1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Film history

December 27, 2011

For many, film is synonymous with Hollywood. Southern California shaped the world's appetite for movies, but other studios, in Paris and in Babelsberg, outside Berlin, were arguably just as important in early filmmaking.

An older version of the famous Hollywood sign bearing the word Hollywoodland
Not unlike the city's starlets, the Hollywood sign has gotten a makeover or twoImage: AP
Museum Director Rainer Rother
Rainer Rother heads the Deutsche Kinamathek Museum in BerlinImage: Berliner Filmfestspiele
Actors and others on the set of 'Der Letzte Mann'
Director F. W. Murnau and others on the set of 'Der Letzte Mann' in 1924Image: Collection Cinémathèque française

Berlin's Deutsche Kinamathek, the Museum for Film and Television, is showcasing an exhibition from December 15 to April 29 titled "On the Set." It's a photographic history of early film as it developed in Paris, Hollywood and Babelsberg, the famous studio outside Berlin. Museum Director Rainer Rother talked with DW about the start of filmmaking in the early 20th century.

Deutsche Welle: Paris, Babelsberg and Hollywood were the three famous centers of the early history of film. What role did France play, starting in 1910 and into the 1920s?

Rainer Rother: The French film industry had an advantage right from the start. In 1895, France celebrated the invention of film, and they knew how to use what they'd created. The studio Pathe was - along with Gaumont - one of the dominant companies in the world until 1914. You can see that with figures like Max Linder, one of film's great comedians, or Sarah Bernhardt. France started building major studios in 1908, but that all changed with the First World War. Then came the big American studios in California. Until 1914, France led the world's film industry.

Even those who aren't film experts may have heard of major pioneers like the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere as well as Georges Melies. While the brothers are credited with making the first documentary films, Melies is often seen as the "inventor" of the feature film. Were those the two central currents in French film at the time?

There were more genres than that. Yes, film developed in a documentary style with the Lumiere brothers, while Melies offered more fantastical work. But there were also the art films - that is, the attempt to focus on serious films by hiring actors from theaters and filming plays. That started in France. Other film genres also developed, like vampire and phantom stories along with serial films, which were unbelievably popular and influential. Plus there were the first attempts at taking up social topics in film, as in "La Rue" by Abel Gance. It was a very diverse and powerful film industry that developed, and that's how it won worldwide influence.

Hollywood is still a powerful film center, even if Bollywood in India now produces more films. In the exhibition, you've included beautiful black and white photographs that radiate a kind of perfection. Was Hollywood always such a well-oiled machine when it comes to film - the way we know it today?

Not really, because Hollywood began relatively late in comparison with the French studios. In 1912, the first studios in California were built, but then it all took off at an incredibly fast pace. Perhaps because there directors could count on 350 days of sun per year. That was unbelievably important for the young film industry. Light was a factor that they didn't have to pay for, so more and more studios made their way there.

The director Mack Sennett and others went to California. That's when it began to become the dominant place worldwide for the film industry. One other reason is that America was quick to adopt the star system. They understood that the star shouldn't be hidden, but has to be put right up front and center to get audiences into the theaters. Another thing was that various popular genres developed, like the Western, the detective film and, of course, comedies.

One might think that the reason why the focus isn't restricted to France and the USA is because the exhibition is in Germany. But Babelsberg and German filmmakers were in the mix right from the beginning.

In 1912, film pioneer Guido Seeber built the first ground level glass studio in Germany - in Babelsberg. That was the starting point for a surprising success story. Ufa, the first major German film company, was founded in 1917 to produce propaganda, and that's when Germany's studio system began to take hold.

It was a system that really began to draw international attention in the 1920s under the Weimar Republic, with directions like Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Georg Wilhelm Papst. It also drew together various careers associated with film. Something very influential developed through the work of script writers like Carl Mayer and set designers like Erich Kettelhut. The way the sets were lit by Murnau, for instance, influenced Hollywood's studios, and directors from Germany came to America. Ernst Lubitsch was the first to go that way, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau would do it later. German films took on a reputation for quality and became big exports.

Interview: Jochen Kürten / gsw
Editor: Ben Knight

Director Fritz Lang and actress Brigitte Helm on the set of 'Metropolis'
Director Fritz Lang and actress Brigitte Helm on the set of 'Metropolis'Image: Horst von Harbou - Deutsche Kinemathek