8 Babelsberg Films to See

6:00 AM PST 01/31/2012 by Scott Roxborough
Everett Collection

In the studio's 100 years in operation, the films shot here reflected the political, economic and social upheaval in Germany and the world.

The Last Laugh (1924)

This drama about an aging doorman fired from his job is not the best film -- nor even the best known -- from F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu and Faust. Its place in cinema history comes thanks to cameramanKarl Freund, who invented the dolly for the movie, putting a camera on a baby carriage and pulling the carriage along a rail track. The "unchained" camera was an inspiration for a young English director's assistant working on the lot. That assistant was Alfred Hitchcock.

Metropolis (1927) 

Fritz Lang's science-fiction epic was a disaster. An audience flop, its massive 5 million reichsmark budget (about $200 million today) drove Studio Babelsberg, then Ufa, deep into debt, forcing it to agree to an unfavorable loan from Paramount and MGM and finally lose control to Alfred Hugenberg, a German media mogul who turned it into a Nazi propaganda machine. But cinematically, Metropolis is a marvel and arguably the most influential film of all time. Every sci-fi movie made since stands in its debt. The film's themes -- the dehumanizing nature of technology, the soul in the machine, the dystopia of the modern metropolis -- remain current, even if Lang's melodramatic, Marxist-flavored plot seems dated.

The Blue Angel (1930)

The movie that introduced the world to Marlene Dietrich also was a pioneer in the world of global co-productions. Ufa and Paramount produced this adaptation of Heinrich Mann's novel in German and English. Dietrich's thick accent didn't deter U.S. audiences, who loved her sexy Teutonic purr. The actress soon was off to Hollywood.

Jew Suss (1940)

Veit Harlan's anti-Semitic drama takes the prize as the most infamous film of all time. Commissioned by Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, it was a crude distortion of Lion Feuchtwanger's novel about the rise and fall of an ambitious Jewish moneylender. After the war, Harlan stood trial for "crimes against humanity," though he received only a light sentence and made several more films.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1943)

The most expensive film -- its budget was 6.5 million reichsmarks ($260 million today) -- made during the Nazi era, Munchausen was Babelsberg's answer to The Wizard of Oz. Director Josef von Baky turned what could have become crude propaganda into a marvel of color cinema, with pioneering work in mirror trick photography using models instead of full-scale sets. The fabulous story of the tall-tale-telling baron was scripted by Erich Kastner, a critic of the Nazis working under a pseudonym, and can be read as a sly critique of Hitler's mad fantasies.

The Murderers Are Among Us (1946)

Wolfgang Staudte's drama was the first German film made after the war, the first made in Babelsberg under the East German DEFA system, and the first to look squarely at German war crimes. It stars Hildegard Knef as a concentration camp survivor who returns to the rubble of postwar Berlin to find a man living in her apartment. Slowly, a romance develops between her and the man, a doctor traumatized by the war. The relationship is put to the test when he discovers his former commander, who ordered the execution of 100 innocent women and children, lives nearby.

Jacob The Liar (1975)

The DEFA system produced, in addition to the standard Communist agitprop, some of the best German films about the Holocaust. In Frank Beyer's movie, Jacob, a Jew in a Nazi-occupied ghetto, overhears a radio report about the Soviet Army's advance. When he tells his friends, the rumor goes around that Jacob has a clandestine radio. Noticing how his reports bring hope to the ghetto, Jacob tells more and more elaborate tales. The only East German film nominated for an Oscar, Jacob inspired a U.S. remake starring Robin Williams as well as Roberto Benigni's similarly themed Life Is Beautiful.

Sun Alley (1999)

The decade following the fall of the Berlin Wall was a tough one for Studio Babelsberg, with the backlot nearly going bankrupt. But the period did turn out this gem from German director Leander Haussmann, a charming comedy about life on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the 1970s. A box-office hit at home, Sun Alley launched a mini-genre of "Ostalgie" (East nostalgia) movies, a trend crowned by Wolfgang Becker's global hit Good Bye Lenin! in 2003. 

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