Archiving Films
Digitization and the Deutsche Kinemathek

Martin Koerber
Martin Koerber | Photo (detail): © Martin Koerber

Since 2007, Martin Koerber has been in charge of the film archive of the Deutsche Kinemathek – the museum of film and television in Berlin. In our interview, he talks about how important digitization is for his work.

Professor Koerber, as the film archive’s director you are currently experiencing an historic paradigm shift at first hand – the transition from the analogue to the digital cinema era. How has the focus of your work changed in recent years?

I would not describe a process of technological change as a paradigm shift. Our duties remain the same, it’s just that we use more modern technologies to carry them out these days. This affects neither the ethics of restoration nor the question of which audio-visual media we wish to collect in future, however. Until just a few years ago, many traditional film archives were hesitant about using digital media because, in historical and technical terms, they do not belong in the category of film. In my opinion, however, it is a mistake to distinguish between film, video and other visual media. When we collect moving images, we should be guided by their content, not by the formats in which they are stored. The most important thing in archiving and in restoration is to preserve the aesthetic characteristics of the format in question – and to preserve the originals, given that they provide us with crucial source information about mounting, colour grading and lighting.

Restoration and digitization offensives

In France, a sum of 400 million euros was approved last year for the digitization of the country’s national film heritage. In Germany, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media – Bernd Neumann – has just announced that the annual budget for digitization is to be topped up by one million euros. How many films can be digitized for a million euros?

This million euros will be distributed among several institutions, the Kinemathek receiving 200,000 euros. At the minimum cinematic standard resolution of 2K, this is only enough to digitize four or five feature-length films. If the films do not have any technical problems and thus require no additional restoration, it may even be sufficient for eight to ten films.

The problem with large-scale projects such as the one being carried out in France is that they are only intended to run for a short period of time. Structural changes cannot be financed by these means.

Permanent Exhibition Film, The Weimar Republic Permanent Exhibition Film, The Weimar Republic | Photo: Reinhard Görner, Source: Deutsche Kinemathek It is difficult to obtain political support for the funding of continuous work in archives because it generates less public impact than a “digitization offensive”. The Kinemathek has only a small budget for the long-term preservation of its holdings – this applies in equal measure to films, documents, photographs and costumes. Although individual restoration projects cast the collection in a new light, they are not sufficient to systematically open up the archive holdings.

Server systems as living organisms

These days, a large number of films are made using digital technology. Is the Kinemathek set up to archive digital media?

People have been submitting films to us as digital originals for some years now. Ideally, I would like to be presented with only the digital data themselves, without any kind of storage medium. Storage media such as hard drives are short-lived, after all, and in any case will become obsolete sooner or later. What interests us is the data stored on them, which we feed into our internal server system.

How should one picture such a server system?

Such a system is a kind of living organism in which digital information exists like bacterial cultures. This is a technique that mankind has mastered for thousands of years – for the production of sourdough, for instance. Now, this principle of preservation needs to be firmly anchored in society. Together with the IT sector, archives are currently undergoing a development that has long since become established in other fields. People have always passed information on to future generations. In the case of seeds, for example, it is not the pod that contains the seed which is of interest, but the information stored inside the seed.

In other words, the film archives of the future will resemble computer centres?

You could put it like that. We will of course be keeping the reels of film, as their digital versions can be no substitute for the source value of the original archive object. Within the boundaries of our current technological possibilities, they are at best acceptable representations of the original artefacts.

The era of the analogue, material film is now coming to an end. Will this also affect the raison d’être of restoration?

The job of a film restorer is to recreate the film experience on the big screen. This is where cinema happens, and it makes no difference whether the film is screened digitally or mechanically. All that matters is that it be converted into a state in which it can once again be enjoyed as a work of art.

Born in 1956, Martin Koerber has worked for the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek since 1986. Between 1996 and 2003 he organized the Berlinale retrospective. Over the past 20 years, Koerber has been responsible, among other things, for the restoration of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “Pandora’s Box” by G.W. Pabst. As a professor at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences (HTW), Martin Koerber is also responsible for a course in “Restoration of audio visual and photographic cultural assets”.