Film Museums in Germany Old Masters in Cool Rooms

Filmmuseum Berlin

To keep memories of films alive, film museums in Germany pursue a broad range of activities – giving visitors the chance to experience the history of film for themselves, teaching media skills, bringing about encounters and cultural exchange, and archiving and restoring film material.

“In seventy years there will be a film museum where people will sometimes go and sit in the cool screening room […] to watch an old master estimated […] to be worth a hundred thousand marks; they will fidget on their seats for an hour and then stagger out onto the street with rolling eyes like drunken ducks, and then they will […] whisper into each other’s thick ears: ‘What a feat, a genuine Chaplin!’“

More than just film archives

These lines were written in 1929 by Rudolf Arnheim. A film critic who was just 25 years old at the time, Arheim recognized the museum potential of film as an art form when it was still just a few decades old. It was to take several more decades, however, before a museum of film opened in Germany.

Preserving and collecting film material and props is an important job, but an institution only really becomes a film museum when it makes its treasures come alive – after all, a museum is more than just an archive. In Germany, five institutions achieve this: the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt am Main, the Filmmuseum Potsdam, the Filmmuseum Düsseldorf, the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin and the Filmmuseum Munich. With the exception of the museum in Munich, all stage a permanent exhibition and alternating special exhibitions in addition to presenting regular film screenings.

Collecting, showing, restoring, publishing

The Filmmuseum Munich was established in 1963 as a department of the Munich Stadtmuseum (i.e. city museum). Director Rudolph Joseph chose to concentrate on the films made by emigrants such as G. W. Pabst and Wilhelm Dieterle. Since 1999, Stefan Drößler has been at the helm of the Filmmuseum Munich. A silent film expert, Drößler’s focus is on film presentation and restoration. The former is evident in the daily changing programme of film screened in the museum’s in-house cinema, the latter in the museum’s involvement in the publication of a series of DVDs entitled Edition filmmuseum.

The Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin was founded in 1963 to accommodate the collection of film director Gerhard Lamprecht, who was also the museum’s first director. In the year 2000, the Deutsche Kinemathek moved into the Filmhaus at Potsdamer Platz where it opened the Filmmuseum Berlin, which since 2006 has also included an exhibition on the history of television. One of the main tasks of the Deutsche Kinemathek is to contribute to the academic analysis and study of German film history through its own publications, seminars and exhibitions. The Deutsche Kinemathek shows its holdings at the Filminstitut Arsenal, whose screening rooms are located in the basement of the Filmhaus at Potsdamer Platz.

The Filmmuseum Potsdam is the first port of call for anyone interested in the films produced at Babelsberg Studios. The museum in Potsdam was established in 1981 as the film museum of the GDR. Nonetheless, its permanent exhibition is not devoted solely to the DEFA, the East German state film production company, but also to Ufa, the longstanding film company founded in 1917. Because the state of Brandenburg had financial problems, the Filmmuseum was incorporated into the Babelsberg University of Film and Television in 2011. In future, both institutions are to work more closely together. One initial result of this cooperation is a new permanent exhibition entitled The Dream Factory – 100 Years of Film in Babelsberg.

The Filmmuseum in Düsseldorf is likewise funded by one of Germany’s federal states, this time North Rhine-Westphalia. Established in 1993, the museum’s earliest beginnings date back to 1956 when the city began collecting historic films about the history of Düsseldorf. Even today, the focus remains firmly on artists who are from or linked to the region. The museum’s in-house Black Box cinema boasts one of just four surviving Welte organs, which is used when silent films are screened. What is more, the Düsseldorf museum is involved in the awarding of the Helmut Käutner Prize, which is endowed with 10,000 euros. This honour is bestowed on persons who through their work have strongly supported and influenced the development of German film culture.

From 2009 to 2011, the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt am Main needed to undergo a process of modification and modernization, but has now been fully restored to its former glory. Its main attraction is the newly designed permanent exhibition which gives an impression of the emergence and tradition of film perception. In line with Hilmar Hoffmann’s philosophy of “culture for everyone”, its director Claudia Dillmann has made it her goal “to function to a greater extent as a museum cinema”, combining for example expert lectures with the cinematic programme. Back in 2006, the Filmmuseum had merged with the Deutsches Filminstitut, which has one of Germany’s largest film archives in Wiesbaden. Wiesbaden is likewise home to the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, which preserves and provides access to a major part of German film heritage.

The film museum as a place of cultural exchange

Film museums pursue activities which are important in a media-dominated world and will become even more important in future. Archiving and presenting films alone is not enough to make film history come alive. A film museum can offer genuine added value if it remains a place of cultural exchange and education. This involves offering lectures and discussions, educational programmes, guided tours and publications which allow the public to engage with film as a form of art and cultural memory.