Ephemeral filmsUS Holocaust Memorial Museum partners with Austrian institutions to preserve historically important footage originally not meant to last

Ephemeral films are ubiquitous. They’re the home movies and the amateur, industrial, institutional and educational films with a limited purpose or audience that are not meant to endure. We have all either made, owned or seen them. Many can be found in families’ attics or stashed away on dusty library and archive shelves. Others have ended up in landfills.

For a long time, scholars of the Nazi era and the Holocaust did not devote much attention to ephemeral films, preferring to focus more on official films and still images produced by the Nazi regime for propaganda purposes.

However, ephemeral films from the Nazi era have been rediscovered over the past decade, and researchers have come to realize the important role they play in changing and correcting the visual record of that historical period.

With this newfound appreciation for these films, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum entered a partnership with the Austrian Film Museum and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for History and Society to digitize, annotate and make accessible 50 ephemeral films related to the history of the Nazi period and the Holocaust in Austria.

Initial work on The Ephemeral Films Project: National Socialism in Austria began in November 2011 and wraps up as the current year comes to a close. The project utilizes open-source technology that allows others to add material and continue to build out the project’s various features that allow viewers of the films to learn more about them.

“We’ve applied all we know about preserving and digitizing film to these films, based on the latest technological developments,” said film archivist Lindsay Zarwell, the lead project manager from the USHMM.

“We’ve been able to create an analog experience within a digital experience. It used to be that only a certain number of frames could be contained digitally, but now we have a one-to-one relationship between the digital and the analog source,” she explained.

What this means in practical terms for the those who view these ephemeral films on the project’s website, is that they can read a description of each frame as it plays.

‘We’ve applied all we know about preserving and digitizing film to these films, based on the latest technological developments’

Zarwell told The Times of Israel that bringing the project to where it is today was a huge undertaking carried out by a small team of professionals. She is proud of how far the work progressed, and emphasized that the objective was to preserve and make the films accessible, and not to interpret them for viewers.

Although some parts of the website meant to contextualize the films have been built out, others have remained unfinished. This leaves those inexpert in Nazi-era Austria challenged to understand exactly what they are seeing. The information that flashes on the screen next to the film as each frame rolls by lets viewers know the date the film was shot, who shot it, and where, but little more. The fact that all the explanatory information is in German only is also an impediment to those who don’t know the language.

For instance, a frame description may include key words like “women and men,” “Nazi salute,” “outdoors” and “rally,” but there is nothing explaining what exactly this rally was for, what happened and why the event was significant.

There is no question that this project will be an invaluable tool for researchers of the Nazi era who will be able to contextualize what they are seeing. It can also be a valuable tool for history teachers looking to bring something different into the classroom to enhance their lesson plans. However, showing the films to students will be ineffective unless teachers do considerable research in order to be able to guide the students in interpreting them.

For example, a film titled, “The Great National Turmoil in Austria (Excerpt from Policy Yearly Retrospect 1938)” shows Austrians cheering and giving the Hitler salute, apparently welcoming the invading Germans. Without anyone pointing out that the film is dated March 11, 1938, the prime significance of the film is lost on the viewer.

“The official Anschluss took place on March 12, 1938, and the lay understanding of historical events is that on that day Austrians were the subject of a takeover. The film’s date shows that many cooperative Austrians were out in the streets before March 12 celebrating the impending arrival of the Nazis, with homemade armbands, banners and flags already prepared,” said Zarwell.

Similarly, a home movie made by Ross Allen Baker, an American professor who brought his family on sabbatical to Vienna in 1937-1938, lets viewers see what was happening on the streets of the city during the Nazis’ arrival and shortly after.

The footage clearly shows enormous crowds watching and cheering as Nazi soldiers goose step down the wide streets of the Austrian capital. We also see Hitler standing while riding in a car, and then again speaking from a balcony. A note next to the film indicates these events took place April 9, 1938, but there is no further explanation of what is being shown, and no mention that this is occurring one day before Austrians went to the polls to vote in a referendum on the Anschluss.

Interestingly, all or some of the same footage filmed by Baker appears elsewhere on the USHMM website with a full explanation and complete biography on the Baker family.

The Baker film contains an intriguing scene where a woman (Baker’s wife Helen) is stopped by a young man in uniform as she tries to enter a shop. Since this scene takes place after shop windows with “JUDE” are painted on them are shown, a viewer familiar with the laws enacted by the Nazis to separate Jews from Aryans could reasonably understand that the man in uniform was warning Mrs. Baker not to enter if she was Aryan.

Indeed, this is what happened, as is confirmed by the following excerpt from Helen Baker’s diary from May 1, 1938:

“Before the election [the Anschluss referendum] the drive against the Jews was bad, but as soon as the vote was in, they really began to put the screws on. On the last Saturday that we were there, a Nazi was stationed in front of every Jewish store to prevent Aryans going in. We ran several experiments knowing that, as Americans, we could go wherever we chose. They stopped us, asked if we were Aryans and then informed us that it was a Jewish store. With one exception, it was sufficient to say that we were [foreigners], but this man was downright mean and threatened to arrest me if I went in. It was too close to our departure to take any chances, but I was certainly tempted to call his bluff… An Aryan caught buying in a Jewish store was often made to walk the streets wearing a large placard reading, ‘I am a German pig and I buy from Jews.’”

As amazing as it is to be able to easily access a digitized version of the Baker family film on the Ephemeral Films Project site, it is even more satisfying to know that Helen Baker’s diary, with its narrative of events, was also recovered and donated to the USHMM.

A (moving) picture may say a thousand words, but in many cases a complimentary written record completes the picture.