Commentary: 'Basterds' and other U.S. troupes keep Babelsberg in fighting shape

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POTSDAM-BABELSBERG, Germany -- Not many people know that two fires engulfed parts of a set at Germany's Studio Babelsberg a couple of weeks ago.

But don't worry, it was part of the planned climactic shots of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" that take place in a Paris cinema.

The exterior, built in a corner of the studio's backlot, fell to pieces in a one-take explosion, with stunt actress Zoe Bell diving out a window. The interior, built on a soundstage, was scorched by expertly contained fireballs that ripped through a theater built to period specifications just to be destroyed. (The studio's art department even found vintage movie-theater seats and restored them to pristine condition despite knowing their ultimate fate.)

Workers then began striking the dust-filled interior set, a task expected to seven to 10 days. But they didn't have much time: Last week, Roman Polanski also began filming "The Ghost," a thriller that sees Babelsberg and its environs double for Long Island, N.Y.

Babelsberg, and by extension nearby Berlin, boasts a booming English-language production slate to go along with its thriving German film scene. It's a far cry from 10 years ago, when the studio nearly closed because of a lack of film work.

Now it can hardly keep up. "The Reader" and its five Oscar nominations are generating proud chatter among employees. "The International" is another recent feather in the studio's cap, with its thrilling Guggenheim Museum set piece shot in a nearby train circle, where artisans re-created the museum's interior three stories at a time.

Other recent movies shot at Babelsberg include Oscar-nominated "The Baader Meinhof Complex" and foreign-language Oscar winner "The Lives of Others," both German films; "Valkyrie"; and "Ninja Assassin," produced by Joel Silver. In fact, Silver, who shot "Speed Racer" and "V for Vendetta" here, recently signed a 15-picture deal with the studio.

Fans of Babelsberg point out that making a movie here lets one inhale the studio's history, which began in the 1920s and includes hosting the making of "Metropolis." The Marlene Dietrich Soundstage still has a wooden roof with thousands of hooks for rigging, a seemingly antiquated system that such directors as Tarantino and the Wachowskis love using.

During the Cold War, East German and communist TV shows and movies came out of the complex, as did children's programming. Earlier, in Nazi-occupied Germany, it was home to Hitler's propaganda machine run by Joseph Goebbels.

That fact was not lost on producer Lloyd Phillips, who shot "Basterds" and "International" at Babelsberg.

"This office, this office right here where I'm sitting, this is Goebbels' office. I'm a Jew in Goebbels' office," he said recently, taking a break from packing his office. He described how two weeks earlier the same building was decked out in full Nazi regalia for a sequence, giving him a chill.

It's that history that gives the studio a leg up with certain kinds of productions. One of the only shops to house vintage World War II and Cold War props, it is an ideal place to shoot period movies set in the near past, such as "Lives of Others" or "Valkyrie." The latter employed a historical consultant from the studio, a 75-year-old who works two days a week and is an expert in uniforms, insignias and signage.

The studio, run by Carl Woebcken and Christoph Fisser and situated on a 39-acre lot less than an hour from Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, is set up in several entities that work on projects in tandem or separately. Crews work in teams and move from movie to movie; the "Reader" crew is working on "Ghost," while the "International" group recently wrapped "Basterds."

One reason for Babelsberg's rise is the way Germany's incentives -- 20% on spend based on cultural points in addition to local incentives -- are structured, taking advantage of European Union immigration and labor laws.

"Europe is one big backlot," Phillips says. "It was more advantageous to take the German crew to Milan than it was to take a crew from Rome. You can move."

Still, not everyone is happy with the influx of foreign production.

"Too many Americans are coming in and using the same pot we use," said Senator Entertainment CEO Helge Sasse during a panel at the recently concluded Berlin International Film Festival, days after it was revealed "Basterds" secured $8.7 million from the German Federal Film Fund.

Phillips, however, sees it as beneficial for the local scene, bringing in crews that pass on expertise to their German counterparts while raising the bar on postproduction, all on top of the dollars they pump into the local economy.

"American productions bring in a lot more than they see," Phillips said. "This place almost went out of business. The fact is that it's still going is because of 'Speed Racer' and 'Inglourious Basterds.' "
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