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Cinema Zoo Palast in Berlin
Zoo Palast in Berlin © Zoo Palast, Foto: Jan Bitter

History of film in Berlin

When the pictures learnt to move ...

Berlin enjoys a long film history, reaching back right to the beginnings of moving pictures. At the end of the 19th century the film pioneers Max and Emil Skladanowsky invented the Bioscop and presented short film scenes. In 1895 several short films, including the Boxender Känguru (Boxing Kangaroo) were shown in the Varieté Wintergarden. This was the first commercial film screening to a paying audience.

In the 1920s and 1930s film studios already existed in Weißensee and Woltersdorf, including Joe May’s Glass Studio, where Joe May directed expensive historical epics, such as Die Herrin der Welt (Mistress of the World), Veritas Vincit and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb). He also, however, found time to direct realistic dramas, like Heimkehr (Return Home) and Asphalt.

On 12th February 1912 shooting began on Urban Gad’s Der Totentanz (The Dance of Death) in the Glashaus Studios in Babelsberg starring the silent film star Asta Nielsen. This was the beginning of the Babelsberg film production era, which continues its success story even today.

In those days the studio grounds in Neubabelsberg still belonged to the German Bioscop Film Company. Then in 1922 UFA took it over, moving from Tempelhof where it had previously made films in what is today’s UFA-Fabrik. Under the genius of Erich Pommer, Director of UFA since 1923, numerous important films were made, and Babelsberg established itself as one of the key players in the world for film production – in its heyday even rivalling Hollywood.

The 1920s: The zenith of film art

In the 1920s Berlin was the scene for film artists, such as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, to create powerful and timeless classics of the silver screen. Masterpieces like Nosferatu - Eine Sinfonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) (1922), Der letzte Mann (The Last Man) (1924), Metropolis (1927), Die Nibelungen (1924), M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (1931), Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) (1929) have lost none of their fascination even for today’s audiences, thanks to their wonderful artistic accomplishments. In a glittering premiere at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, a special showing took place of the original version of Metropolis, which had long been thought lost but was rediscovered in almost intact condition in an archive.

One of the key Berlin films of that period is Berlin; Die Sinfonie einer Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis) (1927), which documents a day in the life of the city, mainly through visual impressions in a semi-documentary style. A similar style is prevalent in the 1930 film Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), in which authentic pictures of everyday life and pleasure activities of ordinary Berliners provide a deep impression of contemporary Berlin.

Other films of the twenties and thirties, which focus on Berlin from an often socially critical perspective, include Phil Jutzi’s 1931 Berlin Alexanderplatz” starring Heinrich George (remade in 1979/80 by Rainer Maria Fassbinder with Günter Lamprecht in George’s role), Kuhle Wampe, oder: Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or: Who Owns the World) (1932) by Slatan Dudow and Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness) (1929) by Phil Jutzi.

Joseph von Sternheim’s 1930 film Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) launched Marlene Dietrich on her road to international fame. After moving to Hollywood, she rapidly became a world star. The grave of the film diva, who died in 1992, lies in the Städtischer Friedhof (Municipal Cemetery) in Schöneberg, and her estate is now on display in the Berlin Film Museum at Potsdamer Platz.

Films of the Nazi period

Following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 numerous artists emigrated, the majority to England, France and America. For most of them, this brought about an abrupt end to their career. A few of them, however, the geniuses Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, achieved world stardom in Hollywood. Many of the film artists who remained in Germany were persecuted by the Nazis. Jewish and critical film makers as well as UFA employees were dismissed out of hand, deported, persecuted, murdered.

From 1933 onwards, films made in Berlin were either propaganda films (banned even today), or comedies designed to distract. For its 25th anniversary in 1942, UFA made the gaudy and magnificently colourful spectacle Baron Münchhausen, the screenplay to which had been written by Erich Kästner – who had been alienated by the Nazi regime – under a pseudonym.
Films in the divided city

Following the end of the Second World War, Roberto Rossellini made Germania, anno zero in 1947 /48, a penetrating document on the destroyed city. A more light-hearted approach was adopted by Billy Wilder with A Foreign Affair (1948), which depicted the American attempts at democratising after the war – with Marlene Dietrich in the role of a femme fatale.

The UFA Group was broken up after the war, with its grounds being taken over by DEFA (German Film Ltd.) in 1946. Some of the films made there by DEFA succumbed to the censors, were banned and only shown years or even decades later.
In West-Berlin Atze Brauner with the CCC in Spandau not only produced fluffy films meant purely as entertainment, but also serious films often dealing critically with the Nazi past.

In 1961 Billy Wilder’s sparkling comedy One, Two, Three fell victim to the erection of the Berlin Wall, for nobody felt like laughing at the ironic East-West story in the shadow of a city divided by the Berlin Wall. The film only gained acceptance in the 80s when it was re-released in West Berlin cinemas. Although the glory days of film production in Berlin were long since over, a few outstanding films were still made in Berlin. Wim Wender’s 1987 film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) was set in the West Berlin of the eighties (including the unreal empty spaces of Potsdamer Platz). Die Legende von Paul und Paula (The Legend of Paul and Paula) by Heiner Carow (1974) is a moving love story in the East Berlin of the seventies.

New Boom after the Berlin Wall came down: Berlin films today

In the last 20 years, Berlin has enjoyed a renaissance as a film city, establishing itself as an important film location for films, which have captured the particular spirit of life in the city.

One of the best-known Berlin films in this period is Tom Twyker’s Lola rennt (Run Lola run) (1998), in which the starring actress Franka Potente runs breathlessly through the streets of the city in a race against time. Leander Haußmann’s 1999 film Sonnenallee traces in a humorous but realistic manner the life of a group of teenagers on the East Berlin side of Sonnenallee. The oppressive side of East Germany and the rampant persecution by the Stasi (East German Secret State Police) is depicted in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant Oscar-nominated film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others).

Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin (2003), a film that showed German reunification from a tragicomical perspective, was an international box-office success. In Gregor Schnitzler’s 2001 film Was tun, wenn’s brennt? (What to Do if it Start’s Burning?) Berlin squatters, who had mostly arrived in a changed Berlin after reunification, asked this question. The spirit of city life in Berlin was also impressively shown in Andreas Dresen’s moving film Sommer vorm Balkon (Summer in front of the Balcony) (2005), which was shot at Helmholtzplatz.

In 2002 there emerged Thomas Schadt’s Berlin: Symphonie einer Großstadt, a tribute to Ruttmann’s 1927 classic collage Berlin – Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, which compiled impressions of the new Berlin. In this documentation, the renowned cameraman Michael Ballhaus approached the many-faceted face of the city, the dreams and desires of its inhabitants and everyday life in the Metropolis. Commonplace, comic, moving moments of the city are also depicted in 24 Stunden Berlin (24 Hours Berlin). This TV documentation was a unique experiment, capturing all 24 hours of an ordinary day (5th September 2009) of Berlin life in real-time.

Shakespeare and Shah Rukh: international film productions

Since German reunification international productions have also discovered Berlin and Babelsberg, where in the 1990s the Babelsberg Studios were re-founded. The studios have since produced numerous films, including top-class works showered with Oscars as well as other international awards. These films include Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), Roman Polanski’s The Ghostwriter (2010) and Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008) starring Kate Winslet.

Bryan Singer’s 2008 film Valkyrie with Tom Cruise as the German resistance hero Count von Stauffenberg was not without controversy, and permission to shoot scenes in the original locations (such as the Bendler Block) was only granted after heated discussions.

Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London was reconstructed in Babelsberg for the film Anonymous by Roland Emmerich. Shooting for another international production “Cloud Atlas” also took place  in Babelsberg. The film stars Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry and is directed by the Wachowski Sisters and Tom Twyker as a directing trio.
In 2012 a very special film was released: the Bollywood production Don 2, which was mainly shot in Berlin, with the Indian megastar Shah Rukh Khan in the title role.