Research Centre for Film Heritage The Importance of the Audiovisual Heritage

Chris Wahl
Chris Wahl | Photo: privat

Is film heritage at last being taken seriously in Germany as a subject of research? Dr. Chris Wahl, since June 2013 professor for Audiovisual Cultural Heritage, wants to raise the degree of attention.

Mr Wahl, in June 2013 you were appointed to the Heisenberg Professorship for Audiovisual Cultural Heritage at the Konrad Wolf Academy of Film and Television (HFF) in Potsdam. This professorship is the first of its kind in Germany. What is the situation of film heritage in this country?

In the course of the digitalization of recent years, film heritage has come more and more into focus, even with the federal government. It’s therefore only logical that the German Research Foundation, the DFG, should support the establishment of a corresponding professorship for a scholar. Up to now, it’s been almost exclusively the film archives that have championed this subject. A central aspect of the professorship for me is the development of a Masters programme in “Film Culture Heritage in the Digital Age” at the HFF. This would seem to be the natural location because, since 2011, the Potsdam Film Museum has been incorporated into the HFF as an institute. We also want to include as many institutions as possible in the Berlin-Brandenburg region, for instance the Deutsche Kinemathek and Arsenal, the Federal Film Archive, the German Broadcasting Archive and also the Centre for Research on Contemporary History. I chose the name “Research Centre for Film Heritage” in order to make more visible the triad I envisage of teaching, research and public events on film heritage.

Awareness of the history of German film has risen

What direction will your research take?

Currently there’s the three-year DFG project “Regional Film Culture in Brandenburg”, which consists in the focal points of “Amateur Film in the GDR” and “The HFF Film Archive”. The Potsdam Film Museum has been concentrating for years on East German amateur film. The HFF in turn is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary in the coming year and our research will appraise the history of Germany’s oldest film school based on films and the film archive. The work is all the more urgent as the living witnesses of this turbulent past aren’t immortal, as the death of the former HFF rector Lothar Bisky has reminded us. In general, there is an increasing awareness of the older German film schools for their own history.

But this awareness of the film heritage needs to be supported politically.

For me personally this professorship is a balancing act. I certainly don’t want to come across to the institutions that have been entrusted for decades with the preservation and restoration of films as a know-it-all. The problem is rather that there isn’t enough pressure on politicians to listen to these experts because the subject hasn’t received the necessary public attention. So one of my jobs is to raise the degree of attention. Together with Jürgen Keiper from the Deutsche Kinemathek I’ve started the weblog Memento Movie as a private initiative, which explains the group of themes bundled into “Audivisual Cultural Heritage” in all its aspects – historical, technical, cultural and political. The core of the website is the video interviews with experts from the archives and the film industry. An oral history, so to speak. In this way, perhaps, a longer-term dialogue can be started that raises public awareness.

Data centre in the film archive

Shouldn’t one first define the terms so that all concerned are talking the same language?

Absolutely. For example, I prefer the term “audiovisual heritage” to the term “film heritage” because today the meaning of “film” has to be understood much more broadly. It covers not only cinema but also, for instance, amateur film, video art and certain elements of television and the Internet. Especially in the wake of digitalization, terminological clarity is necessary. I recall a memorable session of the Committee on Culture and Media in the Bundestag in November 2011 where some of speeches blurred terms such as “the availability of films” and “long-term archiving of films”. The important piece of information that the mere digitalization of film material by no means guarantees its preservation or long-term archiving has to be got into people’s heads. In addition, the entry into the digital era should be registered in the self-understanding of traditional institutions. In future, long-time archiving of digital data will take place in data centres. The film archive will become a completely different place.

Can the proximity of the HFF to the Babelsberg studio complex play a role in including the film industry in the preservation of the audiovisual heritage?

The commitment of the film industry in the area of film heritage has traditionally been relatively slight. The industry doesn’t think in long terms, seldom beyond the first exploitation cycle. And in the analog era there was something like a passive archiving: put it on the shelf and hope. But digital archiving has to be active; it requires the continuous migration of data. Moreover, the workflows and formats of archiving should already be considered in the planning of a film, just as its financing. The now familiar principle of the “long tail” should also make clear the commercial necessity of long-term archiving. What we need is a kind of German Martin Scorsese, a famous director who champions film heritage.