from the magazine To Hollywood and Back

The centennial of a legendary production company sheds light on Hollywood’s German roots. Today, it’s Hollywood that has found a new home on the outskirts of Berlin.
George Clooney on the set of Monument Men at Babelsberg Studio near Berlin.

Fade in — Berlin, December 1932. Celebrated German film director Ernst Lubitsch has returned to his hometown from Hollywood for a visit. At a party, a journalist asks whether he ever plans to work in Germany again. Lubitsch looks around at the Nazi storm troopers in the room sporting their swastika armbands with pride, and replies, “Nothing good is going to happen here for a long time. The sun shines every day in California.”

Lubitsch is just one of many German leading characters in Hollywood’s early story. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Los Angeles’s glamorous backlots became a safe haven for Jewish and other German film directors, actors, scriptwriters, cinematographers and technicians fleeing the new regime. The artistry of these refugees would have a lasting impact on American cinema.

Less-well known is the fact that Hollywood’s love affair with German film culture began even earlier, with the emergence of Universum Film (better known as UFA) as a major player in what was then, already, a highly globalized industry.

Celebrating its centennial this year, UFA was founded in 1917 near the end of World War I. Ever since then, its fluctuating fortunes have echoed Germany’s turbulent past. Based just outside Berlin at Babelsberg Studio — Europe’s oldest and largest studio complex — UFA became the only production company to challenge the hegemony of American heavyweights such as MGM in the early days of Hollywood. In the 1930s, after many of its leading lights left for America, UFA became a propaganda factory for the Nazis, another step in its long decline. Now, the next chapter in the story of German cinema is being written. A mix of new talent, low production costs and generous government subsidies have put Babelsberg back on the map of global filmmaking. This time, however, it’s Hollywood that’s boosting the Germans, not the other way around.

Hollywood's German roots can be detected in a breathtakingly broad range of classics, from Hitchcock’s blockbuster thrillers, such as Psycho and The Birds, to Citizen Kane and Blade Runner.

In its 1920s heyday, Babelsberg was the crucible of German Expressionist film, part of a broader art movement that captured the dark mood of the postwar period. The death and destruction of the four-year conflict had left its mark on the German psyche. The result was psychological masterpieces such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) — the father of all Dracula films — and Fritz Lang’s epic Metropolis (1927), putting UFA firmly on Hollywood’s radar.

The Germans tore up the cinematic rule book. While Americans flooded their extravagant backdrops with light to show them off, the Germans overcame the limitations of low budgets with the use of shadow and unsettling, oblique camera angles. Directors such as Lang entranced aspiring Tinseltown creatives, including Alfred Hitchcock, with their revolutionary storytelling that used fragmented narratives to conjure a mood of pure paranoia.

Determined to cash in on this new artistic wave, movie moguls descended on Berlin and started poaching UFA’s top talent. As an early American film trade journal put it, “Whenever a college baseball nine develops a [Frankie] Frisch or a [Lou] Gehrig, the Big Leagues grab him. That’s what we do to Germany.” Lubitsch was first invited to Hollywood in 1922 to direct silent film’s leading lady, Mary Pickford, and quickly signed a contract with Warner Brothers. Celebrated UFA actor Emil Jannings (the first and only German to win an Oscar for best actor) struck a deal with Paramount soon after. And the master of horror, Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau, emigrated in 1926. These luminaries brought with them the best production talents, from musicians to cinematographers, until German creatives dominated Hollywood.

It wasn’t exactly a hard sell. California was the land of milk and honey for studio folk, with its state-of-the-art facilities that put UFA to shame. The exodus reached its peak in 1930, when Paramount snapped up German screen goddess Marlene Dietrich. Babelsberg’s bosses were powerless. They couldn’t stop stars from wanting to see their names in lights, nor could they match the fat paychecks or the promise of permanent sunshine, as Lubitsch made clear.

Soon, the hallmarks of German Expressionism were all over Hollywood productions, fueling the rise of more mainstream genres, such as film noir. Today, those German roots can be detected in a breathtakingly broad range of classics, from Hitchcock’s blockbuster thrillers, such as Psycho and The Birds, to Citizen Kane and Blade Runner.

UFA never recovered from the bloodletting. In the 1930s, it became a vehicle for promoting the Nazis’ warped worldview. Metropolis director Lang once said that it was the invitation from Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, to become the head of the now–state-owned UFA, that made him decide to leave his homeland. Meanwhile, the Babelsberg studios churned out more than 1,000 propaganda films, including the virulently anti-Semitic Jud Süss.

After World War II, Babelsberg was a mere pile of rubble. Stuck in the Soviet zone, it seamlessly transitioned to producing yet more political propaganda for its new Communist masters. Since the regime’s demise in 1990, the reprivatized UFA has produced largely forgettable German TV fare.

But Babelsberg has risen from the ashes, becoming Europe’s largest studio complex once again. In an irony of history, the flow of talent is now in the opposite direction — from Hollywood back to Germany, as Babelsberg and nearby shooting locations such as Berlin lure a stream of star-studded U.S. productions. They include Quentin Tarantino’s war adventure Inglourious Basterds and Oliver Stone’s Snowden, plus Cloud Atlas, The Grand Budapest Hotel and the final sequel of The Hunger Games. Homeland, the award-winning series, shot and produced an entire season in Babelsberg and Berlin. Locations aside, part of the allure is cost, including lavish filmmaking subsidies doled out by the regional government hoping to build the industry still further. It all sets the stage for a new era of German cinema that will continue rolling for decades to come.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Handelsblatt Global Magazine. Barbara Woolsey writes for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]  Follow this link to order your print or digital issue of Handelsblatt Global Magazine.