Sunday, February 12, 2012

Babelsberg Centenary

Today, on the 12th of February, 2012, Studio Babelsberg, the oldest continuously functioning film studio in the world, is celebrating its centenary.

The centerpiece of the celebration is the brand new reconstruction of the Asta Nielsen vehicle, Der Totentanz / The Dance of Death, which was the very first film shot at the Babelsberg studios. The new reconstruction has been made at the Munich Film Museum under the supervision of Stefan Drössler.

Babelsberg's greatest glory years were in the 1920s during the Weimar republic. During the Third Reich large scale production continued under the reign of the Ufa company. After WWII Babelsberg remained in the Eastern sector, where the state-owned film company DEFA kept the big machine going. In the reunified Germany Babelsberg's future was at first uncertain. The Federal Republic's film production had located in Munich where the Bavaria Studios were more modern than Babelsberg.

The ascent of Babelsberg a hundred years ago was not self-evident. In Berlin there were 15 film studios then. Traffic connections to Babelsberg were bad but there was enough space to expand, and the owner was financially stable. The studio was built by the great German pioneer Guido Seeber. He let the walls and ceilings be built of glass so that sunlight was maximized. In 1920 the Decla-Bioscop company under the leadership of Erich Pommer became the host of Babelsberg. In 1922 Decla-Bioscop was merged with Ufa which owned the Babelsberg studios until 1945.

The original Babelsberg was a meeting-place of European talent. Top artists came from Denmark (Urban Gad, Asta Nielsen), Austria (Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder), Hungary (Michael Curtiz, Alexander Korda), Poland (Pola Negri), and Russia (Vjatsheslav Tourjanski). The young Alfred Hitchcock followed Lang and Murnau at work in Babelsberg.

During its golden age Babelsberg was a Babel of languages, but movies spoke a universal language as the speechless expression of silent cinema transcended national boundaries. In movies such as Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh even intertitles became unnecessary.

In 1992, Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek organized a magnificent Babelsberg 80th Anniversary retrospective. The task was hard since the heritage of the golden age of German cinema has been badly shattered in the torrents of history. The backbone of the 1992 retrospective consisted of classics from The Student of Prague till The Blue Angel, but there were rarities that had not been seen in 70 years. Fragments of The Dance of Death were screened. Another great Asta Nielsen discovery was The Sins of Our Fathers (1913). In Opium (1918), starring Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, many Caligariesque elements were already in evidence. The five-hour serial Die Jagd nach dem Tode / The Death Hunt was inspired by a story by Jules Verne.

In the mid- to late 1920s Babelsberg was a center of visual excellence and innovation in world cinema. Among the finest discoveries of the retro was Arthur Robison's Looping the Loop (1927), with new insights into "the circle as a symbol of chaos" motif. Other highlights included Wilhelm Thiele's Die Dame mit der Maske (1928) and Adieu Mascotte (1929). Cosmopolitan glamour was on display in Viatcheslav Tourjansky's Manolescu (1929), starring Ivan Mosjoukine. The visual splendour was sometimes enough to salvage an otherwise modest effort such as Schuldig (1927).

Included in the retrospective was also G. W. Pabst's superficial but fascinating revolution spectacle Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (1927), which infuriated the writer of the original source novel Ilya Ehrenburg. Wolfgang Jacobsen had edited the magnificent retrospective catalogue. Simultaneously appeared another basic work on German film industry, Klaus Kreimeier's Die Ufa-Story. Both books were the first on their subjects.

Watching the retrospective and studying the books it became evident that Babelsberg had a studio style whose hallmarks were a passion towards pure visualization, dynamic camera expression, the centrality of impressive sets, and ingenious special effects. The culmination of the Babelsberg studio style was Metropolis, which was screened in 1992 with Berndt Heller's arrangement of the original Gottfried Huppertz music to the then best reconstructed version of the movie.

In my opinion the most important Babelsberg legacy is still the vision of its golden age: a truly universal approach to cinema, boundless ambition and a spirit of innovation and exploration, the opposite of Euro-pudding. (Reworked from my Babelsberg essay published in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, 27 February 1992).

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