The Unbearably High Cost of Holocaust Footage

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As documentaries have come to assume an increasingly prominent role in Holocaust education, a rather unlikely group of institutions has been profiting on the sidelines: the European film archives and distributors that claim the rights to footage depicting Nazi atrocities against the Jews.

Filmmakers interested in incorporating such footage, a common practice in Holocaust documentaries, are often asked to pay thousands of dollars or euros to clear rights to use a minute or less of these scenes. For independent filmmakers, operating on shoestring budgets, the costs can often be so prohibitive as to ultimately discourage their use.

“The use of documentary film has become enormously important, as we get further and further from the event, and there are fewer eyewitnesses and liberators who can talk to children face-to-face anymore,” said Tracy O’Brien, the director of library services at Facing History and Ourselves, a U.S.-based international organization that works with its network of nearly 30,000 educators on programs to combat racism and prejudice.

“These films are taking the place of stories delivered in person. I think that those archives in Europe that own footage of the Holocaust have an ethical responsibility to make it available at a fair price or for free and to consider the nature of the projects and their educational impact,” O'Brien said.

The budget for making a Holocaust documentary starts in the low five figures and can reach six figures and even upward of $1 million on the high end. Rights to archival footage are a typical budget item in such films. Documentaries based on interviews and narration, a common format when the subject is the Holocaust, tend to make greater use of archival footage than other formats.

The institutions that own rights to archival footage from the Holocaust period include national archives, private collections, museums and broadcasters.

Among the biggest in Europe are the respective national archives of Germany, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. These institutions argue, in their defense, that the costs of preserving and storing old films leave them no choice but to charge the amounts they do.

In response O’Brien noted: “I know that there are costs associated with preserving and storing, but I think making a profit from footage on genocide is unethical. It also often seems that the fees they’re charging are well out of proportion to the costs.”

Bonnie Rowan, a Washington, D.C.-based film researcher who has collected materials for numerous Holocaust documentaries, calls these documentaries “the history teachers of today.”

The high costs of clearing rights to World War II footage, she said, have become a growing source of frustration among those producing these films. “They have to spend lots of money on archives, because the way the system works, these archives own the rights to this footage, even though in my opinion, it should be out there for everyone.”

How these film archives ended up gaining possession of some of their footage, who owned the copyright and how exactly it was transferred are issues often shrouded in mystery. As Rowan noted, “I want to find the Nazi who says – ‘I shot that stuff. Pay me.’”

Not all film archives demand clearance fees to use their materials. The U.S. National Archives and Record Administration, for example, which has a huge repository of footage documenting Nazi crimes that was either filmed or captured by Allied forces at the end of the war, makes virtually all its materials available to the public at absolutely no cost.

“The bottom line is that 99.9 percent of our holdings are public domain – with no usage or rights restrictions,” said Miriam Kleiman, public affairs specialist at NARA. “This is official U.S. Federal Government policy.”

At Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, requests to use material in the rather small collection of archival film footage to which it holds rights are judged on a case-by-case basis.

“A factor taken into consideration is whether it is used for purely educational purposes without a commercial aspect,” said Dr. Haim Gertner, the director of Yad Vashem’s archive. “There are instances where there is no fee applied, others when a symbolic or small fee is charged and yet others when we charge the usual tariffs in place in Israel.”

About 80 percent of the footage in the film archive of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. is considered public domain.


“The Turkish Passport,” a 2011 documentary that tells the story of a group of Turkish diplomats who helped save hundreds and possibly thousands of Jews in Europe during World War II, makes considerable use of footage of Nazi roundups of Jews in the streets of Paris.

According to Bahadir Arliel, the producer of this largely self-financed movie, the cost of clearing rights to this footage with various European film archives exceeded €10,000.

In her 2010 documentary “Blessed is the Match” about the legendary poet and resistance fighter Hannah Szenes, filmmaker Roberta Grossman incorporated rare footage of the Jews of Budapest being marched down the street to the trains that would bring them to Auschwitz as their neighbors watched on in indifference.

The rights to this footage are held by the Hungarian National Digital Archive and Film Institute. The official rate it charges for worldwide rights to use this footage, that is, the right to use the footage in a film that will be shown anywhere in the world with no restrictions and on any type of platform, for a period of up to five years, is €4,000 per minute.

Grossman did not say whether this was the rate she ultimately paid (these fees are often subject to negotiation), but she acknowledged that it was “painful” having to pay to use such footage. “It’s a thorny issue, an ethical issue, but I guess this is what allows them to stay afloat,” she said.

In response to a request from Haaretz to explain its pricing policy, senior researcher Janos Varga said: “In our business policy we have different rates for different usages (educational, museum, broadcast, etc.). Our archive is partly maintained by the state, but we also have to make money in order to survive. Although the Holocaust is one of the most tragic chapters of the Hungarian history, we sell material about it just like we sell any other material of ours.”

Fees are occasionally waived. Such was the case with Yael Hersonski’s award-winning 2010 documentary “A Film Unfinished,” which explored the story of an unfinished German propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto.

Germany’s Bundesarchiv, one of the largest repositories of World War II footage, agreed to waive its regular licensing fees for its materials used in the film, and in lieu of payment it asked the filmmakers to make a small donation to a Jewish institution of its choice.

But another independent filmmaker, who requested rights to use a one-minute clip of the Warsaw Ghetto in a documentary about the Jewish ghettos during the war, received the following price quote from Transit Film, which operates as a distributor on behalf of the Bundesarchiv: €36 per second for television rights, €36 per second for home video rights, €36 per second for theatrical rights, €15 per second for noncommercial rights and €10 per second for Internet rights. These fees applied to a 10-year contract.

In response to a request from Haaretz to explain its pricing policy for such footage, Mark Grunthal, a representative of Transit Film, said, “Most of the revenue will be used to preserve and restore the historical material in order to keep the material available for the public.”

Based on quotes from various European institutions that hold rights to archival footage depicting events of the Holocaust, the price for worldwide rights to one minute of footage can range from several hundred dollars to upward of $4,000.

Chronos-Media, a private archive in Germany, was the only institution that volunteered to provide rights to its footage (in this case, of the Warsaw Ghetto) free of charge because of the nature of the subject.

Price quotes were received from the national archives of Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Bulgaria, as well as several private distributors in Germany and Sweden's public broadcaster.

Several institutions that hold rights to such footage did not respond to inquiries for price quotes, including Denmark's public broadcaster, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, the Romanian National Film Archive, the National Film Library of Serbia, the Russian Documentary Film & Photo Archive and France's Etablissement Cinematographique et Photographique des Armees.

Some examples of price quotes:

• For worldwide rights to use a one-minute clip of Jews being hanged in a town square near Minsk, La Camera Stylo, a small private distributor of historic home movies based in Hamburg, charges €600 for a three-year contract. In response to a request from Haaretz to explain its pricing policy for such footage, Michael Kuball, who runs the operation, replied: “I am running a one-man-archive without any funds or any support from the state. Should people working with Holocaust footage, with materials of such historic significance, not be paid at all? The photo and film labs transferring these documents, the hardware and software manufacturers helping to run the archives, the postman delivering these materials, all the companies and their staff helping to preserve and to supply this footage should not been paid? Even writing about this terrible chapter in history, its paper, printing and publishing should be completely free of charge? I would answer: Yes, of course. But is this realistic in this material world? People have to eat and pay their bills.”

• For worldwide rights to use a one-minute clip depicting anti-Semitic propaganda in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish National Film Archive charges €1,000 for a three-year contract. In response to a request to explain its pricing policy for such footage, Justyna Turczynowicz, a sales representative, had this to say: “Our collection of archival materials is considerable and its historical and educational impact is really valuable. For us, it is most important is to keep our collection in the best condition possible. This is connected with high costs and because of that, we never make our materials accessible for free. But we are always open for negotiations and we treat all requests kindly.”

• For worldwide rights to use a one-minute clip of Jewish prisoners in the Majdanek concentration camp, the Central State Film, Photo & Sound Archive in Ukraine charges $300 with no time restrictions. The archive director did not respond to repeated requests to explain its pricing policy for such footage.


Declan Smith, a film researcher at the BBC, has worked on several Holocaust documentaries including a series on Auschwitz for the BBC and a film about Adolph Eichmann for the Brook Lapping documentary production company in England.

Based on his experience, he said, the most expensive sources of Holocaust footage are the European national archives, especially those in in Hungary, Poland and Germany.

“The battles I've waged, and generally won, are to get the rights agencies like Transit Film in Germany to charge an affordable price - like €3,000 for a minute rather than €7,000. The rate I paid for footage of the Eichmann trial, where the rights are administered by the Spielberg Archive in Jerusalem, was considerably lower, though not free.”

Even mainstream broadcasters like the BBC, Smith said, do not enjoy “lavish budgets” when it comes to educational documentaries.

In recognition of the growing importance of documentary film in Holocaust education, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, known as the Claims Conference - an organization that allocates funding to survivors as well as to institutions that engage in Holocaust research and education - recently began setting aside money to support such films.

“This is a very small piece of what we fund but we do think this is a growing area for Shoah education,” said Miriam Weiner, the organization’s director of allocations.

The New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture's Kroll Documentary Film has provided finishing funds to numerous Holocaust-themed films over the years.

About a quarter of the total number of funding requests received by the organization in recent years have come from makers of Holocaust-themed films, according to its director, Andrew Ingall. “I’d say the number is steadily increasing,” he said. “It’s a subject that still compels and fascinates audiences.”

But the rising costs of clearing rights to archival footage for use in these films, Ingall predicted, may force filmmakers to look for other means of telling their stories or avoid platforms like television, which require higher rights clearance fees.

This prospect causes O’Brien, of Facing History and Ourselves, deep concern. “As there are fewer eyewitnesses to tell the stories these days,” she said, “these visuals become ever more important, especially with all the Holocaust denial going on. Sometimes these images are more powerful than any storyline you can construct.”

Archivist Udo Jost of the International Tracing Service, the world's biggest Holocaust archive, in the central German town of Bad Arolsen May 10, 2006.Credit: Reuters

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