A Day at the Archives… The German National Archive (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin

Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel

26 September 2017


Germans really believe that the early bird catches the worm. This, at least, is our impression. Having been to the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive) on countless occasions, we’ve never managed to be there first, getting the prestigious locker key number one. And we’ve tried, believe us! Last June we met in Berlin Mitte for a quick coffee at 7:00 am and took the S-Bahn to Lichterfelde West on time for the opening of the archive … only to find out that many others were already waiting in front of the massive steel gates of the former garrison in which the Berlin branch of the national archive is located.

Apropos location, the place of the national archives alone breathes history. Whereas some archives were purpose-built to accommodate the various materials, the national archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde [link] seem rather provisionally located at a military garrison that could well be regarded a monument about 20th century German history. Built from 1873 to 1878 for Prussian cadets next to a newly designed bourgeois neighbourhood for officers and their families, the barracks were later used by the Leibstandarte-SS “Adolf Hitler”, the German dictator’s personal bodyguards during the Third Reich. During the “Night of the Long Knives”, several murders were committed within the military compound to eliminate SA men.

After the war, the barracks were then used by American troops who renamed the place as Andrews Barracks [link]. Throughout the entire complex, this problematic heritage could well be seen, including the exercise yard, SS-Statues that were concealed by concrete but are still at the entrance gate, and what looks suspiciously like Übermensch-statues at the gates to an enormous swimming pool one passes on the way from the main gate to the reading room of the archive. The people who decided to turn this old garrison – which was built to wage war – into an archive ought to be complimented for this decision. Right where some atrocities of the 20th century were planned, people are now able to study even the dark moments of German and European history. The site of the archive thereby also represents a modern-day democratic Germany.

It is somewhat odd to be reminded of what has happened at exactly this location through the years under Nazi rule after walking down from S-Bahn station Lichterfelde through the leafy and peaceful neighbourhood with its many stunning villas, parks and children’s playgrounds. The area does not really feel like being somewhere in the German capital but rather like staying at a small affluent town.

During busy days at the archive – looking through the maximum allowance of 50 files a day – it’s good to go for a walk. There’s plenty to see for film historians nearby, including the grave of German film star Renate Müller, who fell out of grace with the Nazis and was under constant surveillance by the Gestapo prior to her sudden death in 1937 (the circumstances of which are still unknown), or the former houses of the Jewish-German television entertainer Hans Rosenthal, the actor Götz George (son of Heinrich George) or the industrialist Werner von Siemens.

But coming back to the archives, such institutions are of course somewhat linked to national character traits. We have visited many other invaluable archives for media historians, including the lovely BBC written archives centre in Caversham, Berkshire (if you haven’t been there before: GO!), the National Archives at Kew and others. Yet no other place is quite like the Bundesarchiv. It is very German – in a good and a bad way. The online database and tool for ordering documents INVENIO is bureaucratic and not really self-explanatory [link]. Some members of staff may seem distant, but they are very helpful. Never try to enter the reading room with your coat on or bringing a backpack (which is generally true for all libraries in Germany and Austria). Some people have tried and what followed wasn’t really something you folks want to try! And always remember: don’t take pictures at a desk without the corresponding sign – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are in fact doing at the archive. There are no exceptions.

Yet, there is something we love about the archive, something the archive shares with Berlin: its makeshift atmosphere. You can bring your own mobile phones or tablets to take pictures, the mundane locker room looks like a forlorn train station somewhere in the remote parts of the USSR during the Cold War. Even the prices of the instant coffee machine seem to be from 1989. Yet you find the most interesting people there, going for a walk outside or a coffee. Scholars of audio-visual media and history, holocaust survivors researching their family history, pensioners trying to find information about their former companies or family homes, etc. Everyone seems to have the same shining eyes, being fascinated by piecing together information from original archival documents to make sense of their history(ies). Like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson during their adventures, they are beguiled by what they have found or – like academic gold diggers to use another image – by what they might find soon. They all feel the excitement when they open up hitherto closed files or personal records, helping them to understand what has happened. The Bundesarchiv really is a treasure trove for researchers – one of the archives where academics and the general public can get access to documents almost without restrictions. Everyone who has ever received documents in which some government officials or lawyers redacted lengthy passages, will be happy to see that this is generally not the case at the German national archives.

Given the wealth of information, the Bundesarchiv’s pilot project to take pictures of documents with your own devices is ever more welcome. In the past, users had to order photocopies of documents which arrived a few weeks later by post. Although the cost was – compared to other national archives – quite reasonable, extensive research could still amount to considerable sums of money. Certainly an investment into one’s future – but nevertheless not easy for all. This was a problem especially to those who could not rely on the generous support of research institutions or other sources of funding, including many early-career researchers and pensioners. Under the regulations of the current pilot project, costs can be kept at a minimum. There are, however, restrictions on documents related to individuals: those documents can be photocopied, but not photographed. The logic escapes us. There must be something odd about German privacy/data legislation.

If you plan a trip to the Bundesarchiv, order all documents at least a day before. The use is free of charge and you may bring a pencil, a laptop or mobile electronic devices. The holdings are massive, including, for media scholars, the surviving documents of Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda, of Ufa and the other German film companies from the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era or the German Democratic Republic’s DEFA. The archive is open from 8 to 7 during regular workdays, except for Friday, when it closes at 4. It is closed on Sundays and national holidays. Nota bene: if you are interested in the Bundesarchiv’s holding of films and publications about films, you should go the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, which will move to Lichterfelde eventually, but is currently still in the centre of Berlin, at Fehrbellinerplatz. In comparison to the Bundesarchiv in Lichterfelde, the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv is much more formal. Part of the building at Fehrbelliner Platz is inhabited by a branch of the Bundesnetzagentur (Federal Network Agency) that regulates telecommunications as well as electricity, gas, post and railway markets in Germany. Because of security concerns, access is very restrictive and you are only allowed into the building by appointment. Perhaps this will change when all Berlin branches of the archives will be moved to Lichterfelde. Let’s hope so.

Please send us a message and a photograph if you are ever able to beat the Germans in getting locker key number one for a day at the archive!


Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel are both members of the IAMHIST council. They are working on various themes relating to Third Reich cinema for some time. While they usually collaborate through skype and other means of online communication, they welcome the opportunity to meet face-to-face when going to archives. Tobias is professor for audiovisual media at the University of Applied Sciences Kiel and the University of Flensburg. Roel is professor of film & TV studies at the LUCA School of Arts in Brussels and the University of Leuven, Belgium.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Cinema City: A Medieval Movie House

Anna Blagrove, University of East Anglia

19 September 2017


How can a cinema be medieval when moving pictures weren’t introduced until the 1890s? My place of work is in one-such venue however: Cinema City in Norwich, where parts of the building date back to the fourteenth century.  Its main use since its earliest days in the 1300s was as a merchant’s residence and dining hall, and so perhaps it is appropriate that the great hall is now used as the Cinema City café bar. Admittedly, it wasn’t converted to a full-time cinema until 1978, but before that (from 1925) it was a public hall that housed a projector and screen and was dedicated to ‘the advancement of education in its widest and most comprehensive sense’ [i]. Honouring this objective, since 1978, Cinema City has had an education programme as part of its offer. The cinema today is operated by Picturehouse and so screens a specialised film programme.  In 2017 it also has three digitally equipped cinema auditoria, a box office, a courtyard, a restaurant, the café bar, a kitchen, offices, and an education facility.

I am part of a team of film educators based in this special building, operating separately to the main cinema and known as Cinema City Education.  Recently we devised a project that would not only allow us to research the history of our own cinema, but more widely collect and preserve memories of cinema-going in our county – we called the project Norfolk at the Pictures.   We were awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund Part, which allowed us to refurbish our first-floor education rooms. In the autumn of 2016 we launched the John Hurt Centre (named after our now sadly deceased patron, Sir John Hurt).  This state-of-the-art and fully-accessible education and exhibition venue is now entered via a new foyer with a lift in our courtyard.  It is used for regular film clubs for all ages (from U3A to young programmers), evening courses and day schools for adults, scriptwriting and filmmaking groups, school holiday animation workshops, training, conferences, and private functions.

As for the activities part of the project: What do you unleash if you invite the public to reminisce about their trips to the cinema with you?  As it turns out you receive a mini avalanche of fascinating anecdotes, photographs, histories, artefacts (ranging from cinema programmes to pieces of projectors); and as a result, a palpable connection with the social history of cinema-going.

We heard from audience members from the 1930s onwards and really got a feel for the changing fortunes of picture houses, not just in Norfolk but nationally.  We heard about the impact of World War Two, the rise of the picture palace, the coming of colour, the weird and wonderful promotional stunts that cinema managers would employ, the popularity of children’s cinema clubs, and the unrest that 1950s teenagers flocking to ‘rock and roll pictures’ caused with older audience members.

One particularly rewarding part of the project was cinema-themed reminiscence work with the elderly, we called this Moving Memories.  A team of staff and volunteers visited residential homes and luncheon clubs, where we held sessions with groups of over sixties.  This usually involved us presenting a show with photographs of cinemas, films stars and film posters, and film clips of archive footage.  A popular clip was that of the National Anthem with images of Queen Elizabeth – which would always be played at the end of the film programme – some recalled patriotically standing to attention whereas others remembered it as a cue to make a mad dash to the door so as not to endure the song.  We asked prompt questions of the groups such as, ‘do you remember doing anything naughty at the cinema – such as sneaking in without paying?’ and we took props such as tubs of popcorn, ticket stubs and cinema programmes for people to handle and help them to recall their cinema-going memories.  Some of the participants were suffering from dementia and we took advice and training from experts to enable us to illicit responses from these particular folks.

Personally speaking however, the part of the Norfolk at the Pictures that I am most proud of is The Final Reel; the documentary film that we made in connection with the project.  With a micro-budget and a small team of dedicated and talented crew, we made a feature-length documentary charting the development of film exhibition in Norfolk, but again, reflecting national trends too.  We were fortunate enough to secure the talents of our patron, Sir John Hurt, who recorded the narration in his familiar gravelly voice.  We interviewed film historians such as Stephen Peart and Tim Snelson (UEA), film lovers that had attended the different Norfolk cinemas through the years, and cinema managers and projectionists.  It charts the decline of cinema from the heyday of the 1930s and 40s to the sad closure of many venues from the 1950s onwards, but we also reflect positive recent developments such as the rise of event cinema (live theatre and opera performances and outdoor screenings), community film clubs, and the continued appeal of much-loved art-house cinemas like Cinema City.

I feel very fortunate to work in such a beautiful, old building with such a thriving cultural offer and through The Final Reel film and the Norfolk at the Pictures project as a whole, we were able to share and celebrate this enthusiasm with a much wider audience.


[i] Ethel and Mary Colman, owners in 1925, bequeathed the building to Norwich City Council with this stipulation for the building’s use.


Anna Blagrove is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia in the school of Film, TV and Media Studies.  Her thesis is an ethnographic study of teenagers and their relationship with cinema-going.  Other teaching and research interests are Australian cinema, film locations, and the work of Studio Ghibli. She also works as Education Officer for Cinema City, a specialised cinema in Norwich.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Trouble at Sea: The perilous journey of The Voyage of Charles Darwin (1978)

Mark Fryers, University of East Anglia

12 September 2017


The seven-part drama series The Voyage of Charles Darwin was the BBC’s flagship production in 1978 (released on DVD 2014), tracing the scientist’s rise from youth to old age and centring on his voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle, during which he formulated his theory of natural selection Produced by Christopher Ralling, written by scientist Robert Reid and directed by Martyn Friend it also featured sequences filmed by Ned Kelly of the natural history unit. It therefore offered the perfect combination of the BBC’s greatest virtues- the costume drama and the wildlife documentary. Indeed, it was universally praised by critics who commended it as a rare example of licence payer’s money being put to good use.  Chris Dunkley of the Financial Times summed up the view of critics suggesting that the series was ‘quite probably the best television production in the world in 1978’ and furthermore one which reflected the BBC charter: ‘it was “disseminating information, education and entertainment” all at once’ (20th December 1978). However, as the production files reveal, it was a long, expensive and onerous journey to find a suitable ship to replicate Darwin’s famous voyage in The Beagle, which despite the series’ critical adulation, perhaps suggests why maritime dramas featuring sailing ships were a scarce commodity on British screens in the following 30 years.

Figure 1: The opening titles offered a Darwinian view of the natural world

In the 1970s, the BBC was no stranger to the age of sail, with the series The Onedin Line, concerning a Victorian shipping Empire, running for nine popular seasons between 1971- 1980. It also produced a series about Cook’s voyages, The  Explorers, in 1975 and coverage of the annual tall ships race was always a popular fixture. Despite this, producers faced real challenges attempting to source authentic ships to replicate 19th Century sea travel. When it came to finding a ship to not only resemble the HMS Beagle but also seaworthy enough to replicate its journey along the coast of South America, it proved so difficult that there were genuine misgivings whether the programme could indeed be made.

Research was conducted at maritime museums and it was suggested to Ralling that Onedin’s flagship, ‘The Charlotte Rhodes’ be borrowed, but it proved too unlike the Beagle (noted as an ‘oddity’ in its construction according to the curator of the maritime museum in Newport, Rhode Island).  Indeed, all potentially available ships proved so unlike the Beagle that a drastic and costly solution was eventually decided upon. A ship, the Brigantine The Marques, was found and it was to be retrofitted in order to resemble The Beagle (a 10 gun Barque) which included converting the mast to a square rig, fitting false rigging, windows and cannon ports and building up the poop deck to include a cabin, to be completed in time for June 1977 (whilst fitting a suitable engine to make time on the voyage). This was a costly solution in that not only would the requisite craftsman be employed to ensure the ship was aesthetically accurate, but also it had to be seaworthy enough to make the sailing schedule, which began in Cornwall in July 1977, moved on to Salvador in Brazil, then onto Punta Arenas & Puerta Williams in Chile and finally the Galapagos Islands, before sailing home. Aligned to this was the necessity of employing experienced crew to pilot the vessel throughout (and suitable insurance costs for such an unusual venture).  In this, the BBC had been fortunate in forging a beneficial working relationship with the Admiralty for the contemporary Royal Naval drama series Warship (1973-77), for which ships, equipment and personnel were loaned on an industrial scale. The Navy certainly lent their assistance, but it came at a cost. A Navigation Officer and ordinary seamen were required and the Chief Sailmaker was employed from the Royal Naval Seamanship School in Portsmouth, yet as he would be away from the school for so long, he had to be suitably remunerated. Indeed, early correspondence in 1977 between the BBC and the Admiralty shows the former expressing surprise that they were being charged for the hire of items such as charts, inflatables and a radio transmitter. This is despite the suggestions of Robin Cecil-Wright (owner of The Marques) that they offer it as a training exercise for the Admiralty and an opportunity for publicity and promotion of its hydrography department- one of its ‘less glamorous branches’. In a letter to Ralling dated as far back 29th September 1976, Wright declared, ‘It has been extremely difficult and the costs involved are to me quite horrifying’.

These were not the only challenges the production faced, with the instability of the political climate also a consideration (Argentina in particular, for which northern Norway was considered as an alternative filming location). As Ralling concedes in a memo dated February 28th 1977. ‘It should be stressed that the dates [for schedule] are approximate, and may be subject to considerable alteration for unforeseen political, climatic or financial reasons’, also conceding that the venture may yet ‘prove impossible’. Technical Delays indeed did hit the expedition, with The Marques arriving late at both South American locations,  pushing the cost of conversion and extras for filming to a dangerous level, leading Rallings to concede that the production had ‘severely overspent’. There were continuing telegrams and letters flying back between South America and Television Centre contesting costing and budgetary issues. Indeed, the knock on-effect was felt on other productions such as Poldark losing money on lost filming as a result. This delayed the expedition by days at a time, which meant spending more money on the production, which increased the already generous budget.

In the end, as with any successful sea voyage, the challenges were overcome, and although the budget increased, it was still not extortionate for a flagship costume drama (no pun intended).  As we have seen, the critical reception confirmed this. Indeed, the ship itself became the central metaphor for the series. It is present in the very beginning as the prow of the boat dissolves into the punt young Charles is sailing on in Cambridge, as he drifts throughout his aimless younger years. In episode three, when Darwin is formulating his theory of evolution, he uses the Beagle as a metaphor for the natural order:

An activity as complex as sailing the Beagle clearly requires skill and coordination on the part of her crew. Yet I was observing activities in the natural world requiring an equal measure of skill, some indeed of infinitely greater complexity. Unless some other species were of equal intelligence to man [sic], then the only way they could perform such tasks must be through inherited instinct

When Darwin first encounters the Beagle in person he declares, “The vessel looked so beautiful, even a landsman would have had to admire her…the Beagle seemed to me to represent the very essence of excitement and adventure”. This attitude was also not lost on the critics, with Christopher Nicholson summing up the attitude, ‘The voyage was the magnificent centre- piece of the whole production. We got to know that little ship as none other that has sailed across the TV screen’ (Daily Mail, 13th December 1978).

 

Figures 2 and 3: In episode 1, the prow of the Beagle segues into an image of young Charles punting in Cambridge, enmeshing their respective destiny’s

The Voyage of Charles Darwin represented a bold and calculated risk on behalf of the BBC and one which not only thrilled audiences of the time, continues to stand up as an example of imaginative broadcasting. Others were not so fortunate. In 1980, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Sir Francis Drake’s 1577-80 circumnavigation of the globe, Westward Television put together a drama series, Drake’s Venture, which similarly retraced his voyage. For this production, a costly replica of Drake’s ship, ‘The Golden Hind’, was built from scratch. Although well-received, it was shown only once in the UK and on PBS in the United States and the drama remains unreleased, stuck in licensing disputes, whilst Westward lost their ITV licence the same year and folded. It was not until 1998, and ITV’s ambitious resurrection of Hornblower that a similar feat was attempted. This production also required a boat to be re-constructed, but by this time, CGI had begun to eliminate some of the general rigours associated with filming at sea. Thus, almost twenty years later, nautical TV dramas abound, undoubtedly buoyed by the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films series, from The Last Ship (2014- ), through Black Sails (2014- ) to the recent BBC series Taboo (2017- ). However, one wonders whether current producers are faced with the same obstacles as Ralling & Friend faced whilst tracing Darwin’s steps, on their literal and metaphorical voyage of discovery.

Figure 4: The closing credits attested to the romance of the age of sail and the importance of The Beagle to both the production and in the genesis of Darwin’s iconoclastic theories

The trailer for The Voyage of Charles Darwin:


Newspaper sources courtesy of the BFI (page numbers unspecified). All other sources courtesy of the BBC Written Archives, Caversham: The Voyage of Charles Darwin production files, T64/472, with thanks to archivist Louise North for her expertise and assistance.


Dr Mark Fryers completed his AHRC-funded PhD in 2015 on British National Identity and maritime film and television and has since published articles and book chapters on, amongst others, The Onedin Line, Howards’ Way, To the Ends of the Earth, global maritime animation and the nautical spaces of gothic and horror film and television.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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