Studio Babelsberg makes comeback


The production facility that is called Studio Babelsberg today has had many names, many masters (at least two of them less than benign), and its share of ups and downs in its more than 95 years of existence. But through it all, one thing has not changed: It keeps churning out films and playing host to an extraordinary array of talent.

Built in 1911 by German company Bioscop, the glassed-in studio looked a little like an oversized greenhouse, the better to light the films that were shot there -- the first being Urban Gad's "Der Totentanz" (1912) with silent film star Asta Nielsen. But only after the studio changed names twice -- first to Decla Bioscop, after a merger with the German branch of French company Eclair, then to UFA -- did it gain worldwide renown with Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," which was filmed here in 1926.

It was the reputation of films like Lang's "Dr. Mabuse" (1922) and Murnau's "Der letzte Mann" ("The Last Laugh" from 1924), the artistry of the German expressionists of the time and the technological ingenuity Germany brought to moving pictures that made Berlin one of Europe's prime destinations for international talent, with a young Alfred Hitchcock learning his chops there in the early '20s (to be fair, he also made films at Bavaria studios).

With the rise of the Nazis, the internationality of Berlin and UFA studios gave way to an exodus of talent, with Lang and Billy Wilder being the most prominent directors to leave for Hollywood. Beginning in 1933, the studio turned more and more into a propaganda machine, with Veit Harlan's anti-Semitic tract "Jud Suss" being the most despicable cinematic example.

After Soviet tanks took to the lot in April 1945, it was only a matter of time until the studio -- named DEFA after 1946 -- became host to a different kind of propaganda. Until 1990, about 700 feature films, more than 150 children's films and countless hours of television programming were produced, including impressive work like Frank Beyer's 1966 film "Spur der Steine" (The Trace of Stones), but it also turned out many trite efforts promoting the socialist party line.

After reunification in 1990, public interest in the historic site was so low that it took French water-and-media giant Vivendi to take over the lot and invest millions into its technology and infrastructure. Now named after the suburb of Potsdam where it resides, progress was still made in fits and starts. Even with investments and the occasional international film setting up shop, like John Schlesinger's "The Innocent" (1993), Studio Babelsberg still had to subside on a lean diet of TV series and telefilms, supplemented with the occasional French feature, a third-rate sequel like "The Neverending Story III" (1994) or a few interiors for the occasional small German production.

While money from Germany's Neuer Markt and subsidies brought the East German-themed comedy hit "Sonnenallee" (1999), Jean-Jacques An-naud's "Enemy at the Gates" (2001) and Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" (2002), it quickly evaporated when the overprized entertainment stocks tanked. The studio received a boost when German film funds brought Kevin Spacey's "Beyond the Sea" (2004) and Karyn Kusama's "Aeon Flux" (2005) onto the lot, but even this found an end when the German Federal Government closed down the tax loopholes that had attracted the capital in the first place.

After being sold to a new group of investors in September 2004, Studio Babelsberg is just now experiencing a renaissance, with "Speed Racer," "Val-kyrie," and "The

International" having filled it to capacity in 2007. And with a new federal funding scheme in place and Berlin regaining its status as the international metropolis it once was, it is once again abuzz with international stars, talented directors and busy crews. After its long ride through history, that's probably the least that Germany's No.1 film studio deserves.