Captured on film
After decades of fruitless attempts to preserve it, the Axelrod film archive, a collection of priceless documentaries of Israel's early years, was finally rescued. The saviors? An energetic archivist, a professor of Islamic studies and a generous donor from abroad
By Moshe Mossek
By 5 A.M. on November 12, 1959, Dr. Paul Avraham Alsberg, director of the Israel State Archives, was already on his way down Dov Gruner Street in Pardes Katz, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Bnei Brak. He was headed for the home of Nathan Axelrod, a pioneer of Hebrew cinema and creator of the legendary Carmel Newsreels. Alsberg had been planning the visit for quite some time, intending to examine the largest and most comprehensive archive of documentary films in the country. Now he was also about to meet the famous director himself.
The object of the meeting was to discuss the duplication of the film archive and the preservation of copies in the Israel State Archives. Axelrod explained what he felt had to be done prior to duplicating the films, and outlined his financial requirements, which were reasonable. The conversation ended in good spirits, and the three went down to the basement, where the archive was stored. Alsberg was shocked by what he saw.
Nathan Axelrod with Baruch Agadati
Nathan Axelrod with Baruch Agadati photographed by Lea Axelrod
Photo by: From the catalouge "Carmel Newsreels"
Entering the closed cellar, he was greeted by a sharp acidic stench given off by the films, which were for the most part nitrate-based. The film canisters, many of them rusty, were placed on flammable wooden shelves and in piles on the floor. There were no safety provisions, and the humidity and temperature were liable to harm the films, even cause their disintegration. No less grave was Alsberg's impression of the Axelrods' familiarity with the collection. Excerpts of newsreels he wished to see, including the declaration of independence of the state, the immigration of German Jewry to Palestine, and the establishment of Nahariya, were not in their relevant containers, and when they were found, Alsberg was unable to watch them with clarity. As he left the Axelrod home, Alsberg decided to rescue the films before it was too late.
The following day, Alsberg sat in his office in the Kirya, the government compound in Jerusalem, writing up a detailed report on the visit, including precise data on the number of films and the projected cost of duplicating them. He began the internal report, intended for the office file, with these words: "The film archive, which is preserved in the most dreadful conditions, contains films from 1927 onward. Newsreels produced by the Carmel company were made on a regular basis from the year 1934 onward. All told, the archive contains approximately 400,000 feet of documentary film. Until the year 1952-1953, all were photographed on nitrate film, and only from the year 1953 were the films made on an acetate base. Approximately 150,000 feet contain material photographed before Israel's establishment, and approximately 250,000 feet, material after the state's establishment. It may be assumed that about half the material is nitrate-based." Nitrate film has an acidic base, which breaks down rapidly and is highly flammable.
To Alsberg's surprise, Axelrod had said that only about 15 percent of the material had any historic value. If only material preceding the establishment of the state was to be duplicated initially, that would amount to about 40,000 feet. Axelrod had asked for half an Israeli pound for duplicating each foot of film, including copyright. Alsberg calculated that IL 30,000 (Israeli lira, or pounds, the currency in use at the time ) would be needed to complete the first stage of the project.
The agreement that was eventually signed in June 1960 between the Carmel company and the government was altogether different from what had been discussed and agreed to at the first meeting. Axelrod surprisingly withdrew his offer to duplicate the films for the archive. Instead, he offered the government authorization to duplicate the archive in whole or in part and permission to present the films in public (as opposed to commercial ) showings, under the aegis of the state or the Jewish Agency - all this for only IL 15,000. Copies would be preserved in the State Archives, and the state archivist would be authorized to make them available to anyone wishing to view them. In addition, Axelrod pledged to prepare, within 18 months of signing the contract, a 90-minute documentary with material culled from the archive, and pay the state 15 percent of the film's earnings, up to IL 5,000.
The reason why Axelrod changed his mind is clarified in his unpublished memoirs, in which he outlines his financial difficulties in the late 1950s. He had failed to meet the payment schedule for a loan he had taken to make a documentary film and was unable to give severance pay to two of his employees. Lawsuits were brought against him and the bank seized his supplies and equipment. Thus Axelrod was forced to sell to the state, for an unrealistically small amount, his rights to duplication and use of the archive, in order to pay his debts and continue production of his film.
Axelrod was also deeply concerned that the nitrate films in his cellar would combust one day and ignite a fire that would trigger an immense explosion, destroying not only the archive and his home, but generating an environmental disaster.
Though Axelrod received his payment from that state, the treasury refused to allocate funding to the State Archives for duplicating the films, as per the option made available in the contract. The nitrate films continued to imperil the house and its surroundings. More than 20 years later, Axelrod would sell the film archive and the rights to its use to the state for a much larger amount.
Ten years had passed since the first contractual agreement between Nathan Axelrod and the state. In the meantime, Axelrod had succeeded in producing - together with the producer and agent Abraham Deshe ("Pashanel" ) and the then-actor and director Uri Zohar - the well-known documentary "The True Story of Palestine," which was a huge success in Israel. The film was composed mainly of excerpts from the Carmel Newsreels, but the state received no profit from the film's earnings, despite the wording of the contract.
Nevertheless, their mutual interest in rescuing the film archive eventually brought Axelrod and Alsberg together again, after 10 years of disconnection and mutual resentment. At a meeting held in June 1970, Axelrod again offered to sell his collection to the state, including rights to use the films, for the amount of IL 100,000. He estimated that preparing two 16-millimeter copies of each film, a positive and a negative dupe, would cost another IL 100,000 - a total of IL 200,000 for the entire project.
Alsberg was pleased to hear the proposal. Without hesitation, he immediately set up a meeting with Shmuel Almog, the director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, in an attempt to interest him in purchasing the Axelrod collection for Israel Television. Almog declined, feeling it was not the job of Israel Television to purchase film archives. But he was ready to enlist in the effort to acquire the funds needed to purchase the collection for the Israel State Archives, thereby preventing its possible removal from Israel.
Of all the parties approached by the IBA, the only positive response was received from Moshe Rivlin, at the time director-general of the Jewish Agency. It was the period of euphoria after the Six-Day War, and numerous contributions from overseas were streaming in. Rivlin was prepared to share the expense of purchasing the archive, provided that the Israel State Archives would foot half the bill. However, state archivist Dr. Alex Bein did not feel he would be able to raise the required amount, and turned down Rivlin's offer.
Five more years passed; the condition of the collection continued to deteriorate, and Axelrod tried to rekindle the State Archives' interest in purchasing it. At this stage, in 1974, after having returned to the State Archives following studies abroad, I first learned of the Axelrod collection affair. At the end of that year, I met for the first time with Nathan and Leah Axelrod at their home in Bnei Brak. Like Alsberg in his day, I experienced strong emotions at my first meeting with them, and astonishment at the neglected state of the Axelrod archive. I returned to their home on numerous occasions, and together we formulated a variety of plans to prepare the archive for duplication.
I had two partners in my mission: Nathan Bachrach of the Ministry of Education and Culture, and Yaakov Gross of the Avraham Rad Jewish Film Archive (which would later come to be known as the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive ) at Hebrew University. Both were excited at the prospect of saving the archive, and it was they who brought about the renewed contacts between Axelrod and the State Archives.
In accordance with the work plans we formulated, Axelrod was in the first stage asked to identify and catalog in detail 250 newsreels from 1935 to 1948. Alsberg, who was then the state archivist, received from his office a budgetary allocation of IL 25,000, which would cover in full the cost of cataloging the archive. At the same time, the Education Ministry assured him that it would allocate IL 50,000 to cover duplication expenses. In late January 1976, the agreement was signed, and the cataloging project, together with the duplication of selected excerpts, began.
Concurrently, Axelrod continued to seek a buyer for his archive. Through Yaakov Gross, he attempted to interest the Hebrew University in purchasing the film collection on behalf of the Rad Archive. Gross kept Alsberg in the picture, and informed him that Axelrod had asked the university for no less than IL 500,000 for the archive, including copyrights - five times more than he had asked for five years earlier. A few days later, Gross told Alsberg that Axelrod had suddenly upped the price of the archive to IL 3 million.
There was no realistic chance of raising IL 3 million to purchase the archive - not even IL 500,000. Consequently, the State Archives, together with the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Rad Jewish Film Archive, focused on fulfilling their contract with Axelrod.
The work took longer than expected, but a congenial atmosphere and sincere wish for cooperation reigned among all the parties involved in the project. It was then that a storm suddenly erupted, one that shuffled all the cards.
The cause was the TV screening of a documentary film made by Ilan Tiano, "Man with Camera," at the end of the Simhat Torah holiday in 1977. The key point of the film was the state's neglect of the Axelrod film archive, which it said was threatened with total destruction. A public storm erupted the following day, with a column by Hedda Bosches, Haaretz's legendary TV critic. Bosches sarcastically attacked the Ministry of Education and the cinema division of the Culture Administration, "which are allocating budgets to all sorts of sterile attempts and awful films. There is a generous budget for the department of unseen, ostensibly informational, films, but there is no budget for the preservation of an important film archive ... an archive that contains living and impressive historic testimony, due to which we can gain an awareness of our past."
Israel Cohen, spokesman for the Ministry of Education, furiously rejected the sharp criticism voiced in the film, and rebuffed Axelrod's and the director's arguments, noting that his ministry, along with the State Archives and the Rad Archive had for over a year been underwriting the work of cataloging the archive and had begun to duplicate selected excerpts from it.
But the storm did not subside. The minister of education, Aharon Yadlin dispatched a letter of reprimand, which appeared in the press, to Arnon Zuckerman, director-general of the IBA, in which he expressed "anger and resentment at the way Israel Television had misled the public, in that it did not take pains to examine what was being done to rescue and preserve the historic film archive of Nathan Axelrod."
Axelrod hastened to respond to the Ministry of Education spokesman in an interview that appeared the following day in the now-defunct daily Al Hamishmar. The cataloging of the newsreels, he claimed, encompassed only 20 percent of all the newsreels - a figure that was inexact. In addition, the accusation that the newsreels were duplicated onto 16-millimeter film, not on 35-millimeter film, seemed dubious, as he well knew that it was impossible to duplicate the newsreels onto 35-millimeter film using the duplication machine built for this purpose by his son Aharon. In another interview that ran in Yedioth Ahronoth a few days later, Nathan and Aharon Axelrod all the more forcefully attacked the Ministry of Education and the State Archives.
Why did the Axelrods choose to attack the only two institutions that had raised any budget at all and had begun the work of rescuing the archive? One assumes it had to do with their largely justified fear that the project might be scuttled at the start out of an erroneous belief that enough had already been done to save the archive. This was a concern that they repeatedly emphasized in media interviews. Nevertheless, despite these at times vitriolic attacks, the collaboration between the State Archives and the Axelrod family continued.
The director-general to the rescue
During 1977, the Axelrod family was very busy with work related to the production of the largest and most prestigious documentary series ever mounted by Israel Television, "Pillar of Fire," which focused on the history of the Zionist movement, the fate of the Jewish people and the Jews' settlement of the Land of Israel over the span of a century. The Axelrod archive contributed a large amount of documentary footage to many of the series' episodes. Starting in May 1978, once the Axelrods had completed work on the series, I again began to visit their home, at times accompanied by Yaakov Eisenmann, who along with Yigal Lossin took part in producing "Pillar of Fire."
At the first meeting with Axelrod following the lengthy hiatus, he again proposed selling the archive along with rights of use, albeit with two conditions: first, that he be allowed to arrange and catalog the archive in its entirety; and second, that the archive be copied onto safety film (acetate-based ) and be preserved at a public institution. In exchange for the sale of the archive and rights to its use, Axelrod now asked for IL 3.5 million, which, based on currency exchange rates at the time, was equivalent to about $220,000.
Officials of the State Archives decided to postpone any decision on the proposal to duplicate the archive, and gave precedence to the work of cataloging it. I made it clear to Axelrod that the budget at our disposal would not permit us to accept his comprehensive proposal to catalog and copy the entire archive. We would therefore have to make do with cataloging the sections that had been removed from the newsreels and films and which had not yet been replaced. In this manner we could finish cataloging the excerpts in our possession. This amounted to about 200,000 feet of film excerpts that were not in proper order, in 385 boxes. For this work, I offered Axelrod IL 50,000.
The Ministry of Education and Culture eventually agreed to pay the full cost of duplication. However, in the meantime, differences of opinion had arisen between the State Archives and Aharon Axelrod regarding the length of the films he had agreed to duplicate according to the contract.
Alsberg lost patience. He demanded, through me, "not to continue the duplication project with Axelrod, who should now pay back the outstanding balance from the advance payment he received." Nevertheless, the ministry's legal counsel, Meir Aran, and the ministry's accountant, Mordechai Sifroni, proposed a compromise. The monetary dispute between the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and Aharon Axelrod was settled, but once again contacts between the State Archives and the family were cut off, for a period of over six months.
The contacts were renewed, out of the blue, following a television rerun of the documentary film, "Man with Camera," exactly four years after its premiere screening. Public opinion was rekindled, and this time the director-general of the PMO , Matti Shmuelevitz, joined in the effort to obtain the budget needed to purchase the collection.
Alsberg agreed to renew contacts with Axelrod and to approach, at the latter's request, Yaakov Tzur, who at the time headed the Jewish National Fund, in order to mediate between him and the State Archives in the matter of purchasing the archive. The PMO director-general took upon himself the task of complying with the Axelrod family's two demands: first, working to confer on Nathan the Israel Prize for his pioneering work in the field of cinema, and second, arranging for him and his wife - instead of a one-time payment for the archive - a monthly salary for the rest of their lives, including a pension for Leah.
This proposed arrangement came to the attention of the state archivist, who was vehemently opposed. But when the dust settled, Matti Shmuelevitz succeeded in directly reaching a quick arrangement with Aharon Axelrod on the purchase conditions. It was agreed that in the first stage the archive would be transferred to the possession of the State Archives for $100,000, but the copyrights would still be held by the Axelrod family. For an additional $100,000, the rights would be transferred to the state. Leah and Nathan Axelrod would catalog the archive in exchange for monthly wages. To finance the duplication, a foundation would be established, whose members would include Aharon Axelrod and a representative of the State Archives. Aharon Axelrod would commit to duplicating the archive at a predetermined cost, but the State Archives would be permitted to transfer the material for duplication to another party, if it so wished.
Alsberg had reservations about Shmuelevitz's arrangement with Aharon Axelrod, and eventually, in light of his strident opposition, the agreement on formation of a foundation to underwrite Aharon Axelrod's involvement in duplicating the films was canceled; the proposal to employ Leah and Nathan Axelrod in cataloging the archive was canceled; and the Axelrod family agreed that after an option they had given to an American businessman, Dan Carter, lapsed, no additional option would be granted to any other party regarding rights to the films.
Once the contract had been drafted, Matti Shmuelevitz, with the help of Minister of Education and Culture Zevulun Hammer, succeeded in raising the requisite amount of $100,000 for purchase of the archive, but not including the copyrights. Thirty-six months later, when the option granted to Dan Carter had lapsed, Shmuelevitz managed to obtain an additional $100,000 from the state and signed an "addendum to the original agreement" with Nathan Axelrod, in which he transferred to the state all creative rights to the archive.
A benefactor is found
The primary mission facing the State Archives after the purchase of rights to the film collection was to secure additional funding for copying the originals on nitrate film to acetate film. According to a cautious estimate, $1 million was needed. As there was no reasonable chance of raising this amount from the state, the state archivist responded positively to an overture by Lia van Leer, director of the Israel Film Archive and the Jerusalem Cinematheque, who brought in Arnold Picker, a donor who said he was ready to help raise funds abroad to underwrite duplication of the films.
At the same time, the State Archives explored additional avenues: either duplicating the films in Israel on video, or duplicating the archive on film at the Imperial War Museum in London. But neither of these scenarios played out. When no progress was made for over a year in the project of duplicating the films in collaboration with the Cinematheque, the State Archives responded to another offer, issued by the Rad Archive at Hebrew University. Lia van Leer was angry when she heard rumors about this while in the United States.
On returning to Israel, van Leer wrote a letter to Matti Shmuelevitz, in which she reiterated her request to transfer the Axelrod archive in its entirety to the Cinematheque, with her fiery commitment to "raise funds and transfer the collection, with all due haste, from nitrate to acetate ... in order to make the collection a living and active archive that will enable easy accessibility to the public at large."
At this stage, it was clear that the Cinematheque was impelled by a desire to transfer the Axelrod collection to its possession as soon as possible, and thereby torpedo any possible contract between the Israel State Archives and the competing film archive. The State Archives, which had had a bad experience with raising the amounts needed to save the archive, was not at this point willing to let the "golden goose" out of its grasp.
But van Leer wouldn't give up, and proposed to Alsberg that she underwrite the duplication of the films at her own expense. In the first stage, she proposed a pilot project of duplicating 100 canisters of film on video, which would be carried out, at Alsberg's request, only in a professional laboratory. The master copy would remain in the possession of the Cinematheque and copies would be made from it for viewings and screenings; the State Archives would receive one of these copies. If the first stage was successful, the Cinematheque committed to duplicate all the newsreels on video. Van Leer agreed to duplicate all the feature films on positive film. To prepare the films for duplication, the Cinematheque committed to enlisting professional personnel, equipment and financing.
The year 1985 was a very active time for the State Archives and the Cinematheque, but the duplication work did not actually begin then. It was not until early 1987 that the State Archives marshaled its own forces to execute the project. Two students were hired and, along with the regular archives staff, they began to prepare the films for duplication at Jerusalem Capital Studios. A year later, all the newsreels had been copied onto home video film, appropriate for screening, but not preservation.
One of the students employed at the State Archives was Emmanuel Chouraqui, who had moved over from the Cinematheque archive to take part in the project. One day, "Manu" informed me that his father, Prof. Andre Chouraqui, a world-renowned scholar in the field of Islam and comparative religion, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and an esteemed public figure, was interested in meeting me urgently in regard to the Axelrod archive.
I met Prof. Chouraqui that same day in his spacious study, which looked out on Mount Zion, the Tower of David and the Old City walls. What I heard him say was no less amazing than the view.
He told the story of a woman he had met, a wealthy philanthropist who was interested in Judaism and Israel. Following the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the philanthropist, Germaine Ford de Maria, intended to contribute $1 million to both countries, to be devoted to national cultural projects, and thereby perpetuate the memory of her second husband, the London-based Jewish businessman Reginald Ford. The Egyptians had already proposed a project to her liking, and now, through Prof. Chouraqui, she was approaching the State of Israel.
Chouraqui had delayed his response to the philanthropist for a year. Now, after hearing from his son about the fate of the Axelrod archive, he was prepared to suggest that project, whose cost was equivalent to her proposed contribution. He had several conditions, which he proposed to Alsberg, including the establishment of a nonprofit association, headed by himself. His son Emmanuel would direct the project.
Once the association was set up, the State Archives rented work space and an air-conditioned storeroom in the Givat Shaul industrial zone in Jerusalem. Emmanuel Chouraqui, Ido Zuckerman and Moshe Zimmerman prepared a detailed catalog of the films, and packed them for shipment to the Centre National de la Cinematographie, in Bois d'Arcy near Paris. In less than two years, duplication of the collection was completed, almost in its entirety, on two copies, one for preservation and the other intended for preparing additional copies. The original films remain in France to this day, where they are stored in special bunkers in the National Film Institute. Thus, with complete success, ended the project for which we had yearned for so long.
In the final year of his life, Nathan Axelrod saw only the beginning of the fulfillment of his dream of duplicating his film archive and its preservation in the State Archives. He passed away in October 1987, at age 82, before the completion of the duplication project.
This article was first published in somewhat different form, in Hebrew, in Issue 16 of "Archive," the Israeli periodical for archival science and documentation.