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German film company Ufa turns 100

Jochen Kürten db
December 18, 2017

It is the most famous German film production company: Founded in 1917, Ufa produced films that remain great classics — as well as works of propaganda for the Nazis.

Deutschland Geschichte Film Filmszene Der blaue Engel mit Marlene Dietrich
Image: picture-alliance/Gusman/Leemage

UFA: the name evokes classic German feature films as well as propaganda works from the Nazi era.

More recently, the production company has been behind major TV series revisiting German history.

2017 has been a special year for UFA. The company was officially founded 100 years ago on December 18, 1917— an anniversary the company has been celebrating all year long.

An exhibition on UFA opened at the end of November at the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum for Film and Television in Berlin.

DW asked Rainer Rother, artistic director of the museum, about UFA's role over the decades.

Rainer Rother
Rainer Rother, artistic director at the Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum for Film and Television in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle: UFA stands for totally different film eras, cultures and styles  is there any connection at all?

Rainer Rother: Yes, there is a common ground: "We want to be important, nationally and internationally!" That pursuit was still in a fledgling state when the firm was founded, played a role when the company was revived in the 1950s, and took on steam in the 1990s after it was absorbed by Bertelsmann.

UFA is Germany's most prominent film production company: What is specifically "German" about it?

Perhaps its history. It was born in World War I, at a time when official attitudes towards motion pictures had already changed. Before the war, authorities felt films tainted morals, and that only educational programs were worth supporting. That changed during the First World War, as the reaction to allied propaganda back then was: "We want to have a big film production company, too."

That is an intrinsic German development. One could say that Ufa has always had an eye on the international stage, defining itself as a production firm that seeks to be successful by focusing on typical German issues, and that makes it distinctive. That concept is still behind much of what the new UFA produces today.

How characteristic is the link between politics and culture in the company's long history?

The film production company was created with the goal of exercising political influence. It was expected to make money without being a pure propaganda institution, but rather a company that reaches the audiences with its films. Both aspects endured. In the 1920s, a two-part movie on World War I was produced in close cooperation with Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann.

During the Nazi era, the authorities were clearly in control.

In the 1950s, UFA was newly founded with the backing of the German government. Then, too, Germany was interested in having a major German film production company. That said, the years after Bertelsmann took control in 1964 are really the first time there was no state influence at all.

filming in 1929, actos, cameras
Silent films made the German film production company famous Image: Deutsche Kinemathek

Who are some of the great UFA producers and directors?

There is producer Erich Pommer, and directors including Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Georg Wilhelm Papst and Wilhelm Thiele. People remember the great silent film productions in the mid-1920s, and the firm's quick reaction when the silent movie era ended, making way for sound films.

How do you rate the movies UFA produces today, many of them mega TV projects about historical events in Germany?

These films are typical for German TV, and what the audience wants to see, feature films about German history. With the 2001 film "The Tunnel" — a made-for-TV movie about events after East Germany closed the border and began to build the Wall in 2001 —, UFA started to cater to people's interest in recent history.

exhibtion poster:„Ufa – history of a brand“
Poster of the exhibition "Ufa: The History of a Brand"Image: ZDF/Betafilm

The company produced propaganda films for the Nazis  from 1933-1945. How damaging was this for its reputation?

A large part of the films produced in those years are to be judged in a negatively. At the same time, we must admit that UFA was always strongly committed to the audience's tastes in various eras. The "classic" Ufa [Eds. how the name was spelled before the Bertelsmann takeover] produced a lot of "bread and butter" films, the same is true of today's UFA TV productions, including daily soaps that cater to a certain segment of viewers.

What does UFA still have in common with the "old" Ufa?

By pursuing the greatest possible diversity and through its claim to international competitiveness, the company which currently has the UFA name rights carries on the old Ufa concept.

However, the new UFA has made it clear, and rightfully so, that it is not the old company's legal successor. The new UFA moves in a different media environment and develops strategies in this different media environment that come close to the old Ufa's strategic orientation — without having had to learn any of it from the old Ufa.

"Ufa  The History of a Brand" is a special exhibition at Berlin's Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum for Film and Television. It runs from November 24, 2017 through April 22, 2108.