The positive experiences of such institutions as France's INA in providing access to their archives via the internet has prompted German film archives in turn to consider the creation of their own virtual mediatheques.

The German Film Institute and the Defa Foundation, for example, have teamed up with international public organisations, including the British Film Institute and Italy's Cineteca Di Bologna, to provide access to some of their archived films online.

Initiated by the Midas project and supported by Europe's Media Programme, the site already offers more than 4,000 film works in four different languages, and a further 11 archives from nine European countries are expected to contribute parts of their collections this year.

The Defa Foundation has also teamed up with the Federal Archive and Studio Hamburg Fernseh Allianz to set up, providing access to more than 6,000 newsreels - from the days of the last German Kaiser to the fall of the Berlin Wall - as broadband videostreams.

Meanwhile, the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation in Wiesbaden has explored the possibility of making the German classics to which it owns the rights available via video-on-demand or pay-per-view.

'Technically, it would be possible because that wouldn't result in much expense,' the foundation's CEO Friedemann Beyer explains. 'But we have refrained from doing anything until now because marketing will be the deciding question. One would have to spend a lot of money to get it up and running.'

While the Murnau Foundation is in the advantageous position of owning the rights it administers, most public archives are only acting as trustees for the films stored in their premises. 'As a result, the extent to which the archives can exploit the rights themselves naturally depends on the rights-holders,' says Beyer.

The German Film Institute's platform has managed to collaborate with mobile telephone company T-Online in providing a series of German classics and seminal new productions as video-on-demand, but Beyer notes that this pilot project has not yet been crowned with real success. 'One has to be a customer of T-Online and have access to a particular software, so it hasn't really functioned,' he says.

Meanwhile, the Murnau Foundation and other archives are constantly developing the DVD distribution of their properties. German classics such as Metropolis, Der Golem and Munchhausen are being distributed internationally by the Murnau Foundation's Munich-based sales partner Transit Film, which recently added an Ernst Lubitsch Collection to its line-up.

The six-DVD set includes such early silents as Anna Boleyn and The Wildcat from the 1920s as well as Robert Fischer's documentary Ernst Lubitsch In Berlin as an extra.

'This collection would have been much too expensive to produce only for the German market,' Beyer says. 'The costs are recouped thanks to it being licensed to the US, France, UK and Japan.

'Paradoxically, the sales figures for the silent films are rather modest in Germany where the films were produced, but they are outstanding in such countries as the US, Spain, France and the UK.'

The Munich Film Museum, in partnership with other institutions, is also looking to introduce archive material through its DVD label to a wider audience.

Recent releases have included Curt Goetz's 1923 silent film Friedrich Schiller - Eine Dichterjugend, in collaboration with the Goethe Institute; five documentaries by Ella Bergmann-Michel from 1931-33, in collaboration with Frankfurt-based German Film Museum; and the Munich Film Museum's presentation of Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel's 1999 portrait of the American minimalist poet Robert Lax, Why Should I Buy A Bed When All That I Want Is Sleep'