100 Years of Film in Babelsberg From Glass Atelier to Film City

One hundred years ago the first scene was shot at Babelsberg.
One hundred years ago the first scene was shot at Babelsberg. | Photo (detail): © Studio Babelsberg AG

In February 2012, the film studios in Babelsberg near Berlin celebrated their 100th anniversary. Exhibitions and a book show the colorful history of the studios.

When Guido Seeber built his glass atelier before the gates of Berlin, he did not know that he was laying the foundations of one of the world’s largest film studios here in the wastelands of Brandenburg, where he appreciated the sunlight for “photographic reasons”. It was also by no means foreseeable that film would one day be considered a cultural asset worth preserving and that the studio’s first production, Der Totentanz (The Dance of the Dead), newly reconstructed from fragments, would be the highlight of a commemoration exactly 100 years later. At that time, cinema was still a very new medium that was not exactly highly valued by culture aficionados.

Commemoration, exhibitions and programmes

Nowadays, that has changed. On 12 February 2012, exactly a century after the first scene was shot at the “Small Glasshouse”, heralding the birth of the world’s oldest large-scale studio, international guests from the fields of business, politics and culture came to Babelsberg. They took their seats in the huge Marlene Dietrich Hall, built in 1926 when Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was being filmed. Matthias Platzeck, Minister-President of Land Brandenburg, hosted a reception after the screening of a reworking of the silent film classic Der Totentanz accompanied by the Babelsberg Film Orchestra. But this commemorative event is not all. The birth of the German dream factory will be celebrated in many places over the coming year. The Berlinale, (9 to 19 February 2012) had a special programme paying tribute to film-making in Babelsberg. The studio will be showing films and holding events for a large audience at its extensive complex and elsewhere in cooperation with the Film Museum in Potsdam and the Thalia cinema. The permanent exhibition The Dream Factory – 100 Years of Film in Babelsberg opened back in November 2011. There will also be a commemorative book available in German and English called 100 Years Studio Babelsberg, made in cooperation with the studio, the Film Museum and the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television, which is located on the studio grounds. It deals with Babelsberg’s varied history and includes a section of photographs, some of them previously unpublished.

A firm place among the world’s great studios

A special exhibition at the Deutscher Kinemathek in the Filmhaus at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin is devoted to pictures of film sets. Still photography, which for a long time received little attention, takes centre stage here. The photographers were not producing promotional material for films, but documenting events on the set, including working methods, working processes and the early development of technical possibilities. The exhibition On the Set. Paris – Babelsberg – Hollywood, 1910-1939, curated by the Cinémathèque francaise in Paris, is supplemented by an insight into events on the sets of Babelsberg’s contemporary productions. The Babelsberg studio has found its firm place among the world’s great studios and in the competition for international productions. Successful films, such as Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, among many others produced there in recent years, testify to the fact that the equipment, technical expertise, spacious filming complex and also the proximity to locations in Berlin make the location attractive for many of the great names in the industry.

An eventful history

Babelsberg has succeeded in keeping abreast of the times, in spite of a very eventful history with which no other studio in the world ever had to contend. The studio has lived through five different political systems from the Wilhelminian era to globalisation. It lost many of its staff on a number of occasions. During the Nazi period, many creative people, such as Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Fred Zinnemann, left the country for Hollywood. When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, many staff living in Western Germany were cut off from their jobs in Babelsberg from one day to the next. After the political transformation in the GDR and the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was confusion at first. It was impossible to go back to normal as if Germany had not been divided without coming to terms with the fact that for decades, filmmakers in the two German states had taken completely different approaches to filmmaking. That all has its place in the Babelsberg Studio today – they are facets and elements of its 100-year history.