The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive

In 1925, two decades before there was a state of Israel, the University of Jerusalem came into being. Twenty years after the state was born, the university began acquiring films, and in doing so became one of the few repositories for...
May 1, 1999

In 1925, two decades before there was a state of Israel, the University of Jerusalem came into being. Twenty years after the state was born, the university began acquiring films, and in doing so became one of the few repositories for Israeli film in the world. In 1987, in honor of the eminent filmmaker, their archive became known as the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.

By most standards, the Spielberg Archive is not large. It contains about 15,000 cans of film and 7,000 cassettes, but it represents the most comprehensive library of Jewish film anywhere. Most of the archive’s clients are international, both because of the rarity of the films and Israel’s relatively small production community. Technology, therefore, is critical in delivering the films to the world.

Thirteen years ago, the four universities in Israel were linked with a pre-Internet network called Aleph, which was intended to aid student research by providing a central resource for information searches. Luckily for the archive, the computer programmers were anxious to get a film archive involved.

‘Today, they would never do it,’ explains archive director Marilyn Koolik. ‘We would have to pay a fortune. But then, they were just beginning, and they thought `Great! A film collection!” Since that first tentative step into the digital age, the complete archive has been cataloged and the contents have been put up on the Web. The Web archive has been fully searchable for more than five years.

In the early ’90s, the contents of the archive became more immediately accessible to North Americans through the efforts of Dr. Charles Berlin, head of the Harvard College Library. Berlin signed an agreement allowing Harvard to copy the entire library, in exchange for picking up the Telecine bill. Both libraries benefited with vhs copies. (Unfortunately for filmmakers, the Harvard copy is for reference only.)

Besides being ahead of many libraries in digital cataloging, the entire Spielberg archive has also been upgraded to safety film – a feat partially possible because of the size of the archive, and partially due to the backing of the university and international contributors. The last 400 cans of nitrate were converted in 1987 – albeit with a little difficulty, as there were no film labs in Israel. The film had to be taken to London for the transfer.

Before they risked committing the earliest recorded film history of Israel to the cargo bay of a 747, all 400 films were telecined and copied to video. ‘[The process] was very problematic because a lot of it was shrunk,’ recalls Koolik. ‘It took a long time. We spent about half a year. But I felt we couldn’t do that without at least preserving the images onto something. That was all the early cinema history of Israel on that plane. So, without the back-up of at least a video copy, I wouldn’t have slept…. Well, I didn’t sleep anyway until the plane landed.’

Besides the obvious logistical packing problems, there was the added risk of explosion, as nitrate is extremely volatile and flammable (a cargo characteristic most commercial air carriers frown upon). ‘In terms of nitrate preservation, the most difficult part was actually sending these films on a plane to London. The boxing of 400 cans of nitrate was not exactly…. Well, you’re sending bombs, which is not something that the airline appreciated exactly. We had to build special boxes, and we had to go through the most phenomenal security checks. But, it got off.’

Fear of sudden combustion aside, the Spielberg Archive continues to grow. Most recently, they took on a collection of 1,600 films, including 1,200 videos (made with the earliest video technology), and 400 16mm titles. All the films had been collected by Kibbutz Lohamei Hagettaot (Fighters of the Ghetto) in northern Israel. The list of films, all of which related in some way to the Holocaust, had been steadily compiled since 1949.

‘About a year and a half ago, we signed a contract whereby they would turn over all the films to the archive, and we would transfer it to video. This Kibbutz is up near the Lebanese border, and it wasn’t exactly accessible material. [Also], they were ruining the films because they were using them for educational programming. Some of these are rare films. It was painful to watch.’ The films are now being transferred to the Spielberg Archive at a rate of 100 per year. Each has to be cleaned, spliced and telecined for transfer onto Beta for proper preservation.

Not all the additions come in large packages. Koolik recalls how one photographer walked in with several cans of film, most of which the archive already had. One turned out to be a color-toned film dating back to 1919 – some of the earliest work of Israeli film pioneer Ya’acov Ben Dov.

There is one acquisition, however, that continues to make news today.

In 1961, Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi chieftain alleged to be responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina and smuggled back to Israel to stand trial. An American producer at New York’s Capitol Films, Milton Fruchtman, understood the historical importance of the event, and set about convincing both the Israeli government and judges that it was an event that had to be recorded – no easy task considering Israel had no TV’s at the time. It was a tough sell, but the judges consented to three cameras, all hidden behind walls and shooting through small windows. One was trained on Eichmann, another on the judges, and the final one on the witnesses. Even without panning or movement, the film is still remarkable.

‘What you are hearing is so mind-boggling that it becomes riveting,’ observes Koolik. ‘It is an interesting case where the visuals are really not terribly interesting, but the narrative track is…. I’m not even sure what you can use as an adjective to describe [it].’

The cameras were 2′ NTSC Marconis – primitive video recorders – and each ran eight hours a day. At the end of each day, a pool of international broadcasters (who paid Capitol for the rights) were allowed to select the footage they wanted. Capitol would dub the footage onto another 2′ reel, and it would be flown out to air on the evening news.

When the case was over, these highlights were turned over to the Israeli police (as it was a criminal trial) and Capitol returned to New York with the remaining 300 films. Their contract with the Israeli government stipulated that they had to hold the films for 90 days, but no instructions were given as to what to do afterwards. Capitol kept the films until the 1970s, and then turned them over to B’nai Brith, who kept them for years before finally donating them to the Spielberg Archive. After several decades and a number of cross-Atlantic flights, the films ended up less than two kilometers from where they had started.

The films were all 2′ NTSC, and only one such machine existed in Israel. A fundraising effort provided the money to transfer the films to 3/4′, the archive material of choice at the time, but only a decade later the decision was made to upgrade again to a more modern preservation format.

‘We decided to take a chance and go back to the original 2′ tapes, because the 3/4′ tapes weren’t really great. There were a lot of problems with them. There was a lot of drop-out, even though they were in archival conditions, and had been [played through] video recorders constantly to keep them from sticking. We decided to go back to the 2′, and found a 2′NTSC machine in Britain, and brought it over to Israel. It was a big risk because we had these 300 2′ tapes, but we didn’t know if there was anything [still] on them. And it worked. The quality is just unbelievable. The early tapes must have just been better material than what they’re producing today.’

Three copies were made during the second transfer; two PAL and one NTSC. One copy of the pal version resides both with the Spielberg Archive and the Israeli State Archives, but the NTSC version has found its way to the U.S., and is being made available to filmmakers. Announced only three weeks ago, the U.S. copy will soon be available at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, along with all the rights for producers who might be interested.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.