Saturday

17th Apr 2021

Europe has lost 80% of its silent films

Some 80 percent of European silent films are estimated to have been lost, and, due to legal challenges, even modern digital technology may not be sufficient to prevent something similar happening to other other types of film, the European Commission has warned in a new report.

Only Latvia and Denmark have so far developed film digitisation strategies covering the whole national heritage. Hungary has decided to digitise only a hundred of its movies. Less then a third of member states currently collect digital material in the way they do analogue material, the report shows.

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"The loss of 80 percent is an estimate based on the holdings archives we have of the silent period. Notwithstanding the small chance of some films surfacing over time in other countries and hidden caches, we believe it to be correct," Martin Koerber, curator at Deutsche Kinemathek Museum of Film and Television in Berlin, told EUobserver.

All early films by Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau or Georg Wilhelm Pabst are believed to be lost, along with hundreds of others from the end of the 19th century.

According to the commission, the problem with rescuing the films lies in the lack of a new approach to preserving ageing movie tapes. Conservation of old film in sealed boxes cannot guarantee preservation for future generations. In the digital age, a new access model is needed, the commission says. However, questions about how to store and preserve digital material remain unanswered.

Simple digitalisation is not enough, according to Mr Koerber.

"We need to keep the analogue masters intact in case one has to come back to them. The need for this is certain, as distribution channels and technologies are changing rapidly, and re-digitalisation with better resolution and better technologies in the future should be allowed as a option," he said.

According to him, although the possibilities of digital storage are tremendously interesting, it is many times more expensive than the physical storage of film cans.

Beyond the technological issues, legal difficulties also constrain the effective use of and access to old films. There are several different regimes under which EU member states collect, preserve, restore and share their national film collections.

Simple administrative costs and the time needed to clear the rights often prevent the institutions from providing access to archive material. Some member states would welcome EU intervention on the question of copyright, the report from the commission says.

Film industry professionals themselves can also present an obstacle, Mr Koerber thinks.

"Many producers, especially the smaller units, have no means, no understanding of and no strategy for long term archiving," he said, adding: "It is an important political task to bring producers and archives closer and make them work together."

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