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‘footage berlin’: Bridging East and West, Past and Present through Archives

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Can you share a little bit of history about rbb and the ‘footage berlin‘ collection? How does its history set it apart from some of the other major collections in Germany?

rbb media is the commercial side of Berlin-Brandenburg’s broadcasting arm, and we feature collections of tv programs from three archives:

The first is the rbb television archive with material from the city of Berlin and the region of Brandenburg, including TV programs from the former SFB (Radio Free Berlin) in (West) Berlin from 1955 to 2003, and from ORB, the East German broadcaster in Brandenburg after reunification from 1991 – 2003. rbb emerged from the merger of these two broadcasters in 2003 – a bridge between East and West. 

The second archive, DRA (Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv, the German Broadcasting Archive), covers all TV programs from the state-run television of the former GDR (East Germany) between 1952 and 1991. It’s a really historical archive.

Finally, the rbb media archive covers the early evening programs that were produced by SFB Werbung, the predecessor of rbb media, for the German public broadcaster ARD. The archive contains TV series from the 1970s and 1980s featuring popular German actors.

What is special about the German TV archive system is that nearly each federal state in Germany has its own public broadcaster and hence its own TV archive. We do not have a national TV archive like, for example, BBC in Britain. As the public broadcaster of the city of Berlin and the federal state of Brandenburg, rbb covers issues that are related to the city and the region as well as important events that take place here. Thus, geography is one aspect. On the other hand, the federal public broadcasters in Germany are not restricted to their region. Choice of topics and programming depends on each broadcaster. Thus, programs about national or international issues can be found in every federal TV archive, no matter which region or federal state. This makes research a little bit tricky, because you have, perhaps, to address several federal public TV archives in Germany. Because Berlin was and is a historical spot, our focus is on history and political issues.

While the rbb archive continues to grow with new broadcasts and new material from Berlin, the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv – responsible for the former East German television archive – is a closed archive.

Our archives came into being as a TV archive, so the main idea was to gather all the broadcasted content. Over time, it appeared that more and more people were requesting to licensing footage, so the commercial aspect of our archive developed with this demand, and this is why we continue to develop. Being the sister company of a federal public broadcaster, however, there are some restrictions – on internet use for instance. With the label “footage berlin,” rbb media is entitled to exploit these archives, but the archives manage the programs.

In terms of content, what can one find in the rbb archive? What would you say your specialty is if there is one? Are there any items in your collection in particular that you would like content producers to know about?

The content in our archives is quite diverse – from politics, culture, history and lifestyle to nature, animals, and so on. But in terms of a specialty, ours is definitely historical material: Berlin as a divided city, daily life in the East and West, the political climate of the times, and then finally the reunification. In the archives all crucial moments starting from 1955 can be found, but there are also all these unknown gems. The archives cover many decades, and there is a lot of material that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Recently we got a request for footage about student movements in Europe in 1968 from Archive Valley. Usually we license material about the student movement from Berlin only, but our researcher found material shot by SFB in Prague at the time that we didn’t know existed. During the Cold War, West Berlin received a lot of funding for TV. At that time, camera people for local television could travel extensively to shoot. There could be footage from other places that we don’t even know yet. These types of footage request give us an opportunity to unearth this material.

Another time, we were looking for footage for a certain musician’s film portrait. Previously we only thought we had only the German broadcast version in our archive. However because we had a specific request that we thought was interesting, we dug through our archive and actually found the original sound track, i.e. the original voice recording. It’s really exciting for us to find this new material.

Yet again, we got a request for material by a foundation, because there was an exhibit coming up in Paris. The digital resolution of the material we could offer wasn’t too good, but because the foundation was interested in it, we were able to do a newly scan which was financed by the foundation. Getting requests really allows us to explore the archive. For example in the radio archive we got a request for recordings from the 40s, and now we have a new digitized version – all because a customer reached out to us.

In terms of licensing, how has the market in Germany changed over the past few years?

I don’t think that this is limited to Germany, but the research process for material has changed as a consequence of digitization and technological advances. It’s become normal to creators that content be accessible immediately online. Archives really need to be aware of this and deal with these expectations.

Our way of trying to satisfy these leads is by launching our new label, “footage-berlin.com.” We want to increase the transparency of the archive to give people an idea of the images we can offer and get them to the right contacts to license material if they are interested. Right now footage berlin’s online catalogue doesn’t mirror the archive, but is there to make it more visible. Partnering with Archive Valley is another way we look to satisfying that need.

Also, documentary is more and more present in movie theaters and is becoming a stronger market; and we’re seeing that in the requests. Sometimes we get requests for viewing materials even if producers want to get a feeling of an atmosphere – not only to use footage in the film, but also to consult the collection to get inspiration and a feeling for the times.

Because of the technological advancements and the growing market for documentaries, we’ve noticed a higher demand for footage, and especially historical footage.

What is it like to specialize in footage from such a historically rich place as Berlin? How can producers use footage from the rbb collection to contextualize a whole range of contemporary European and International issues?

Pictures are always created where something happens. Berlin has often been an important location by nature of events that happened here, so it really helps represent the importance of Germany within Europe and the world. Berlin is really diverse – it’s the center of politics; it’s diverse in its music and cultural scene. Famous personalities visit Berlin. It’s a very international place, and our archives represent that. Also, being the capital after reunification puts us at the center of political life and events in Germany. For East Germany, East Berlin was always the capital, but for West Germany the capital city was Bonn. As the capital of the unified Federal Republic of Germany, Berlin is not only a historical symbol of the Cold War but also an important spot in the future.

Why do you think it’s important for archives to innovate in the way they reach audiences?

An important reason to constantly innovate is because as a public broadcaster, rbb has a mission to inform society. As their sister company, it’s our job to make that informative material available to others. We’d like to make the licensing business more of a two-way street. It’s very request based, but we want to be more proactive. We should make a conscious effort to keep the archive alive. That’s why we’re so interested in investing in new ways of marketing our material. By putting ourselves out there, we can also share and inform people about the German federal system. For now being connected allows us to direct people to the right archives and inform them about other collections.


Are you a content creator looking for unique footage? Make a footage request on Archive Valley to connect with unique archives like footage berlin around the world!

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