Echoes of Angels Singing the Blues | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 06.02.2002
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Echoes of Angels Singing the Blues

Despite a new repertoire of lively cinematic fare, the legendary Babelsberg film studio's signature allure remains its brilliant yet shadowy German history.


Taunting, tempting Marlene Dietrich, Babelsberg's 'Blue Angel'

The film studio that at this year's Berlin Film Festival contributes ‘Sumo Bruno’ – the comedic drama of an obese German man from a small town who makes his way to the World Sumo Championships – has a history that is not lean on drama.

But the laughter has only just returned.

In the beginning

No matter what the gods of the day may claim, the celluloid universe was not created in Hollywood, but in inventors' workshops on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ingenious and petty, some artful, some crass, they set about transferring the light and shadows of our physical world onto film, until in silence it appeared.

In Germany, it happened at Babelsberg, near Berlin.

Light projector

Here the seething intelligence, idealism, paranoia and lust of the Weimar era found its way onto Babelsberg’s reels.

The strivings of the modern era, in their desperate earnestness, found their expression in Fritz Lang’s legendary 1927 Babelsberg production, ‘Metropolis’, in a celluloid prefiguration of the impersonal utopia of the mega-city.

Roaring through the 1920’s, Babelsberg rivalled Hollywood, reeling out hundreds of films each year.

And when the medium finally found its voice in 1930, it was Marlene Dietrich’s as ‘The Blue Angel’. In Germany’s first talking movie, she struck a note of doomed love and incautious obsession – "Men flock around me, like moths around a flame. If their wings burn, I know I'm not to blame."

Dark years

But silence returned. First the Nazi seizure of power made Germany’s film industry part of its propaganda machine, and much of the free-thinking talent escaped abroad, including Dietrich.

It was an keen twist of justice that as racist state co-opted Germany’s art world and coerced cultural suicide, Hollywood studios thrived, often under the leadership of Jewish emigrants who had left the continent decades before. The Warner brothers hailed from Krasnashiltz, Poland. Samuel Goldwyn, who built MGM, was also a Polish Jew. Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, came from Bavaria, while an Austro-Hungarian-born man named Wilhelm Fried changed his name to Fox and built a studio of his own.

Babelsberg’s fate was sealed, not just by Nazi rule but then by communism, as it fell in the post-Wart Russian sector that became East Germany. The studio had half a century more of propagandistic work ahead of it as headquarters of the German Democratic Republic’s production company, DEFA.

All that left Babelsberg thoroughly exhausted yet ready for renewal through the 1990’s.

A new life

2001 was a milestone year, with the release of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Babelsberg-filmed ‘Duell – Enemy at the Gates’, a war-romance set in Stalingrad that was the most expensive European feature film to date. It kicked off that year’s Berlin Film Festival.

Another big work filmed at the studio, soon to be released, is Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’ – a story of survival in occupied Poland during World War II – for which Babelsberg’s set-construction crew had to recreate a quarter of the old Warsaw Ghetto.

The next epic feature in the works is a 2003 project by the American actress and producer Jodie Foster. She plans to dramatise the life of Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial German filmmaker who as a friend of Adolf Hitler made Nazi propaganda films that, despite the brute sickness of their content, still win some critical praise for their style.

So despite ‘Sumo Bruno’ and the rest of Babelsberg’s lighter fare – such awful history retains its force, attracting some artists, no doubt repelling others.

It is this studio’s peculiar fate that, as a place where man pioneered his manipulation of light and shadow, the darkness here still dominates – yet stars sometimes appear, drawn by the echoing song of a blue angel.

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