Babelsberg Turns 100

6:00 AM PST 01/31/2012 by Scott Roxborough
Francois Duhamel/Universal/Courtesy of Studio Babelsberg AG

After surviving Nazis, Communists and near-bankruptcy, the famed German film studio that has hosted everyone from Fritz Lang to Quentin Tarantino hits the century mark on a high note.

On Feb. 12, German Studio Babelsberg will mark its 100th anniversary, making the backlot outside Berlin the world's oldest operating film studio. It can pop the champagne before 2012's fellow studio centenarians Universal (April 30) and Paramount (May 8).

It was at Babelsberg that genres from science fiction (Metropolis) to vampire movies (Nosferatu) were invented. Billy Wilder learned to write scripts at Studio Babelsberg, Marlene Dietrich learned to act and master of melodrama Douglas Sirk (then Detlef Sierck) perfected the weepie. And it was on the grounds of Studio Babelsberg that Alfred Hitchcock said he learned "everything I know" by watching 1920s directing legends Fritz Lang and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.

With 16 soundstages on 39 acres and 82 full-time staffers, Studio Babelsberg is the biggest movie studio in Germany and is where Roman Polanski brought his childhood memories of the Warsaw Ghetto to the screen in The Pianist, where Kate Winslet found The Reader and where, in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz shouted, "That's a bingo!"

And right now, Babelsberg is where Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run and The Matrix siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski are busy splicing together their $100 million sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, the biggest and most ambitious indie film of 2012.

However, the history of Studio Babelsberg also is the history of two dictatorships -- one Nazi, one Communist -- the history of a thousand propaganda films and the history of a golden generation of German-Jewish writers, directors, producers and actors who were forced to flee for their lives.

According to no less a film scholar than Quentin Tarantino, Babels­berg's glory days came in the 1920s and early '30s. "One of the high points of cinema history" is how Tarantino describes the era that produced Lang's Metropolis and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Murnau's Faust and Nosferatu and Josef von Sternberg's sexually charged The Blue Angel.

Most cite Metropolis as the cinematic pinnacle of that era. But the 1927 release also marked Babelsberg's fall from grace. Made for 5 million reichsmarks -- about $200 million today -- the movie was too far-out for audiences and bombed. Near bankruptcy, Studio Babelsberg was an easy takeover target for media czar and devoted Nazi Alfred Hugenberg.

On March 29, 1933, two months after the Nazis took power, Joseph Goebbels, the country's minister of propaganda, issued a resolution attacking Jewish directors and demanding a more Germanic cinema culture. What followed was 12 years of Nazi propaganda, reaching its repugnant trough with Veit Harlan's 1940 release Jew Suss, the most vicious and effective anti-Semitic film in history. It was a huge box-office hit, selling more than 20 million tickets in Germany, with Goebbels setting up special screenings for troops on the Eastern Front.

On Oct. 29, 1945, the Soviets seized Berlin and Germany fell, making Joseph Stalin the new Babelsberg boss. That triggered more than 40 years of Communist propaganda, with the occasional cinema gem. Some, like Frank Beyer's Oscar-nominated Holocaust drama Jacob the Liar, slipped by the censors. Others -- Beyer's regime-critical comedy The Trace of Stones, for example -- did not.

"During every regime, there were brave filmmakers who swam against the current and filmed their stories," says Oscar-nominated actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, who has made dozens of films on the Babelsberg backlot, both under the communist regime and most recently alongside Clive Owen in Tykwer's action thriller The International.

By July 1990, the Berlin Wall was gone, Germany was reunited, and capitalism, in the form of French conglomerate Generale des Eaux (later Vivendi Universal), came to Studio Babelsberg. It appointed Volker Schlondorff to return Babelsberg to its former glory. The director of the 1979 Oscar-winning The Tin Drum implemented a European art house vision for the studio, with Wim Wenders or Werner Herzog shooting in one hall and Louis Malle or Claude Chabrol in the next.

The auteur experiment was an abject failure. Vivendi lost a half-billion deutsche marks on Babelsberg (the equivalent of more than a quarter-billion dollars) and by 2003 was ready to sell. "The negotiations took over a year, and I think we were everyone's second or third choice," says Charlie Woebcken, recalling his purchase of the studio with fellow producer Christoph Fisser from Vivendi for a single, symbolic euro in 2004.

Fisser and Woebcken turned around Babelsberg by flipping Schlondorff's model and turning the "European studio" into Hollywood's backlot. Their first stop was Los Angeles, where they courted such producers as Joel Silver, Grant Hill and Lloyd Phillips.

Woebcken and Fisser also have made a name for themselves as creative solvers of producers' financial problems. The two lobbied hard for Germany's film tax credit, the DFFF, which can cut the budget of a feature shot at Babelsberg (or anywhere in Germany) by as much as 20 percent and has driven the current boom in big-budget production. In 2008, on the brink of a global economic downturn, they cobbled together enough equity to help bankroll a slate of films produced by Silver's Dark Castle, including Ninja Assassin, Unknown and the upcoming horror thriller The Apparition. Cloud Atlas, the biggest film ever to shoot at Studio Babelsberg, is also reinventing film-financing rules by tapping new sources, including major equity players from Asia.

A century in, Babelsberg's portfolio boasts a trophy case full of Oscar-winning films and A-list talent (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Natalie Portman, to name a few). The Berlin Film Festival will mark the anniversary with a special series, "Happy Birthday, Studio Babelsberg," featuring one film from each of the studio's 10 decades, as will THR in a party it is co-hosting Feb. 13 with the studio. But, noting that the studio lost money in 2011, Woebcken and Fisser are putting their bets on "hard facts and hard cash" to keep movies coming to the backlot and ensure Studio Babelsberg has not just a history but a future.

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