Efforts are underway to salvage one of the world's biggest collections of old films at the Swiss National Film Archives in Lausanne. The films are at risk of being lost forever because they were shot on nitrate film, which is chemically unstable.
The screening of nitro films was prohibited in the 1950s for safety reasons - nitrate film bursts into flames at high temperatures. The film also becomes more unstable with age, increasing the risk of fire, which is why the National Film Archives - the "Cinematheque" - keeps its reels in cold storage bunkers.
Many of the older films at "Cinematheque" are in an advanced state of decay. "Some of the films are beyond repair", says Reto Kromer, head of the archives' laboratory in Penthaz near Lausanne.
"Others look terrible when we open the metal boxes. For instance, the reels of film are completely glued up. Mostly, however, with the right care and equipment, we can save them."
The restoration project was made possible after the ministry of culture scrapped the Cinematheque's debt burden, enabling the "Cinematheque" to buy the equipment and employ staff needed to carry out the project.
Kromer, who has viewed 26,000 nitro films in the past three years, has found over 400 long-forgotten films, including a 100-year-old film - the second made by the Paris film pioneer, Pathé. The Pathé film will now be restored by France's national film archive, which will send a copy back to Lausanne
Kromer and his team also found 30 long-forgotten or "lost" Swiss films, of which 20 have been restored.
The restoration process is long and painstaking. The original film has to be chemically treated and cleaned by hand and its perforations often have to be repaired.
Film restoration is an art in itself, with many tricks and techniques. A common problem with old movies is the "rain" effect, which is caused by scratches on the surface if the film. This can now be removed by making a fresh negative from the original nitro film and exposing it while it is submerged in a liquid solution.
Restorers can also use different colouring techniques during exposure to ensure that the reproduction remains as close to the original film as possible.
Only a small number of the Swiss nitro films that have been restored are feature films. One is "Schaggi the vagabond" by Konrad Lips and Freddy Scheim, which was made just before the outbreak of the Second World War and shown at this year's Locarno Film Festival for the first time.
Most of the old film in the Archives are documentaries made by both amateurs and professionals, who were keen to exploit the huge demand for films about far-flung places or new technology in the early days of filmmaking.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many films were made in Switzerland. The attraction was the mountain cable cars, which allowed filmmakers to combine exotic scenery with what was known as "phantom rides" - moving views from a mechanised means of transport.
The films are of great documentary value, because they recorded landscapes, buildings and fashions as they used to be.
Kromer says he is fascinated by his discoveries. "Because cameras were popular early on in Switzerland, and because the rich from abroad came to stay at Swiss hotels, there is a recurring theme of balls in luxury hotels in the 1930s. These give you a glimpse of how the bourgeoisie lived, while Europe was falling apart around them."
Kromer thinks the entire Swiss heritage of nitro films could be restored for about SFr9 million ($5.1 million). However, with an annual budget of only SFr3 million, the Cinematheque is chronically short of funds.
"We would need another two million to function properly as a national archive", says director Hervé Dumont. He says smaller institutions such as the Dutch and Belgian film archives "can spend up to five times more on restoration".
The Cinematheque has benefited in other ways from the early popularity the cinema enjoyed in Switzerland. Because the Swiss market was important to international distributors, the Cinematheque gathered one of the largest archive collections the world. Today it has 56,000 foreign feature films in its vaults.
This vast treasury of film history was amassed largely by a former Cinematheque director Freddy Buache. A legendary personality with contacts across the industry, he persuaded Swiss cinema distributors to help him build up the archive, often by flaunting international contract rules.
Whenever a film - any film - had had its run in the theatres, distributors used to send a copy to the Cinematheque instead of returning it to its international distributor as stipulated in distribution contracts. It was only in the 1970s that distributors finally agreed to allow copies to be sent to the archives.
"It's ironic", says Buache's successor, Hervé Dumont. "Commercial television and digital TV have so increased the need for good prints that we've had international producers turning up here, and asking sheepishly if we have a good copy of some film, which of course we usually do, even though they used to forbid us to keep it."
The Cinematheque's own cinema in Lausanne takes full advantage of the treasures in its vaults. highly acclaimed retrospectives, which are also shown during a second run at the "Filmpodium" in Zurich. Films can also be borrowed for other showings, provided they are not commercially exploited.
On December 11th, the Lausanne venue will begin a new series of programmes, dubbed "Sorti du labo" ("Out of the lab"). It will feature selections from Reto Kromer's endeavours to save the archive's rich heritage in nitro films.
by Markus Haefliger