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  • On the Restoration History of Colored Silent Films in GermanyAn Interview with Martin Koerber
  • Bregt Lameris (bio)

Martin Koerber (b. 1956) is head of the film archive at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. During his career as a film restorer, he collaborated with numerous archives, such as the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam (now EYE Film Institute Netherlands).1 He is an expert on German film history and film archiving, and in this interview, conducted in August 2013 in Berlin, he discusses various aspects of color restoration of German silent films.

bregt lameris:

As we know, film archives duplicated tinted and toned film prints on black-and-white material for a long period, a practice that changed gradually since the 1970s and the 1980s. The Nederlands Film-museum, for example, started duplicating colored nitrates on color film stock in the early 1980s. Could you tell us when German archives started to duplicate early tinted and toned films on color film material?

martin koerber:

In Germany, silent films have been preserved in color since the late 1970s, when the Bundesarchiv started to duplicate some tinted and toned archival films onto color film stock.2 The first Bundesarchiv color restoration of which I know was Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari [Wiene, 1920]. In the 1970s, colored nitrate prints of this film were discovered in London and in Uruguay, which were sent to Germany a bit later. I think the restoration of the film was done on color negative, which to my knowledge is the preferred method at the Bundesarchiv still today. The Desmet method—simulating tinting and toning via duplication on black-and-white negative and pre- or postflashing the color—was not known yet outside of Brussels. The laboratory in the Cinémathèque Royale, where Noël Desmet was working, [End Page 103] was pretty much a closely kept secret.

Jacques Ledoux seems to have been very fond of color in nitrate films. As a consequence, he wanted an adequate restoration technique to produce new projection prints that would do justice to the color effects of the nitrate prints. This is why he asked Noël to work on the restoration of tinted and toned films, which finally resulted in the so-called Desmetcolor. However, his method was kept a secret until Ledoux died in the 1980s. Since then the Cinémathèque Royale became more open, and Noël Desmet sometimes even came to Pordenone. All the other archivists just saw these beautiful prints from Belgium, and initially we could not figure out how they were made. For example, how could Desmet possibly duplicate tinting and toning on modern film stock [seemingly] without loss of quality, and how could he put two colors on a print at the same time without the use of an internegative or physical tinting and toning?

The other company that made color restorations in the 1980s was of course Haghefilm, working with the Nederlands Filmmuseum. When Hoos Blotkamp came to the Filmmuseum in 1987 and hired Eric De Kuyper, they started to go through their entire collection of early films. I saw the results of this new policy in 1990 with the Prima di Caligari retrospective in Pordenone. That year, they showed hundreds of German films from before 1920. This really was one of those moments when you had to throw all your books out of the window, books about Expressionism being in black and white and playing with high contrasts and all that bullshit. That year we discovered that all of these films really had been in color, and it was so beautiful! Of course, later we learned that the colors of these prints had sometimes nothing to do with the colors on the nitrate, because they were all made through internegatives, which can cause a mix-up of toning and tinting. This was different from Noel’s prints. As a result, we were educated to see the differences between what came from Brussels and what came from Amsterdam. However, until Noel started to explain his technique in Bologna, around 1992 or so, it was not yet clear to all what that difference was. One of the key events was the Amsterdam workshop...


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