This year, Studio Babelsberg celebrates its 100th birthday as the oldest continuously working studio in the world. Since its beginning in 1912, it’s survived the end of the monarchy, two World Wars, hyperinflation, world economic collapse, Nazism, communism, capitalism. . .and Hollywood.
In fact two years before Cecil B. DeMille converted an old barn near rural Los Angeles to shoot “The Squaw Man,” the Deutsche Bioscop company was already building its first glass-roofed studio on a plot of land outside Berlin that was to become the Babelsberg studios.
The production of “Der totentanz” started an eight-film run with early superstar Asta Nielsen. When she left a year later, Bioscop brought in another crop of actors and directors from the burgeoning Berlin theater and plowed ahead. But despite break-out films by actor-director Paul Wegener, (“Student From Prague,” “The Golem”) the company was almost bankrupt by 1914.
And then World War I broke out. After a flurry of activity and expansion in the early years, by 1917 the studio was surviving by renting out production facilities. A merger with the Decla company in 1920 made it suddenly the second-biggest company in Germany. A year later it merged again with UFA and became a powerhouse.
In the midst of Weimar hyperinflation, the studio expanded, developing a generation of artists and technicians who were mounting big-budget spectaculars. Films like F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” which introduced the first moving camera; Joe May’s “Asphalt,” with the biggest set ever built in Europe; and Fritz Lang’s 50 million reichsmark sci-fi extravaganza “Metropolis” put the studio on the map as a rival to Hollywood — while bringing it back to the brink of bankruptcy, requiring a bailout by Paramount and Metro.
The coming of sound in 1930 put UFA back on track with the first musicals, “Melodie des herzen” (Melody of the Heart) and “Die drei von der tankstelle” (Three Good Friends). By shooting the films simultaneously in French, German and English, it was able to conquer the language barrier. But if the English version of “The Blue Angel” failed to crack open the American market, the multi-language strategy was a smash in Europe and established the way forward.
The year 1933 saw Hitler rise to power in Germany, and Goebbels take over the German film industry. Between an ever-increasing exodus of talent and the arrival of ideological agendas, UFA’s fortunes were once again sliding. The nationalization of the industry moved more production to the studio, but the international market was drying up.
But Goebbels loved the movies. And when it became clear that such hardline propaganda as “S.A. Mann Brand” or “Hitler Youth Quex” was tanking with the audiences, he increasingly focused on national morale, lifted by lush escapism like “Die grosse liebe” (The Great Love), “Paradies der junggesellen” (Bachelors Paradise) or the Agfacolor fantasy, “Baron Munchhausen,” featuring a new wartime generation of stars. As things got darker, Goebbels was not above diverting resources and manpower from the war effort to maintain quality production.
With Germany divided at the end of World War II, Babelsberg landed in the Soviet sector and the studio — renamed DEFA — became the sole producing entity for the soon-to-be East German state. Its first production, “Die morder sind unter uns” (Murderers Among Us) was visually classic UFA, while taking a Soviet-inspired anti-fascist tack.
Subsequent films developed their own style as socialist realism came into force. Ideology ruled, but stories like “Der geteilte himmel” (Divided Heaven), “Die legende von Paul und Paula” (The Legend of Paul and Paula) or “Solo Sunny” attempted to reflect, question and, when possible, criticize life in the “other” Germany.
Yet even the hard-line could not stop entertainment. Studio “quotas” allowed for a whole range of genre films — comedies, fairy tales, science fiction, musicals and even westerns (with the cowboys as imperialist oppressors). By the time the Berlin Wall fell, the DEFA had produced 1,500 films for cinema and TV.
The studio was thrown into the struggle to retain continuity while re-inventing itself for the contemporary market. Sold to the French conglomerate Vivendi, Babelsberg’s role shrank to that of service provider and sometimes co-production partner to national and international productions.
European mega-production “Enemy at the Gates” was its breakthrough as a production facility, and Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” would lead to a string of Oscar winners.
Soon Babelsberg was bought by Charlie Woebcken and Christoph Fisser who took it public. High-profile films like “V for Vendetta,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Cloud Atlas” followed, and led to a multi-picture deal with Joel Silver and, most recently, partnership in the French/German production company the Manipulators.
As a birthday gift, the Berlinale will be screening a series of films that takes Studio Babelsberg through its first 100 years. Now let’s see what it does for an encore.
Survival of the outfitted | National treasure morphs into int’l player on the make | Berlinale 10-pic retro reflects studio’s kaleidoscopic output | Eights things you never knew about Studio Babelsberg