Weimar Berlin Part 1: From Provincial Backwater to World Film City

In the first in a series of essays on the historical development Berlin Cinema, we explore the early development of the city’s film industry – from the late 19th Century through to its Weimar heyday.

Although Paris is traditionally seen as the birthplace of cinema, due to the work carried out by the Lumière brothers in the city at the end of the nineteenth century, the Lumières were not the only people who were working on processes which would eventually lead to the invention of moving image projection.

At the same time in Berlin, another set of brothers, the Skladanowsky brothers, were also developing a projector which would allow for the exhibition of moving images. Called the Bioskop, the Skladanowskys used their rudimentary invention to capture short scenes from around Berlin, which they presented to a paying public in the city in November 1895, a full two months before the Lumières’ premiere in Paris of their own short films.

Unfortunately for the Skladanowskys events conspired against them, as the Bioskop proved to be unreliable and technically inferior to the Lumières’ invention. Therefore, their machine failed to take off, which meant that it was the Lumières’ projector which acted as the blueprint for the early development of cinema.

Nevertheless, the presence of the Skladanowsky brothers in Berlin shows how the city has one of the oldest film industries in the world and one which has long been at the forefront of developing the capabilities of cinema. Indeed, amongst these films was a clip of Emil dancing, shot on the rooftop of the brothers’ Prenzlauer Berg apartment building near to Eberswalder Straße underground station. This scene was later dated to having been produced in the summer of 1892, which means that this short scene represents one of the earliest examples of any city, not just Berlin, being captured on film.

Emil may be the focus of the camera’s gaze, but the city fills the rest of the frame, with the rooftops and chimneys of working class eastern Berlin clearly visible behind him. Looking back at this clip now, what is most interesting is that the early glimpses of Berlin found in this short film are not of the city’s great Prussian monuments or historical buildings but of Berlin’s unglamorous, inner city neighbourhoods. Thus the Skladanowsky’s early work not only laid the foundations for the development of Berlin’s film industry, but also established a city image which focussed on the humble, everyday side of the city, something which has continued to be a feature of Berlin cinema for much of the last 125 years.

Yet, the German film industry initially failed to build on the Skladanowskys’ early work, and so, as cinema developed into a popular form of entertainment in the first few years of the twentieth century, film production in Germany found itself in the shadows of its European neighbours. During the 1900s and early 1910s domestic films accounted for only about 10% of the German market, with more inventive films made in other European countries, such as Denmark and France, proving more popular than the stylistically naïve domestic products (for more on this see the work of Thomas Elsaesser).

This failure of the domestic industry to compete was further exacerbated by the decentralised and unfocused nature of the German film industry. Whilst cities like Paris developed into the national hub for their country’s film production, allowing for a more creative and focused approach to filmmaking, Berlin did not have the same pull for German filmmakers. They were scattered all around the country, which meant that Germany lost its position as a trailblazer of early cinema in the first two decades of cinema’s development.

From Provincial Backwater to World Leader

Ironically, it was the country’s defeat in the First World War which allowed the German film industry to begin to emerge as an important player within the international market. Film production in the country had become more coordinated during the War and this only increased following Germany’s defeat. Indeed, the embargos and sanctions placed on Germany as a result of the War created a situation which allowed domestic filmmaking to flourish.

Whilst the rest of Europe was flooded by American made films following the armistice, due to the fact that most European film industries had been decimated by the War, the situation in Germany was different. The country was banned from importing film stock because there was a fear that they would use the nitrate contained in film to covertly begin a rearmament programme.

As a result domestic German films faced little competition at the box office, which enabled the German film industry to prosper financially. Although the film embargo ended in 1921, Germany remained a largely isolated, insular market, as the hyperinflation which was seen in the country in the 1920s meant that domestic distributors could not afford to start to bring in foreign films en masse. Thus, this domestic dominance gave German film producers a solid foundation on which they could begin to develop a strong German film industry.

The role Berlin played within this growing domestic film industry was greatly aided by the formation of the Universumfilm Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa) in 1917, which was based in the city. Whilst Ufa’s exact origins are unclear, what is certain is that the company was a joint enterprise between the German government, Deutsche Bank and several other German businessmen. Such a background meant that Ufa was run on a far more pragmatic and business-like basis than had previously been seen within the German film industry, a strategy which gave the company a competitive advantage in comparison to its domestic rivals.

In fact, Ufa was so successful in the years immediately following the end of the First World War, it came to dominate the domestic landscape. The influence Ufa exerted over the industry enabled the firm to merge with a number of other key German film companies, with one of the most significant mergers coming in 1921 when Ufa bought another Berlin film company, Decla-Bioskop.

Decla-Bioskop had invested heavily in developing its sound stages at Babelsberg, on the outskirts of Berlin, into one of the leading studio complexes in Europe. Hence, following this merger, Ufa was not just the most powerful film company in Germany, but also now had one of the most advanced studio facilities in the entire continent, a situation which saw Berlin become the centre of European film production.

Yet, Ufa’s success was not down to clever business strategy alone. The films the company produced in the late 1910s and 1920s were also massively successful at the box office. This success was in part due to the creative filmmaking of the German Expressionist directors, such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, who made use of the infrastructure at Babelsberg to produce films which looked unlike anything else being made at the time.

These included Der letzte Man (The Last Laugh, F.W. Muranau, 1924) and Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), as the Expressionist directors created visually stunning sets and made use of inventive lighting and camera angles to push the boundaries of cinema. Given the central role played by Babelsberg within the Berlin film industry, this meant the city became known for producing highly original and technologically advanced films.

However, Ufa, and by association the Berlin film industry, did not just produce Expressionist films. Indeed, the output of Berlin’s Weimar film industry was extremely varied, with a large number of films made in a range of styles, and on a vast array of budgets, emanating from the city. Therefore, alongside the work of the German Expressionists, Berlin was also producing large-scale historical dramas, such as Ernst Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry (1919), working class Straßenfilme, such as Joe May’s Asphalt (1929), and experimental, realist films, such as Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1930) (for more on these films see Weimar Berlin Part 2).

This filmmaking diversity, coupled with the critical and box office success which Ufa’s productions enjoyed in the Weimar period, enabled Berlin’s film industry to establish an international standing. Crucially, as the 1920s went on, more and more American filmmakers and stars were attracted to film in the city. Thus, for the first (and arguably only time) in Hollywood’s long history as the number one film production location, another city came to rival the American giant on equal terms.

The first few decades of Berlin’s film industry are therefore marked by a series of highs and lows. Whilst the Skladanowsky brothers established Berlin as a pioneering film city, it was only after the First World War that the city began to fulfill its early promise. However by the end of the 1920s Berlin had established itself as an inventive global film production hub, capable of producing a diverse array of films to compete with those made anywhere else in the world.

This post is adapted from my PhD thesis which is available in full at etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/10758/

Further Reading:

Stephen Barber, Projected Cities: Cinema and Urban Space (2002)

Thomas Elsaesser, Early German Cinema: A Second Life? (1996)

Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (2000)

Jill Forbes and Sarah Street European Cinema: An Introduction (2000)

Sabine Hake, German Nation Cinema (2008)

Klaus Kreimeier, The UFA Story: A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company: 1918 – 1945  (1996)

Thomas J. Saunders, Thomas, Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany
(1994)

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