‘A Day at the Archives…’: Life Writing in the Swedish Film Institute Archive

Emil Stjernholm, Lund University, Sweden

12 June 2018


For the past four and a half years, I have been doing a PhD in film studies, spending most of my time tracing the biography of the enigmatic Swedish cinephile, filmmaker and historian Gösta Werner (1908-2009). During this period, I have visited a range of archives––from the makeshift archive of the Lund Film Society which is stored in boxes in the cellar of the arthouse cinema Kino a stones throw from my office at Lund University to the all but complete company archive of Universum Film AG (Ufa) at Bundesarchiv in Berlin. In this piece, however, I would like to focus on my experiences working with Gösta Werner’s large personal archive, which is deposited at the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) in Stockholm.

Gösta Werner was an omnipresent figure in Swedish film history––as a theorist, filmmaker, and scholar. In the postwar period, he gained recognition as a director of sponsored films and next to the well-known documentarian Arne Sucksdorff he was probably Sweden’s best-known short film director during this period. In Werner’s own narrative about his career, the war years are glossed over. Instead, the canonized experimental short film The Sacrifice (Midvinterblot, 1945) has habitually (and wrongly) been labeled as the director’s debut film. However, long before the release of this film, Werner began to pursue filmmaking under the auspices of the Nazi controlled German company Ufa and he participated in the shooting and editing of the German Swedish-language newsreel Ufa-journalen that was distributed in Sweden between 1941-1945. Accordingly, one of the main aims of my dissertation is to investigate what Werner’s role was in the production of German propaganda and how these transnational film practices affected the authorial discourse surrounding him during and after the war. After his filmmaking career, Werner became a scholar and prominent film historian. In fact, he became the first to earn a PhD in the newly instated subject filmvetenskap (film studies) in 1971. In this sense, I argue, his life and work shines light on the formation of Swedish film culture.

The archive and its origins

Gösta Werner’s personal archive is deposited at the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm so let me first say a few words about the place where it is being held. The film archive at the SFI is one of the oldest in the world and the foundation also holds a number of special collections. The special collections range from a number of major company archives, like the silent film company Svenska Biografteatern’s archive, parts of the major film company Europafilm’s archive and Svenska Biografägarförbundet’s (Swedish Association of Cinema Proprietors) archive, to the personal collections of filmmakers like Victor Sjöström, Arne Mattsson and Sven Nykvist. A big part of both the film archive and the special collections comes from an organization called Svenska Filmsamfundet (“The Swedish Film Society”) which was founded in October 1933 with the ambition to preserve the legacy of Swedish silent film, an era oftentimes referred to as the Swedish golden age of cinema. Like many other European countries, Sweden had a large film society movement in the 1920s and 30s, and a number of leading critics, filmmakers and cinephiles active in Stockholm film society aimed to promote the standing of film, release publications and create a forum for public debate and to establish an award for outstanding work within the film industry. From a scholarly point-of-view, however, one of their most important initiatives was the creation of an archive where they collected manuscripts, press clippings, photos and other types of film paraphernalia. In 1940, the archive became a more independent entity and it was given the name Filmhistoriska samlingarna (The Film Historic Collections), and the collections were transferred to Tekniska museet (The National Museum of Science and Technology). In 1964, the collections were taken over by the then newly established Swedish Film Institute (founded in 1963).

The Swedish Film Institute is located in the Film House on the borough Östermalm in Stockholm. From T-Centralen, which forms the heart of the Stockholm metro system, it is just a five-minute train ride followed by a ten-minute walk from the metro station Karlaplan. The archive is located in a large Brutalist building which was designed by the architect Peter Celsing. During one of the early meetings planning the house, the founder Harry Schein allegedly said that he did not want “no ordinary bloody building”, and the Film House indeed catches the eye of the passers-by. Besides the SFI, the Film House caters to a number of film production companies and also has two major cinemas where Cinemateket screens films daily.

The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

The personal archive and beyond

The material that my dissertation builds on chiefly consists of two components: the personal archive that which the filmmaker deposited at the SFI in 1993 (and later complemented with additional material in 2005) and Gösta Werner’s films. The well-organized archive – approximately 20 running meters of documentation from his career – was structured by the filmmaker himself and deposited at the age of 85.  It encompasses a great range of materials –manuscripts, drafts, contracts, drawings, photographs, correspondences and financial records – of which a majority is annotated. These materials range from notes from his earliest assignments as an assistant director on the drama film Skepparkärlek (Ivar Johansson, 1931) to his research on the work of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller in the late 1980s and 90s. One particularly interesting feature is the carbon copies of letters, which documents the director’s relationship to producers, critics and other filmmakers. Regarding Werner’s films, one must note that a number of them, more specifically 6 out of 45, are considered lost films, while the rest are held in the Swedish Film Institute’s film archive and have been made available to me digitally with the help of the National Library of Sweden’s Division for Audiovisual Media.

When I began this project I was not fully aware of the controversies that surrounded Gösta Werner’s persona. Even though rumors about his past political sympathies have been persistent throughout his career, Werner’s connections to Nazi Germany have never been explored in-depth. Here, one should note that the personal archive contains relatively few traces of his activities during World War II. Instead, the starting point for my investigation into this topic was a five-page dossier on Gösta Werner assembled by the Swedish intelligence agency (Allmänna säkerhetstjänsten). The fact that I discovered this file, more than two years into my research education, led me to explore other sources of archival material and research literature. This has been challenging because there is no comprehensive archival collection from Ufa’s Stockholm branch, neither in Germany nor in Sweden. Moreover, there is little information overall concerning Ufa’s operations abroad because the so-called ”UFA-Zentrale“ located at Dönhoffplatz in Berlin, was badly damaged by Allied bombs in February 1945, whereupon a large part of the archive material was destroyed in a fire. Given this, it is impossible to fully reconstruct to what extent the German company controlled the Swedish branch, and also to know exactly what Werner’s duties were at Ufa.

Given that he became a scholar himself and published biographies on several Swedish authors and filmmakers––such as the author Stig Dagerman, playwright Hjalmar Bergman and director Mauritz Stiller––I would argue that Werner could be seen as a particularly self-assured agent when it comes to the organization of the personal archive. Therefore, the personal archive that I am working with is in itself not a neutral place but actively constructed. Art historian Joan M. Schwartz and Archive scholar Terry Cook has argued that: ”Whether over ideas or feelings, actions or transactions, the choice of what to record and the decision over what to preserve, and thereby privilege, occur within socially constructed, but now naturalized frameworks that determine the significance of what becomes archives.” The gaps and absences concerning the most controversial and vexing period in his life – the war years – raises questions about what is included and what is excluded in the archive. While research in the Military Archives in Stockholm, the Swedish secret service archive (Allmänna säkerhetstjänstens arkiv) at The Swedish National Archives and at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin have helped me piece some parts of the puzzle together, many questions remain unanswered.

Even though Werner and his contemporary Ingmar Bergman are on opposite spectrums of the Swedish film canon, one being an appreciated legend and the other being marginalized, stigmatized and forgotten, their archives bear a striking resemblance in terms of the collector’s meticulousness and eagerness to save for posterity. Today, Bergman’s massive personal archive, also located at the Swedish Film Institute, attracts scholars, journalists and filmmakers from all over the world whereas Werner’s archive is full of unopened folders and envelopes. In other words, Werner took his artistic process seriously and considered himself a figure worthy of serious academic study, even though his filmmaking career never lived up to his own expectations.

Gösta Werner’s archive, The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

Emil Stjernholm is a PhD Student in Film Studies at the Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, Sweden. His areas of research include documentary film, propaganda studies and media history. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the Swedish film pioneer Gösta Werner (forthcoming in the book series Mediehistoriskt arkiv (Media History Archives), http://mediehistorisktarkiv.se, in 2018). He has published articles in journals like Journal of Media, Cognition and Communication, Studies in European Cinema and BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.


IAMHIST Challenge Event – “Extras, bit-players, and historical consultants in media history”

Anna Luise Kiss, Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf

10 August 2017


This blog reports on the IAMHIST Challenge Event: “Extras, bit-players, and historical consultants in media history” held at the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf and the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies in Potsdam (Germany) from July 17 to 18 2017.

As the Film University is located next to the Studio Babelsberg it makes good sense to offer seminars dealing with the history of the oldest studio in the world and the production site of such outstanding films as The Student of Prague (1913, Hans Heinz Ewers), Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang) and Solo Sunny (1980, Konrad Wolf). And as the practice of giving our Master students the possibility of conducting a cooperative research project before they have to work independently for their master’s thesis has proven to be successful, I thought the overlooked history of extras and bit-players in Studio Babelsberg would perfectly suit a researched based seminar for Master’s students in Media Studies. The thematic focus was motivated by my observation that in contrast to the amount of studies focusing on the upper sphere of the actors’ hierarchy, only few academic contributions address the role played by extras and bit-players in film. The reasons for this lack are many. To name only two: film historians were for a long time manly interested in outstanding directors, successful producers and stars. There was insufficient documentation of extras’ activity in film business, so that they were literally invisible to research. Although my students knew that the situation regarding the source material would be a major challenge to them, they agreed to my suggestion that we should, for two semester, address ourselves to that topic.

Our group of nine students divided into three subgroups: One group concentrated on the time from the founding of the studio (1912-1921), the UFA (1921-1933) and the “Drittes Reich” (1933-1945). The second group focused on the time of the DEFA (1946-1992). And the third group looked at the studio from reunification to the present (1993-2017). The students decided to focus on four questions:

  • Why were people motivated to work as extras?
  • How did the production companies find people who were willing to work as extras?
  • What were the working conditions like?
  • And, how was the extra treated in public discourse?

In addition, the students wanted to do a comprehensive analysis of the staging strategies of extras. Here they distinguished between films telling explicitly the story of an extra (most of the time in the mode of a fairy tale – the extra becomes a celebrated star) and films using extras to represent a crowd, or masses, and those which sought to represent a group within a milieu, types or pedestrians. Here they wanted to pose the question: in what kinds of aggregate structures (from an element of a mass to the individual being) did the extra appear? The methodological approach was very much orientated on Anthony Slide and Kerry Segrave: the students analyzed historic newspaper articles, production documents, they used the tools for film analysis, and – if possible – conducted interviews. The idea was to bring the results of the different groups together in a final research report. [*endnote]

While working on our research project we came across the IAMHIST Challenge. We decided to apply with the idea of hosting a workshop on extras and bit-players. On the one hand we wanted the opportunity of having our results critically discussed by other scholars, on the other hand we wanted to widen our perspective on the phenomenon on the basis of the contributions of the participants. We were happy to learn that our idea was one of the three winners of the challenge. With the support of IAMHIST we published a call for papers, and received the financial backing to invite guests, for film screenings and special events. Particularly Prof. Dr. David Culbert was very supportive. He suggested widening the frame of the workshop by examining the links between extras, bit-players and historical consultants. We were looking forward to a keynote from him on that subject matter. It was a shock for us to learn of the death of David Culbert only a few weeks before the workshop. Sadly, because of his absence, we failed to benefit from his ideas on how to conduct research on the historical consultant. But the representatives of IAMHIST Prof. Dr. Tobias Hochscherf and Dr. Paul Lesch immediately volunteered to conduct a discussion on the historical consultant.

Tobias Hochscherf, Paul Lesch and Anna Luise Kiss discussing the historical consultant as a potential research object

Despite a general discussion on how far the historical consultant can be seen as a research desideratum and on how one might approach this phenomenon, they worked out the connections between extras and historical consultants. For instance both can function as vehicles for authentication. Clamming that extras where hired who were, in real life, witnesses of the event staged for the silver screen, can be as effective in suggesting a strong bond to reality as the contention that the staging of the events in the film were approved by a historical consultant.

Besides this discussion, the first day was dedicated to the presentations by the master’s students:

Group 1: Iskander Kachcharov, Julian Gruß and Sarah Dombrink

They were able to reveal in detail major changes in the motivation of people who work as extras and bit-players: while during the founding years of the studio and the UFA, people were motivated to look for such work because of unemployment and  poverty or were as prisoners of war forced to work as extras, during DEFA times working as an extra became a  part-time job for students and pensioners. Nowadays the high number of runaway production produced at the Studio Babelsberg situated the work as an extra in the field of fan cultures. The casting process itself is an event and the shooting process a possibility to have an exclusive peek behind the scenes.

Group 2:  Judith Wajsgrus, Henrike Rau and Virginia Martin

Concerning the strategies of production companies to find people who were willing to work as extras the students worked out that until the “Dritte Reich” extras were hired in an uncountable number of Cafes and Restaurants in Berlin sometimes firming under the name of “Filmbörse”. During the Nazi Era the hiring of extras became regulated and centralized. The same with the DEFA, where an office for “Kleindarsteller” at the so called “Kleindarstellerhaus” hired extras with the help of their own catalog and played them on the basis of then existing salary scales. Today the Studio isn’t hiring extras by themselves anymore. Instead, when extras are needed for a production, the Studio consults specialized casting agencies, most of them situated in Berlin.

Anna-Sophie Philippi from Group 3

The student’s journey into the history of Studio Babelsberg was perfectly complemented by a tour through the area. Tobias Hochscherf followed-up the results of the student’s group working on the current working conditions for extras and bit-players in Studio Babelsberg, as his paper deals with the role of actors and bits in contemporary Danish Television. Compared to the German Television market, the Danish scene is much more characterized by personal changes and the rejection of Type- or stereotypical casting. This framework gives pit-players a much greater chance to make it to the upper sphere of the actors’ hierarchy.

For the conclusion of the day, we saw the film Magic Hours (2013, Henning Drechsler), telling the story of 84 year old extra Johanna Penski who started to work as an extra in the propaganda film Kollberg (1945, Veit Harlan).

The Workshop participants in front of the entrance of the Studio Babelsberg; the famous Marlene Dietrich Halle built for the production of Metropolis; the so called “Kleindarstellerhaus”; Tobias Hochscherf

On the basis of the submissions responding to our call for papers we were able to invite three early career researchers: Alexander Karpisek is a PhD Cadidate at the The Braunschweig University of Art. He discussed whether one could argue that the workers leaving the factory in one of the first films produced by the Lumière brothers, can be seen as the first extras existing in film history. Joceline Andersen, is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her  paper  gave us the opportunity to discuss the cameo as a further facet of bit-part players. In contrast to the extras and bit-payers who go most of the time unnoticed by audiences and are meant to support the flow of the scene, the cameo roles are cast either to stand out from the film’s fictional world by potentially destabilizing the fictional flow or they are used as an atmospheric supplement to the main action. Linn Lo?nroth is a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at Stockholm University. She brought with her a case study of “Preston Sturges’ Stock Company of Character Actors” and discussed the possibility of bit-players stepping out of their supporting function by scene stealing acts. The papers were followed by a discussion on the situation of extras in Germany and Luxemburg. Panel members were Dr. Paul Lesch, Karo Schnelle, Lisa Böttcher and Jannis Alexander Kiefer. Paul Lesch provided as input the case of late actor Thierry van Werveke who, although a well known actor in Luxembourg, had to start as a bit-player again when coming to Germany. Due to his “special” acting and outer appearance he was able gain reputation as an actor in Germany too. The case of Thierry roused the question in how far the physical characteristics are of importance to be employed as an extra or bit-player. As casting directors for extras, bit-players and actors Karo Schnelle and Lisa Böttcher appeared convinced that special characteristics are not a must be, but in praxis “special types” are employed more often that “averaged types”. Further more Schnelle and Böttcher gave us an insight into the work of Crowd Marshals. In this context we discussed the question of how far and for what reasons terms associated with the army are used in the context of extras. The young film director Jannis Alexander Kiefer recently finalized a documentary on another facet of the extra: the stand-in. As his protagonist formulated the wish to become an actor, Jannis’s experience inspired us to explore the question of how far people see the work of an extra as a spring board to a career as an actor.

Anna Luise Kiss, Paul Lesch, Karo Schnelle, Jannis Alexander Kiefer and Lisa Böttcher discussing the situation of extras in nowadays Germany and Luxembourg

After a guided tour through the Film Museum Potsdam we saw the documentary Battles of Troy (2005). The Film portrays the experience of Bulgarian extras who went to Malta and Mexico to represent Greek and Trojan solders in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004). We were delighted to be able to discuss the film with it’s director and visual artist Krassimir Terziev, who actually took part in the complete workshop as one of our experts.

After all these inspiring contributions, feedback and insights, my students are looking forward to continuing their work on the research report. The working conditions of extras mirror sociocultural developments, changes in film politics and changes in the production processes as a whole. Extras serve not only as an element helping to stage the background of the scene, but can also play an important role in the authentication strategies of filmmakers. Having a close look at the connections of extras to other people appearing in front of the camera, exposes the differentiation of the actors’ hierarchy, the strategies used by actors to become part of the upper spheres and how institutional change can bring more flexibility around entry into the hierarchy.

Q&A with director Krassimir Terziev

Anna Luise Kiss attended the University of Hagen and received a Bachelor’s degree in cultural studies. For her thesis on the visuality in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) she was awarded a prize for the most outstanding Bachelor thesis. Simultaneously she worked as an actress. She continued her graduate studies at the Film University Babelsberg and graduated in Media Science. With her Master’s thesis on the repetitive use of the last film shots of Hitler in documentary films she won, in 2013, the Brandenburg Young Scientist Award. Since November 2012 she has held a position as a research and teaching assistant in the field of media history at the Film University Babelsberg and has started work on her PhD about “Non-actors in feature films”. In November 2014 she published her first academic anthology on the DEFA director Herrmann Zschoche. Together with the cinematographer Dieter Chill, she presented their research on the still photographer Waltraut Pathenheimer in a book (Ch. Verlag) and an exhibition in the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies in December 2016. In October 2016, Anna Luise Kiss was elected as vice-president for research and transfer at the Film University.

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