From Dietrich to Tarantino Germany's Studio Babelsberg Recalls a Century of Film History

It's where Marlene Dietrich made her name, Fritz Lang created "Metropolis" and Quentin Tarantino and Roman Polanski sat in director's chairs. Studio Babelsberg, the world's first major film studio, turns 100 on Sunday.

Studio Babelsberg

By Jess Smee

To the uninitiated, it is just a vast empty hall, a place where people shrink in comparison to high rafters and towering walls. But, for film buffs, Studio Babelsberg's Marlene Dietrich Hall is legendary.

Within these walls, Weimar-era director Fritz Lang filmed his dystopian mega-city "Metropolis," and Marlene Dietrich first batted her eyelashes at the camera in "Blue Angel." It was here that Europe's first sound films were recorded.

"For filmmakers and directors from Hollywood, this place is magic," Eike Wolf, a spokesman for Babelsberg Studio told SPIEGEL ONLINE during a tour of Europe's biggest film studio complex. "When Quentin Tarantino arrived here, he wanted to see everything straight away. He kept touching the walls, he couldn't believe he was actually here."

Quentin Tarantino filmed scenes of his World War II adventure "Inglourious Basterds" (2009) at the studio, joining a lengthy list of big names to pass through the studio's grand archway entrance over the past 10 decades.

On Feb. 12, filmmakers and other VIP guests will mingle in the Marlene Dietrich Hall to celebrate the studio's 100th anniversary. They will view a remastered version of the silent movie "Totentanz" ("The Dance of the Dead"), featuring the Danish starlet Asta Nielson -- exactly one century after shooting of the film began at Babelsberg.

Experiments and Propaganda

In a nod to the studio's successes, this month, the Berlin International Film Festival will feature a "Happy Birthday Babelsberg" section, showing a film from each decade of the studio's history. Digging into the studio's past unearths a dramatic series of highs and lows. A frontrunner of 1920s experimentation, it later churned out propaganda for the Third Reich and then housed East Germany's famous DEFA studio.

After German reunification, the dilapidated studio was bought by the French media group Vivendi, which sold it to Charlie Woebcken and Christoph Fisser in 2004 for the nominal price of one euro. They expanded Babelsberg's studio space, making it a viable option for big international productions.

Today, Studio Babelsberg serves semi-regularly as a backdrop for the international film industry. It generates the bulk of its earnings by renting out studios, building sets and providing production services for national and international films.

Its most recent coup was hosting "Cloud Atlas," the film of the best-selling book by British author David Mitchell, created at a cost of €100 million ($132 million), making it Germany's most expensive film ever. Featuring Oscar-winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, it is currently being edited ahead of its international release later this year.

Glory Days Gone

Although the international shoots boost the studio's finances, Studio Babelsberg's Chief Executive Woebcken admits that Babelsberg's glory days of influence and experimentation are long gone.

"We don't own and distribute the films like in the old days of the Weimar Republic," Woebcken said in an interview. "We sometimes co-produce films with other countries, but mostly today's films are owned by the big independent producers or the major studios. Times have changed."

Woebcken said the studio is increasingly focusing on 3-D films and green screen shooting, where actors are filmed in front of a green wall and the background is composed on computers, a useful trick for period and fantasy films. Two of Studio Babelsberg's recent productions, "Hansel and Gretel" and "Cloud Atlas," used the green screen technique. Focusing on new technology will help "put us at the cutting edge," Woebcken explained.

To stay afloat, the studio needs to host two or three major film shoots a year. With the German-language film market limited to just 8 percent of the global market, much of its work is international or joint projects. But, in a way, the studio's international emphasis ties in with its history.

"During the Weimar years, Babelsberg was a key center of global film production," said Professor Gertrud Koch, a specialist in cinema history at Berlin's Free University, adding that the film industry was one of the first globalized businesses.

Writing History

Back in its 1920s heyday, Studio Babelsberg helped write early cinematic history. For the movie "Der Letzte Mann" ("The Last Man"), director F.W. Murnau was the first to free the camera from its stand. Among his innovative solutions, the heavy camera was wheeled around on a bike and dangled from the ceiling in a basket attached to a rope. The new approach impressed Hollywood, which sent a team of its top cameramen to visit Babelsberg.

During the Third Reich, however, the studio's global reputation slipped and, instead of cutting-edge experimentation, it was used to produce propaganda and escapist movies. Babelsberg was suddenly cut off from the international film world.

"Experimental projects were halted overnight, and important directors, actors and camera teams fled," Koch said. "The studio never really recovered its leading position. After reunification, there were various attempts to regain its status. It is still trying now."

After Hitler took power in 1933, the Nazis seized on film as a tool to impart their message. In films like "Hitlerjunge Quex" ("Hitler Youth Quex"), they tried to persuade left-leaning workers of the benefits of National Socialism. With the outbreak of war, the propaganda machine moved up a gear, producing anti-Semitic films like "Jud Süß" ("Sweet Jew") by Veit Harlan in 1940.

War-Time Escapism

As the war continued and fighting raged in Berlin, the Nazis ordered a series of escapist films to distract fraught citizens. They continued pumping out upbeat entertainment until it was no longer feasible. For the film "Life Goes On," director Wolfgang Liebeneiner even recreated a war-torn urban setting in the Babelsberg studio. His project was ditched when the flames spread to Babelsberg in April 1945.

The studio's turbulent history is recounted in a book published as part of the anniversary festivities, "100 Years Studio Babelsberg," which compiles photos and texts about the site. Two German exhibitions also mark the birthday. Potsdam's Film Museum has created a new permanent exhibition about the "Dream Factory." Germany's Museum for Film and Television, in Berlin, has a photography exhibition tracking the history of film in its three important centers, Hollywood, Paris and Babelsberg.

And, over in the Marlene Dietrich Hall, Studio Babelsberg set designers are toiling away at a new piece of scenery. This time, they are building a massive stage in the empty hall, ready for the cameras to roll at Studio Babelsberg's own birthday party on Sunday.


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