It's hard to imagine screen siren Marlene Dietrich ever being just another blonde standing at a bus stop. But when she first strode across the lot of Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam some 80 years ago, there was little separating her from other young, unknown actresses hungry for a big break. But Dietrich didn't have to wait long before her breakout role came in the 1930 film "The Blue Angel." And she had Babelsberg Studio, where the movie was shot, to thank.
The film rocketed Dietrich to international stardom, and she soon left for Hollywood. But the Potsdam studio she left behind -- despite a pedigree including a number of successful classics -- soon lost its glitter. When Hitler came on the scene, Babelsberg devolved into his personal, albeit incredibly effective, propaganda machine. Under communist East Germany, the studio had flashes of brilliance, but when the Berlin wall fell and the studio came under private ownership, the losses mounted.
Over the past year, Studio Babelsberg has made a stunning comeback worthy of its star-studded past.
With new management -- and generous government subsidies that cover up to 20 percent of a filmmaker's costs -- the studio is confidently looking ahead as it celebrates its 95th anniversary this year.
By the end of December, the studio will have hosted 11 films, including two big-budget Hollywood films currently being shot simultaneously: Tom Cruise's "Valkyrie," the World War II biopic of Count Claus von Stauffenberg's 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler, and the Wachowski brothers' star-packed flick "Speed Racer."
It's a far cry from only a year ago, when the fledgling investor team of Carl Woebcken and Christoph Fisser saw just three films, with a major production pulling out at the last minute. "This is the only project-driven industry where you don't have them set up two years ahead," said Woebcken, who serves as chief executive officer.
Indeed, it has been a rollercoaster ride for Woebcken and Fisser, who took over the studio from Vivendi Universal in 2004 for a single euro. The studio's bottom line had been hemorrhaging since the Franco-American conglomerate bought it in 1992. Despite pumping more than €500 million into it, Vivendi couldn't stanch losses of about €1 million a year.
After cleaning up the balance sheet and paying off the debt, Woebcken and chief operating officer Fisser posted decent returns in 2005, with such films as "V for Vendetta," "Aeon Flux" and Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book." But 2006 was "not representative" of what the studio was capable of, Woebcken says. At the last minute, the government postponed introducing the subsidies until 2007, a critical blow to the studio had touted them in bringing films that year to Potsdam.
With the subsidies now in place, the studio heads say there is nowhere to go but up. For 2007, the studio said recently it expects revenue to soar to more than €100 million, up from just €16.4 million last year. That would help it swing to a pre-tax profit of about €5 million, from a loss of €2.7 million in 2006, studio officials said. Since 2004, the team has invested €8 million in upgrades.
Babelsberg's rebirth has not only restored pride to the studio, whose legacy includes such successes as "Nosferatu" and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." It has also created jobs and income for the region and returned much of the glitter lost long ago. "The glamour factor makes the buzz around the city even higher," Woebcken says.
Getting back the glamour, however, is a lot of work. The studio's bread and butter is in big budget films, and Babelsberg's executives start courting filmmakers at least a year in advance. Reps make four or five trips per year to Hollywood to rub elbows with key players, to research scripts and make their pitch.
The stakes are high: Of 10 projects up for grabs, they may bring home one. And none of the money spent on such trips comes back to the studio unless it lands a film. "That's why the subsidy system is so important," Woebcken says.
Though they're already chasing next year's business, neither Woebcken or Fisser would divulge which films -- or stars -- are up for grabs. Fisser allowed only that "we're in good talks" with big names.
Babelsberg, though, doesn't just have to do battle with other studios to land the big flicks; it also has to face down its own past. The Potsdam studio's dark history under Hitler's Third Reich often becomes an issue.
Need a Nazi Stormtrooper Uniform?
Between 1933 and 1945, under the direction of Hitler's propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, the studio churned out hundreds of films including Leni Riefenstahl's openly propagandistic "Triumph of the Will." The virally anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süss (The Jew Süss), shot in 1940, was also made at Babelsberg. Goebbels' office was in Haus 3, across the driveway from where Woebken's office is today.
"We have to deal with that very openly," Woebcken says of the Third Reich past. But he's also good at changing the subject. "We are more like we were in the golden 20s," he says, a not so subtle reminder that before Hitler and Goebbels there was Dietrich and Garbo.
On this day, Tom Cruise was filming away from the studio in downtown Potsdam, an upscale suburb of Berlin that offers the studio and its visiting stars ample security from overzealous fans and paparazzi that can ruin a production. Still, the filmpark's public attraction was doing a brisk business, even for a weekday. Visitors are not allowed near the closed sets, but they do get a tour of the grounds.
On "Berliner Strasse," an outdoor set that resembles a cobblestone street in pretty much any European city, one is transported to Warsaw as depicted in the award-winning film "The Pianist" or Stalingrad in "Enemy at the Gates."
"The art department can rebuild it to be in any European city you like, old or young, during the 20s or the 50s," says Studio Babelsberg spokesman Eike Wolf. "All they need is three days."
Carpenters recently built a replica of the interior of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City -- itself a piece of art for a movie featuring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Babelsberg convinced them it was cheaper to build the Guggenheim in Potsdam than to film inside the real Guggenheim.
Artists can recreate a Monet or Picasso for a scene. Tailors can whip up an outfit from any time period. And what can't be made can be outsourced or bought, studio execs say.
Several warehouses on the lot house rows and rows of clothing and furniture spanning the decades. Need a television from the early communist era? They've got it. A Nazi Stormtrooper uniform? They have racks of them. A cowboy outfit for a western? You can find one in men's, women's or children's sizes.
Such services aim to set Babelsberg apart from others. And the competition is fierce, especially in Europe, said Harold Vogel, a New York City-based venture capitalist specializing in media and entertainment companies and author of "Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide For Financial Analysis," now in its seventh edition. Films that aren't dependent on location can pretty much film anywhere, and they tend to go to cheaper locales in Hungary, Prague or Romania, Vogel says.
Babelsberg has been able to create a niche with animated films, by offering good sound stages and expert technicians for "green screen" movies, in which actors are shot in front of a green screen but on film they look as though they are part of an animated or action scene.
Still, there is room for improvement and, despite a glum 2006, Woebcken and Fisser made important investments for the future. They doubled the studio's stage capacity by signing long-term leases on two industrial halls adjacent to the lot, which allows three large-scale productions simultaneously. They imported the same lighting and high-quality sound-proof insulation used in Hollywood. They also upgraded a studio with four sound stages to allow for the production of a soap opera, which they say is unique in Germany.
And they say they have been able to recruit the talent needed to pull off various and demanding projects, which has encouraged big names to return. The Wachowski brothers, for example, previously filmed the Matrix trilogy here. As a result, Woebcken says producers now come to them for a bid, rather than the other way around.
"The studio has ramped up to a higher level than it ever was," Woebcken says.