Action! Babelsberg film studio fêtes 100 years

The world's oldest major film studio celebrates its 100th birthday this month with Hollywood stars and European players ready to toast Germany's mythic Studio Babelsberg outside Berlin. AFP's Deborah Cole reports.

Action! Babelsberg film studio fêtes 100 years
Photo: DPA

It survived the Nazis and the communists and is now capitalising on its legendary status among cinema history buffs like Quentin Tarantino to beat back tough competition from the likes of London, Prague and Budapest.

Marlene Dietrich smouldered on its sound stages, science-fiction trailblazer “Metropolis” took off from Babelsberg in 1926 and Alfred Hitchcock learned the ropes here as a fresh-faced assistant director.

“All the Hollywood people say ‘What a history, it’s an honour to work here’, whether it’s Tom Hanks or Tarantino, who of course knew every film that was ever made here,” Eike Wolf, Babelsberg’s head of publicity, said on a tour of the sprawling site ahead of the centennial jubilee on February 12.

Hanks just wrapped up filming “Cloud Atlas”, which, with a budget of around $100 million (€76 million), its producers have called the most expensive German-produced film of all time.

Tarantino, for his part, lovingly constructed a replica of an old-time Paris cinema here only to blow it to smithereens at the end of “Inglourious Basterds”, with Hitler inside.

And Clive Owen made Swiss cheese of a nearly life-size replica of New York’s Guggenheim Museum that was built here, in a shoot-out in “The International.”

“Berlin is very attractive for creative types – it’s a great location and it is much more affordable than London, for example,” studio chief executive Charlie Woebcken said.

A string of all-star parties, exhibitions and books are planned for the anniversary of the day in 1912 when work began on “Totentanz” (The Dance of the Dead), starring Danish superstar of the era Asta Nielsen.

The Berlin film festival running from February 9-19 will show a retrospective of Babelsberg’s greatest hits, with events also planned in Cannes, Los Angeles, New York and London.

On a walk across the lot, a visitor can struggle to picture Dietrich as just another blonde in the crowd of young actresses who turned out for the casting call of “The Blue Angel” which would rocket her to immortality.

“In today’s Marlene Dietrich Studio, there are corridors with wooden floors that Marlene actually walked on,” Woebcken said. “We left them as-is to maintain that historical flair.”

The golden age promptly ended as Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels took the reins under the Third Reich.

Babelsberg became a movie factory, churning out light entertainment and vile anti-Semitic propaganda such as the notorious “Jud Süss”.

Need a Nazi stormtrooper uniform?

After the war, the communists also recognised the power of cinema to influence the masses, and the then-DEFA Studios were dubbed “Honnywood” for longtime East German leader Erich Honecker.

“We are of course always being confronted with our history because film is the medium that you can best use to come to terms with the past and this is always a major issue in Germany,” Woebcken said.

After the Berlin Wall fell, Babelsberg went through another few incarnations before mounting a spectacular comeback in 2004 under Woebcken and his partner Christoph Fisser.

Babelsberg’s facilities stretch across 25,000 square metres (270,000 square feet). More than 3,000 films have been made here, in recent years thanks in part to German state subsidies.

The costume department, whose Lisy Christl was just nominated for an Oscar for her work on Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare drama “Anonymous”, is a vast treasure trove of period get-up.

Row upon row of replica Nazi stormtrooper uniforms, suits of armour, glittering evening gowns, hoop skirts and neckties clustered by decade and colour await the next production.

“About half the bigger films made here are linked to German history so that makes Berlin a natural place to make them, whether it’s ‘The Reader’, ‘Inglourious Basterds’ or ‘The Pianist’,” Woebcken said.

A remarkably authentic-looking Mark Rothko painting hangs in his office courtesy of the art department, where virtually any work can be forged for use in a film.

Robert Krueger, chief set painter who has worked at Babelsberg since 1986, showed off vintage-looking Persian ceramic tiles that he made for Iranian-born director Marjane Satrapi on her latest feature, “Chicken with Plums”.

“That’s the kind of thing we discuss here – Marjane was making a very quiet, tender film with gorgeous decorations that should add to the mood,” he said. “That doesn’t work if it looks like a theatre or television set.”

Woebcken said that if Babelsberg maintains its reputation for craftsmanship along with its venerable history, it could keep going for decades to come.

“I just hope we’ll be spared the upheaval of the last 100 years during the next century,” he said.


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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.