The History of Film in Berlin

Metropolis shown outside in Berlin

The History of Film in Berlin

Film and Berlin: The two have been intertwined for over a century. Young Germany takes a look at film in Berlin beyond the Berlinale.

The Berlin International Film Festival, also known as the Berlinale, takes place each February, and in the ten days that follow Berlin hosts thousands of filmmakers, distributors, and buyers from more than 100 countries. “It’s an important event for Europe and for the world,” said Tillman Allmer, a Berlin-based film industry expert. “It’s also one of the top five film festivals in the world, with a whole spectrum of movies and genres–everything from mainstream films to highly artistic films.”

A rich history in cinema

With its rich history and colorful landmarks, the city itself provides a perfect atmosphere for the event. But what many don’t know is that film is nothing new to Berlin. In fact, the city has a film-industry history dating back to the early days of the 20th century, when it became known as the industry’s hub after the city’s Babelsberg Film Studios started making movies there in 1912. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” along with his legendary “Blue Angel” – the film that catapulted Marlene Dietrich to stardom overnight – were both filmed at Babelsberg and went on to make film history. 

And the long list of names that helped make Berlin famous includes plenty of international names. American born star Louise Brooks (1906 - 1985), tired of the “Hollywood game,” spent a significant time in Germany in the late 1920s, completing two films – “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of Lost Girl” – with German director G.B. Pabst. Both movies are now considered classics, and Brooks’ portrayal of Lulu in “Pandora’s Box” is by far her best-known screen role.

At the time, Berlin and Germany were spearheading a developing industry. “Before the start of the First World War, nobody talked about the US or Hollywood in terms of film,” said Dr. Rolf Giesen of the Filmmuseum Berlin. “It was the European film industry, led by Germany, France and Italy, that played the leading role internationally.”

The film industry collapses

It would all come to an end with the outbreak of the First World War, though, with the continent-wide conflict dealing a crippling blow to the European film industry and ending the continent’s dominance over the film world. 

Giesen said after the war people started turning to Hollywood, and even though developments in film were being made in Europe, it remained a no-win situation. He cites the example of sound in movies, a technique invented in Berlin in 1922. Through a massive development in the industry, the patent was eventually sold to the American Fox Film Corporation.

But it proved hard to keep a city as vibrant and creative as Berlin out of the film industry for long, and following the Nazi reign and World War II – two more devastating periods for both Berlin and German film – it was the Berlinale that would eventually help redirect the industry’s interest back to Berlin.

Berlinale: The beginning

The roots of the Berlinale date back to 1951, when film historian Alfred Bauer founded the event during the darkest days of the Cold War. The festival quickly took on a role as confidence booster for a region facing an uncertain future and yearning for international recognition. US military aircraft flew in movies, and Hollywood stars came out to the festival, bringing glitz and glamour to a city that had been reduced to rubble by Allied and Soviet bombing just six years earlier.

That Berlin was divided at the time added to the dynamic feel of the city, and in its own way the Wall actually brought a little passion to the Berlinale: With the city’s museums and monuments mostly located in the eastern sector, West Berlin became a distillation of the city’s cultural energy and defiant spirit. 

But stormy years lay ahead for the event, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1979, for example, all socialist countries withdrew from the festival in protest at the decision by festival director Wolf Donner (who took over from Bauer in 1977) to screen the film “The Deer Hunter,” a film looking at the Vietnam War through the lives of three blue-collar, Russian-American friends in a small steel-mill town.

Berlin becomes film hub

And it wouldn’t be long before the event that continues to define the Berlinale to this day occurred: The fall of the Wall and German reunification. In the 18 years since this monumental event, Berlin has transformed itself through massive renovation and building programs, and has reclaimed its role as Germany’s capital and as its cultural hub. 

“It now feels like a film city,” Allmer said. “We’ve got a lot of young filmmakers settled in Berlin. And the thing about the city is that it is so big and there is such a rich and diverse culture. The club scene is big, the art scene is big, and the theatre scene is big. There’s really a lot of creative energy.” 

That creative energy is reflected in the number of productions being shot in Berlin each year, which currently sits at around 300. As many as 40 film teams associated with film productions, TV series and commercials are at work every day all over the city, and 24 percent of all German film and television productions are produced in Berlin. “Berlin has developed itself into the hub of new German cinema,” said Dr. Kathrin Steinbrenner, spokeswoman for Medienboard Berlin-Brandenberg GmbH, which provides film funding and location development for the region’s media industry.

The spark: Run Lola Run

“It was the film ‘Run Lola Run,’ starring Franka Potente, which gave the industry a kick-start in 1998,” said Steinbrenner. “Since then, more and more German films, such as ‘Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei,’ have been made here and have received international recognition.” 

Meanwhile, a growing number of non-German movies, such as “The Bourne Supremacy,” starring Matt Damon, are also being shot in Berlin, giving the city and its film industry a unique international touch as well. However the experts choose to sum it up, German-international film is born again in Berlin, and by all accounts it is here to stay this time.