Divided Berlin Part 1: Film Production in East and West

In this installment of our look at Berlin’s film history, we explore the differing production environments found in East and West Berlin during division.

East Berlin and the City’s Divided Production Environment

As the Second World War came to an end, the victorious allied powers shut the German film industry down, as they feared that cinema could be used to undermine their authority within the occupied country. Yet, the closure of the industry did not remain in place for long, at least in East Berlin.

Whilst the Western forces were suspicious of film production, the Soviets had a long history of using film as a propaganda tool domestically and they were eager to begin to deploy a similar strategy within Germany to further aid the communist cause.To this end, the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) was founded in 1946 and soon began production of several films, the first of which to be completed was Die Mörder sind unter uns (Murderers Among Us, Wolfgang Staudte, 1946) (for an in depth discussion of this film see Berlin’s Trümmerfilme).

The re-instigation of film production in the Soviet controlled east of Berlin was massively aided by the fact that the Babelsberg studios (and all the associated subsidiaries) were in the Soviet zone. Hence, as the German film industry had increasingly clustered around Berlin and the Babelsberg studio complex during Ufa’s years of domination, it was the Soviet controlled part of the city which once again found itself at the epicentre of the country’s cinema.

Whilst Babelsberg was initially used for military purposes, film production restarted at the site in 1948 and the studio became part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the following year, as the Soviet authorities turned their occupied zone into a communist state, independent of those zones in the west of the country controlled by the other allied powers.

Indeed, right up until the fall of the GDR in 1990, Babelsberg enjoyed a monopoly over East German film production. This privileged position can be explained by the fact that DEFA’a activities did not just include film production. DEFA created a vertically integrated film industry, similar to that which had been found within the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, with everything from development through to exhibition within East Germany controlled exclusively by the company. Therefore, although the Second World War had been catastrophic for Berlin, leaving the city’s inhabitants, regardless of which zone they lived in, struggling to rebuild the city’s destroyed urban space, this did not mean that Berlin lost its central position within film production, at least not in East Germany.

Yet, within this vertically integrated system, DEFA was ultimately controlled by the communist East German government. Hence, the approach to production was different to that found in capitalist countries. The primary purpose of filmmaking was to shape and inform the GDR’s socialist society, with DEFA films only secondarily expected to make a profit. It was the government, and not the DEFA board, who had the final say on which films were made, and then whether these films were released.

However, the problem for East German filmmakers was that the expectations and rules which governed these politicians’ decisions were inconsistent and constantly changing. This meant filmmakers could not be sure that the climate for cultural products would remain the same throughout production or that expectations would not have changed by the time the film came to be released. What may be considered acceptable during the development of a script, could be seen as subversive or problematic once the film was completed, and so the finished film would have to be heavily edited or risk being banned.

An extreme example of this was seen in 1965 when 12 completed films, which represented almost an entire year’s work, were banned by the film censors. Thus, whilst the East Berlin film industry enjoyed a privileged position as the sole film production centre in East Germany, the production environment in the city developed a reputation as a politically controlled centre, which had a variable and unpredictable level of filmic output. Indeed, the environment for filmmaking in the country meant that DEFA’s output was low in comparison to other European countries on either side of the Iron Curtain.

The close control and limitations placed on East Berlin filmmakers also meant that creativity suffered, as DEFA films were largely unable to radically push any stylistic boundaries for fear of falling foul of the censors. Instead the censors preferred easy to understand, unambiguous films which played to the population as a whole, rather than ‘elitist’ art films. This stifling of creativity meant that those films that did make it onto the screens of East Germany were often formulaic, escapist films which failed to attract big audiences.

Although there were some noticeable exceptions, such as Die Geschichte von kleinen Muck (The Story of Little Muck, Wolfgang Staudte, 1953), East German filmmakers largely struggled to make films which both conformed to the governments’ rigid ideas on the type of films which should be made and also appealed to the tastes of East German cinema-goers. DEFA may have inherited the infrastructure used by Ufa within Berlin, but the company failed to return the studio to its former reputation as a vibrant and inventive film production hub.

Not that this mattered. Whilst in capitalist economies the lack of commercial success and poor productivity of DEFA would have meant that the company would have struggled to survive, and that the company’s filmmakers would have barely made a living from their work, the state-sponsored nature of the East Berlin film industry meant that this was less of a concern for DEFA. Indeed East German filmmakers could enjoy the luxury of time, trained and highly skilled support, and money to invest in projects.

Consequently, despite the lack of financial success, the film industry remained a functioning part of the East Berlin economy, as it continued to employ a vast number of people, even when the actual output and returns from the films that the industry produced did not necessary warrant such a situation. East Berlin’s film industry was a political, not a cultural or economic tool, and so the government wanted to keep up appearances, no matter how the industry was performing in reality.

The Formation of the West Berlin Film Fund

Although the studio complex at Babelsberg developed into the central hub for filmmaking in East Germany, the situation in West Berlin was markedly different. Film production may have also eventually restarted in the western part of the city but geographically West Berlin was a political island, encircled by the East. As a result, this situation had a detrimental effect on the production environment found in this part of the city.

This can be seen in the fact that by the early 1970s film was no longer a major talking point within the city, with the majority of studio space in West Berlin either lying empty or being used for television productions. Therefore, throughout the decade there was a gradual drain on the creative pool in Berlin, with the most talented filmmakers leaving the city for more vibrant film scenes elsewhere. West German filmmakers preferred to work in other cities in the country as the rebuilding of West Berlin, following the devastation of the Second World War, had failed to provide this part of the divided city with the type of production infrastructure which could offset the loss of the old industrial heartland at Babelsberg.

The regional government recognised that the film industry in West Berlin was at risk of dying out, due to the problematic state of the city’s production environment. Therefore, in order to attempt to address these issues, West Berlin’s politicians established a regional film fund in 1978. Such a move was a novel idea. Whilst government support had been available to the West German film industry at a federal level since 1967, when the national film fund had been established, this was the first time a source of film funding had been introduced at a regional level within West Germany.

The acute regional problems facing West Berlin warranted such a measure, as the production environment that existed in the city at the time was hindering most films from being able to reach their full potential. In spite of the federal government’s efforts, the system of funding in West Germany in the 1970s was still failing to provide a stable enough environment for most film producers to procure the necessary finance to make anything but low-budget films, a situation that was adversely affecting the quality and popularity of domestic film. Consequently, the West Berlin Senate hoped that, by setting up a film fund supported by regional government money, they could begin to reverse the gradual demise of West Berlin’s filmmaking tradition, by making the western half of the city a financially attractive place to produce films.

To achieve this regional improvement, a proviso of the fund was that any money given would remain in the region and be spent on film productions that took place in West Berlin. This became known as the ‘Berlin-Effect’ and meant that, not only would the fund add another level of support, in addition to the federal money, available for the West German film industry as a whole, but it would also begin to reinvigorate film production in West Berlin. Such an increase in film spending in West Berlin would in turn help to safeguard jobs and stimulate the local economy, as the money provided by the Senate for the fund flowed back into local businesses.

Therefore, West Berlin came to sit apart from the rest of the West German film industry, not just because of the city’s geographic isolation, but also due to this new local focus found within West Berlin’s production environment. Just as the early German film industry had been fragmented and decentralised, the establishment of the West Berlin film fund re-instigated a regional outlook within the film industry found within this part of the divided city.

Whilst initially the fund had no explicit manifesto outside of improving the economic conditions for filmmaking within West Berlin, it soon became clear that a by-product of this regional centred support was that, as well as strengthening the city’s film industry in terms of production, the fund also influenced the visibility and identity of West Berlin on screen.

The presence of the fund meant that more productions were made about the city, and so the streets and landmarks of West Berlin became an increasingly common sight within cinema. Whether this was also a less overt part of the Senate’s original motivations is unclear but the success of the fund meant that this stronger filmic representation of West Berlin acted as a form of ‘shop window’ for the city itself, as the depiction of West Berlin in the films supported by the fund shaped the way that the city was viewed both at home and abroad.

However, despite the Cold War political tensions that existed in the city at the time, the branding potential of the film fund did not mean that the image of the city projected in the films supported by the West Berlin film fund conformed to the kind of stereotypical, idealised Berlin that might be expected from state-sponsored filmmaking. As Detlef Stronk argues; “Naturally it is not the aim of the Berlin film funding system that every film shows Buletten (a Berlin style burger) being eaten and the Radio Tower or Memorial Church on screen […] Because of the Berlin film funding system there is an array of Berlin films which introduce the city and its specific attitude to life without pretention, and so convey a positive Berlin image without the fake tone of advertising“ (1983: 14).

This approach was in stark contrast to the censorship found in East Berlin at the time. Although the film fund was financed by the regional government, it was not forced to favour supporting films that showed West Berlin as a picture-postcard tourist city. This meant that the image of the city which was disseminated by the fund’s films was once more in line with the daily reality of life in the western half of the divided city and the social problems that existed within it.

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

Translations author’s own

Further Reading

Seán Allen, DEFA: An Historical Overview: DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992: Eds. Seán Allen and John Sandford (1999)

Daniella Berghahn, Hollywood Behind the Wall: The Cinema of East Germany (2005)

Oliver Castendyke, Die Deutsche Filmföderun (2008)

Detlef Stronk, Film Nach Berlin: 5 Jahre Berliner Filmföderung: Ed. Hubert Ortkemper (1983)

Margarete von Schwarzkopf, Filmemacher in Berlin: 5 Jahre Berliner Filmföderung: Ed. Hubert Ortkemper (1983)


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