it comes to film preservation: relatively generous government subsidies, and in some countries, official mandates, to preserve all or much of their celluloid past. Whereas Stateside efforts are concentrated in the hands of private and academic orgs, and films are marked for historical relevance by the Library of Congress, the bigger European countries have been tasked with wider-reaching preservation goals.

Nonetheless, cost considerations weigh heavily across all the European efforts these days.

In the U.K., the new Conservative-led coalition government recently scrapped plans to build the £45 million ($68 million) BFI Film Center, which promised to showcase “the best of British and world cinema,” following the announcement that the Dept. of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) faces cuts of 25% over the next four years. However, the government did say it would still fund the building of a film storage facility to safeguard the National Film Archive.

Fulfilling the facility’s mission in the short term — especially the preservation of highly volatile and explosive nitrocellulose film stock — has become an even more difficult challenge, according to Karl Griep, head of Germany’s Federal Film Archive in Berlin. “We have to plan very long-term,” he says.

Government budget cuts over the past two decades have resulted in critical personnel shortages despite the Film Archive’s estimated annual budget of 5.5 million ($6.9 million) in addition to about $1.26 million it brings in from licensing to TV broadcasters.

One challenge archivists and preservationists face — much like their U.S. counterparts do with Hollywood — is getting the industry interested in its own history beyond the possibility of simply monetizing that history wherever possible. Cross-border partnerships and initiatives, such as the Association des Cinematheques Europeennes (ACE), foster cooperation among archives across Europe and aim to raise awareness in the public and industry regarding film preservation.

One of the ACE’s main aims is to encourage greater reinvestment of film revenue into preservation efforts.

For Enrico Magrelli, head of Italy’s National Cinematheque in Rome, the industry needs to do more.

“Today’s film-industry chiefs don’t seem to care enough about cinema’s heritage. This multinational industry that makes billions could do more to protect and celebrate its own history and patrimony. Unless there’s the chance of releasing and selling the odd DVD, it doesn’t seem very interested.”

The Rome-based institute, which specializes in restoration and archiving, is one of three main centers in Italy dedicated to film preservation. The National Film Museum in Turin leads the way in the size of its collection, and its film museum is a tourist attraction, while the Cineteca in Bologna concentrates on specialized restoration work.

The Rome Cinematheque, which has more than 60,000 films and some 80,000 copies in total, is committed to storing a version of every Italian film — as required by law.

All three centers are state-funded. “But of course there’s never enough money,” says Magrelli. “So we have to be quite resourceful.”

That means finding sponsorship and pooling resources with other centers whenever possible, a notable example being Rome’s work with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, which nabbed financial backing from Gucci for a major restoration of Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard.”

The Italo restoration industry’s global scope is also evidenced by the work of Cineteca of Bologna, which has just completed a 10-year restoration of all full-length Charlie Chaplin films.

“The new step will be to make digital versions of them,” says Gian Luca Farinelli, who heads the Cineteca. “This shows Italy’s commitment to all silent films and not just Italian ones.”

Indeed, the Cineteca partnered with Mexico’s Filmoteca and the World Cinema Foundation to restore “Redes,” a 1936 Mexican film by “High Noon” helmer Fred Zinnemann. The pic screened last year at Cannes.

“Silent films are still in great demand,” says Farinelli, pointing to the major turnout this summer for Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato Festival, which showcases restored films.

The star exhibit was a restored version of Federico Fellini’s “Roma,” while 6,000 people packed into the central piazza to see Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung foundation in Wiesbaden, Germany.

In France, the country of the Lumiere brothers, a handful of private bodies are leading preservation efforts.

StudioCanal, leading private insurance company Groupama Gan and the French Cinematheque have been restoring classic films not only to preserve cinematic heritage but also to exploit the pics commercially.

Since 2000, StudioCanal, which has more than 5,000 titles in its library, has developed a policy for restoring its catalog under the group’s CEO Olivier Courson.

“Not all the films we preserve will come out in DVD,” explains Beatrice Valbin-Constant, StudioCanal’s technical director. “We aim to restore important films that belong to the French cultural patrimony.”

The Murnau Foundation is the legal successor to such bygone Teutonic production companies as Ufa, Universum-Film, Bavaria, Terra, Tobis and Berlin-Film. It owns approximately 2,000 silent movies and 1,000 talkies. The Foundation’s stocks of films are stored in specially equipped archives in Wiesbaden and held in trust at the Federal Film Archive in Berlin and in the city of Koblenz.

The Murnau Foundation is one of 10 major film archives in Germany that preserve, restore, reconstruct and archive feature films and documentaries, the biggest being the Federal Film Archive. Others include the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin and the Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt.

The vast collection stored at the Federal Film Archive spans more than 100 years of film history and comprises some 150,000 documentary and feature titles on 1.1 million film reels or other carriers. The Film Archive has been collecting films of all genres since its establishment in 1952, ranging from as early as 1895 to the present.

Among the Film Archive’s three locations in Berlin is a new preservation and restoration facility completed in 2005. Stored in a special repository at the site are some 80,000 rolls of highly explosive nitrocellulose film, representing the Film Archive’s oldest records.

Film Archive chief Griep says works are first restored then preserved.

“We have all our films in air-conditioned storage, and of course that’s part of the preservation, but actual preservation means restoring and completing the old films.”

That means a version that is as high quality and complete as possible that is then transferred onto polyester-based film — which has an expected longevity of up to 800 years, Griep says, and not onto a digital carrier, which is limited by standardization issues, among others.

Griep estimates that some 30% of the Film Archive’s collection has so far been properly restored and preserved. Currently undergoing restoration is Richard Oswald’s 1921 historical drama “Lady Hamilton.”

Britain’s BFI National Archive also houses one of the largest collections of films in Europe, with more than 120,000 documentaries and 60,000 features dating as far back as 1896.

“Film is a fragile art form,” says BFI communications manager Brian Robinson. “We think everything we can possibly keep is worth keeping.”

The BFI recently published a list of the 75 Most Wanted films, highlighting titles not in its vaults and which are being sought, am
ong them Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 pic “The Mountain Eagle”; Michael Powell’s first feature “Two Crowded Hours” (1931); Lance Comfort’s “Squadron Leader X” (1943); and Joseph Larraz’s “Symptoms” (1968).

Russia has a long tradition of preserving both feature and documentary film. Its state film archive, Gosfilmofond, founded in 1936, is one of the world’s three largest film archives, with more than 60,000 films preserved in its collection.

More than 42,000 documentary works are stored at the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk near Moscow, including films from pre-1917 and a virtually complete collection of newsreels from 1919-1985. The archive documents the entire history of Russian filmmaking, beginning with footage of the 1896 coronation of Czar Nicholas II, shot by Kamill Serf, a cameraman who worked with the Lumiere brothers.

Spain was late in establishing film preservation bodies. The country’s main institute, the Filmoteca Espanola, opened in Madrid in 1953. As a result, very few works from the country’s silent era — less than 10% — have been saved. Similarly, some 50% of films from 1932 to 1939 — a significant period in Spain’s film history — no longer exist.

Among Spain’s lost film treasures are Edgar Neville’s comedy “Yo quiero que me lleven a Hollywood” (1931), Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast’s “It Happened in Spain” (1934) and Rosario Pi’s musical “Windmills” (1937).

Since 1964, producers of Spanish films backed with public subsidies have been obligated to deposit a copy of their movie at the Filmoteca for safekeeping.

The institute has archived some 35,000 digital and analog film titles, including 14,500 Spanish productions.

Spanish-language films appear to have fared better in Mexico. The country’s own government-backed Filmoteca boasts the largest collection of Spanish-language films of any archive in Latin America with 250,000 cans of film and 40,000 titles in 13 climate-controlled vaults — six for acetate films and seven for nitrate.

The Filmoteca, owned by National Autonomous U. of Mexico, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has recently overseen restoration projects to celebrate the nation’s 200 years of independence and the centenary of the Mexican Revolution, including restoring to 35mm and digitizing “El compadre Mendoza” (1934) and “Vamonos con Pancho Villa” (1936).

“For many years we were a voice in the wilderness, but the battle is almost won that film is a worthy subject that merits preservation for future generations,” Robinson adds.

(Michael Day in Milan, Nick Holdsworth in Moscow, Diana Lodderhose in London, Emiliano de Pablos in Madrid, Elsa Keslassy in Paris and James Young in Mexico City contributed to this report.)

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