Babelsberg: World's oldest large-scale film studio
Many of cinema's greatest names worked in the legendary Babelsberg film studios, located just outside Berlin. In early 2022, it was acquired by a US investment firm.
Birth of a film studio
While independent US producers were already establishing their studios in Hollywood, German filmmakers were shooting in the center of Berlin. Because the hot spotlights kept triggering fire alarms, they were asked to find a more remote location. Film pioneer Guido Seeber picked new premises in Potsdam-Babelsberg, at the southwest outskirts of Berlin, where a first studio was built in 1911.
First film: 'The Dance of the Dead'
Within just three months, the company Bioscop built a 300 square-meter (about 3,250 square foot) film studio, called the Small Glasshouse. The first production wouldn't wait: The Danish silent movie "The Dance of the Dead," starring Asta Nielsen, was filmed there in February 1912. A year later, a second studio and a film lab were built on the site.
Pioneers of technology
In 1922, the German film production company UFA joined in. New techniques were developed: Wilhelm Murnau used a moving camera for the first time in the film "The Last Laugh" (starring Emil Jannings, pictured here). Hollywood directors came to Babelsberg to learn the newest tricks of the trade. Hitchcock would even later say, "Everything I had to know about filmmaking I learned in Babelsberg."
Film classic: 'Metropolis'
Fritz Lang spent two years working in Babelsberg on his visionary 1927 sci-fi epic "Metropolis," a masterpiece of silent cinema. With production costs estimated at 5 million Reichsmark (€1.4 million at today's rate) it was at the time the most expensive film ever made. The futuristic urban dystopia would establish itself as one of the most influential movies of all times.
Marlene Dietrich, a film icon
Many stars launched their international careers in Babelsberg, but Germany's most successful film export was without a doubt Marlene Dietrich. The 29-year-old actress had her big break in 1930 with Josef von Sternberg's classic, "The Blue Angel," filmed in both an English and a German version. It was Germany's first major sound film, produced in the brand new studio, Tonkreuz.
After the Nazis seized power, all Babelsberg productions were under state control. About 1,000 films were produced from 1933 to 1945 under the direction of Hitler's propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. Virulent propaganda films were among the lot, such as Veit Harlan's anti-Semitic "Jud Süss" (The Jew Süss) or Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will," chronicling the 1934 Nazi Party Congress.
The first postwar German film was Wolfgang Staudte's "Die Mörder sind unter uns," (1946) known as "Murderers Among Us" in its US version. The film, which launched Hildegard Knef's career, is a reflection on personal guilt and responsibility under Nazi rule. The film was shot in the ruins of Berlin. Critics abroad thought the rubble scenery was a particularly well-built film set.
The Babelsberg Studios were in the Soviet-occupied zone. The state-owned film company DEFA started filming there in 1947, producing over 700 feature films throughout the history of East Germany. Among the socialist propaganda works, some gained international acclaim, such as Frank Beyer's "Naked Among Wolves" (1963) with Armin Müller-Stahl impersonating a concentration camp inmate.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall
In 1989, DEFA was acquired by the trust which was responsible for privatizing East German state enterprises. The studios were then sold to the French company Vivendi Universal in 1992, which further invested around €500 million ($565 million) in renovation work. This typical Berlin street is a film set built for the comedy about East Berlin in the 1970s, "Sonnenallee."
Polanski's 'The Pianist'
Film producers Carl Woebcken and Christoph Fisser bought the company in 2004. With 25,000 square meters of space and 16 studios, Babelsberg is Europe's largest film studio complex. Roman Polanski filmed the World War II drama "The Pianist" here in 2002, with Adrien Brody in the lead role.
Hollywood in Babelsberg
Many American productions have filmed in Babelsberg in recent years, bringing a touch of Hollywood glamour to Potsdam. British actress Kate Winslet was here in 2007 for the film "The Reader," the story of a teenager who has an affair with an older woman, only to learn years later that she worked as a guard in a Nazi concentration camp.
Quentin Tarantino, the director of cult films "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill," also came to Babelsberg in 2009. The black comedy "Inglourious Basterds" depicts a fictional failed attempt to assassinate Nazi leadership during World War II. It starred, among others, Brad Pitt (pictured here) and Christoph Waltz.
'The Hunger Games'
More than 2,000 extras were needed and gigantic film sets were built for the fourth and third part of the global hit series, "The Hunger Games," filmed in Potsdam and Berlin. Pictured here is US star Jennifer Lawrence, who portrayed Katniss Everdeen. Berliners might be used to seeing film crews in their city, but they still love to catch a glimpse of their favorite Hollywood stars.
Part of the US television series "Homeland" was also filmed in Germany. In the fifth season, agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) moves from Kabul to Berlin and works for Germany's intelligence agency. The production's base was not the Federal Intelligence Service's huge offices, but rather the Babelsberg Film Studios.
A new chapter
In early 2022, US real estate firm TPG acquired the Potsdam campus, Germany's largest film studio. The company also owns Cinespace studios in Chicago and Toronto and 90 soundstages worldwide as it aims to keep up with the streaming boom led by Netflix and others. But Studio Babelsberg will continue to run independently while churning out hits that are part of cinema history.