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Cinema Does Not Fit On a Hard Drive

The former director of the Austrian Film Museum on the preservation of film heritage & what it means to preserve cinema in the 21st century.
Originally published as an editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 27, 2017
The debate about "our nation's visible memory" (German Minister of Culture Monika Grütters on the medium of film) is fortunately now gaining a certain visibility of its own, which it has never before had in Germany. What is less fortunate is the way in which the preservation of this memory is frequently being discussed and promoted publicly as well as politically – namely, in a reductive manner and using misleading images and concepts. 
This applies to the representatives of film archives and cinematheques who, in their pursuit of better funding, primarily use only terminology established by the media market. And it applies even to experienced commentators engaged in film culture who run the risk of bogging themselves down in an already-forgotten, secondary front by placing "especially valuable" spheres and contents of German film heritage against each other (most recently in this newspaper, the historian Dirk Alt on December 8, 2016 and the film scholar Klaus Kreimeier on January 9). In the hope that the German government could now, albeit belatedly, commit in some way to financing the preservation of film heritage, prominent figures are shamefacedly brushing aside the actual problem: that the form in which film is currently being passed on in Germany is creating an even more prominent victim – film itself.
The most important simplifications, misunderstandings, and errors coalesce around two concepts. Firstly, the notion that the transmission of film is synonymous with its digitization, not to mention that digitization is an adequate form of preservation. Secondly, the view that film is a "text," abstract "content," or –its polar opposite – a kind of sculptural "original object" or "original document" that lies peacefully rolled up in a can.
To begin with the second complex: the "axiom of preserving the original" — as the German Kinematheksverbund is constantly emphasizing — is worth subscribing to completely. But with film what is the "original" that must be preserved?  
Film cannot simply be passed on by conserving objects or documents. As an object in one's hand or in a can, the filmstrip alone does not produce the medium of film, at least if one wants to explain its historical and aesthetic role to some extent. In order to comprehend the historical character of the medium, we cannot see it primarily as a "thing," but as a presentational event that is produced mechanically and is time-based. There is no film before the beginning and after the end of this event, unless another with the same characteristics occurs. 
It was not the practice of holding the filmstrip against the light, but its projection, its public performance, that lent the cultural technique of film its overall meaning and place in the arts — from novelty varieté numbers to film propaganda, from home movies to Hollywood, from European “art cinema” as a counterpart of modern literature to film as a visual art. Produced by light and motion, such onscreen events can be deceptively lifelike or sheer choreographies of color and rhythm; in either case their "original preservation" depends quite simply on their continued accessibility as projected film. 
Of course, with this goal in mind — which (analogous to established practice in other branches of the arts) would seem to be widely shared if not in fact "axiomatic" — archives and museums must collect and pass on "things" — namely, every part necessary for bringing forth a film. First: its notation — rolls of copy-able filmstrips on which thousands of consecutive, individual photographs are organized. Second: the projection apparatuses so that series of static photographs can be transformed into the enlarged, time-based moving image events that are films. Third: constructed, darkened spaces so that the result of these kinds of transformations can become adequately visible.
In order for a society and its cultural institutions to convey film and its historical achievements not only indirectly, but actually to pass them on, it is absolutely necessary that these three components be available. But it is only when the three are operated together that we can talk about a film: a sensory event inscribed with the entire cultural techniqueor art form of film. This kind of event — and this alone — truly makes the characteristics and parameters of film tangible: by maintaining their transparency and not replacing them with the characteristics and parameters of another cultural technique. 
Which brings us to the first of the above-mentioned complexes of misunderstanding. The digital transfer and presentation of a work that became part ofthe historical record as an analog film projection produces a facsimile — even if what is now a file is projected in a darkened space. This is not to say anything fundamental against facsimiles and their various uses (including the “re-mediatization" of film as has been practiced for many decades and on many levels). However, the essential difference between the non-digital phenomenon and its digital facsimile ought to be accepted. 
This difference is generally recognized with regards to the preservation and passing on of relevant phenomena in the history of art and culture. "Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts," as Friedrich Nietzsche put it shortly before the birth of film. Any intellectual, artistic (or even just "evidence-producing") work depends on the choice of particular work materials, technologies, languages, and means of expression. They do not only affect the result of the work, they also represent the place where the work manifests itself as a statement in the first place. Only in this form can human statements actually, and in the long run, bear witness to the cultural-historical era in which they were made. 
"The medium is the message," Marshall McLuhan pointedly stated. We may not entirely trust this emphasis, but in dealing with contemporary culture (and its social media "writing tools") as well as earlier eras (from the Bronze Age to the era of the printing press) we do sense that the history of our species can be traced in the working, writing, and thinking tools of our technical-aesthetic systems — and in whose material results it remains meaningful. These concrete practices and artifacts are the only aspects of human existence that can in fact be passed on and not just indirectly and abstractly (through language, the imparting of knowledge, or facsimiles).
This is therefore a matter of passing on an event-based, durational medium that has shaped human culture and social history in decisive ways for roughly 120 years. In the meantime, film has given up its mainstream role, as can be said for cathedral construction, fresco painting, copper engraving, baroque music, and photographic prints. Influential technical-aesthetic systems, deep-seated in the power architecture of society and in many people's everyday lives, always reach the point at which their paramount place in power and everyday life is “conquered” by new working tools and expressive systems. At this point, if they actually stood out, they are added to our “heritage” — their reputation as artistic and cultural material increases, while their mainstream function in current production suffers a loss. With regards to passing them on, their survival is now being cared for beyond the market and commercial ideologies. They continue to exist in the digital era and will likely exist much longer — and they are (next to countless forms of facsimiles and reproductions) also accessible in their original form in museums, concert halls, and on location. 
Those of the opinion that these premises should also apply to the heritage of filmmight consider the latest message from Michael Hollman, president of Germany’s Federal Archive: "Of utmost importance at the moment is that the project of a 'national digital cinematheque' be tackled without further delay. The legacy of German cinema is threatened by heavy, irreversible damage if the envisaged 'Preservation of the National Film Heritage' does not soon enter its concrete planning phase."
"Preservation of Heritage" and "digital cinematheque" are here being invoked as one and the same. They are not. Not even if "national" is added to the mix twice. And especially not if, at the same time, the decommissioning of the Federal Archive’s in-house film printing lab is being ordered.
Internationally, the debate has luckily proceeded differently in the last few years. Kodak is again focusing on continuing the production of raw film stock. Theaters geared towards a historically informed audience are again increasingly calling attention to their 35mm and 16mm screenings (the “higher-better-faster” digital symbols in media industry advertising no longer promise anything special, they have become everyday norms). In countries like Sweden and Austria, film laboratories have been and will be taken under public control in order to ensure the analog long-term preservation of films and the making of new prints – and to meet the increasing interest of young artists in analog film. And France has amended its film law: analog preservation elements and prints must now be produced of publicly funded film restorations. 
Likewise, in Germany, film heritage institutions like the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau-Stiftung are advocating this kind of sustainability-based allocation of resources. Thus far, however, they have rarely done this publicly. They are worried that a differentiation in the debate could delay or complicate the federal "digitization offensive." What if a true assessment ("A is not B and both are necessary") will cause neither A nor B to receive the necessary funds? 
As long as these kinds of fears vis-à-vis poorly informed politicians maintain the upper hand, we may speak of a paradigm shift. For the first time in Germany, the voluntary commitment to passing on culture is being suspended. What this means is the duty not only of arranging for useful “re-mediatizations” or transfers of historical phenomena, but also of preserving these phenomena as such — to be used by a public whose significance has never been doubted, namely those who are interested in a cultural history of their species. Cinema and analog film as a presentational event no longer sail upon the mainstream of everyday culture. They have become part of the cultural heritage. Who is beginning to approach them as such in Germany? 
Translated by Ted Fendt and reviewed by the author

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