Federal Film Archive, Berlin


A review of the Federal Film Archive (Bundesfilmarchiv), Berlin, Germany.

My dissertation covers the development and dissemination of nutritional science over forty  years from the 1890s to the 1930s. In the 1920s, both live-action and animated films were increasingly used to entertain and educate the public. I was particularly interested in trying to find the films that had been screened when the Richtige Ernährung (“Good Nutrition”) traveling exhibition of the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden made a stop in Braunschweig in June 1929. Every evening from 5-6pm and from 7-8pm, the public could watch the comedic character Seff learn the importance of dairy products for an attractive physique, or find out how sugar, cheese, and fruit juice were produced; entrance was free.

While in Berlin in June and July 2011, I used the simple “title search” to find several documentaries, fictional shorts, and even commercials from food companies at the Bundesfilmarchiv (Federal Film Archive) at Fehrbellinerplatz in Berlin-Wilmersdorf (Address and opening hours in English). A particular strength of the collection comes from the film archives of the German Democratic Republic (including accessory materials like scripts, posters and newspaper clippings) and is therefore an excellent source for the cinematic culture of the late Wilhelminian Empire, Weimar and Nazi periods, and especially East Germany. In addition to Universum Film AG (UFA) and Deutsche Film AG (DEFA) films, there are also materials for many foreign titles. I am not a film scholar and freely admit that I barely scratched the surface of what this archive has to offer, such as the collection of censors’ decisions from 1908 to 1945.

Located in one “wing” of the Third Reich-era building constructed for the Reichsnährstand, the Bundesfilmarchiv itself is unassuming to visit. If you take the U-Bahn (Lines U3 or U7) to Fehrbellinerplatz, you will see two matching curved facades. You want the one to the right. (The guard at the building to the left had not heard of the Bundesfilmarchiv when I parked my bike there and guessed it was the one I wanted; thankfully, another visitor standing in the line there directed me to the other one.) Once in the correct building, I checked in with the cheerful guard to the left of the entrance, who directed me down the left-hand hallway to the office of the archivist who had agreed to my visit.

As with most German archives, you need to contact the archive beforehand to set up an appointment. Compared to the Staatsbibliothek hours, the opening hours are fairly restricted: 8am-3pm Monday through Thursday, and 8am-1:30pm on Friday. However, because the archivists prefer you request the films you would like to view beforehand (email or phone), these will be waiting for you when you arrive, and you can get right to work after completing the usual registration (Anmeldung) with address, passport number, and research aims. No letter of introduction is necessary, and in fact this archive was probably the least formal of all the ones I visited.

There is no public work space; you will be working in the archivist’s dark but spacious office, or perhaps in another room down the hall. There are no lockers as in most libraries and archives, so I just left my things on a chair in the corner. The archivist will show you how to use the film reel machine and the appropriate remotes for the DVD or VHS players and then leave you to work. I typed notes at my laptop and was able to plug into a power strip when the battery ran low. Because I was watching silent films, I am not sure what the protocol for talkies is; probably you could use your own headphones if required. There is no internet access.

Be aware that the archive has outsourced its reproduction services; there is a list of private companies for you to contact. After the archivist marks the film or you give him the time stamp you want as a still or clip, the film/tape/disk is mailed to the company, which will then provide you the reproductions. It cost me 100 euros to get two glossy stills from film reels: 50 euros for transporting the film, 20 euros per frame, plus tax.

I was the only researcher the two days I was there. In fact, I had to ask the archivist to get the key from the guard to open the restroom. He left me alone when he went to get lunch, and I just let him know when I stepped out to eat what I had packed for myself. There is a small break room for visitors with a table, chairs and a soda machine. There was no coffee machine when I was there, but there are shops at the U-Bahn station and a bakery across the street. There are plenty of cheap cafes and restaurants along Berliner Straße and Uhlandstraße. Because I had so little time, I did not take a longer break, but if you need some fresh air and it is not raining, there is a nice park (Preuβenpark) across Hohenzollerndamm.

The official website suggests this archive will move to another site in the future, so double check the Bundesarchiv website (see the links above) while you are drawing up your research plans.

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger
MD/PhD Candidate
Department of History and College of Medicine
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Image: “Entrance to Bundesarchiv Berlin” by Kristen Ehrenberger.

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