The Neubabelsberg studios – Hans Michael Bock on the Ufa Film City
The Neubabelsberg studios – Hans Michael Bock on the Ufa Film City
Hans-Michael Bock, in: Hans-Michael Bock / Michael Töteberg (eds.): Das Ufa-Buch (The Ufa Book), Frankfurt/Main, 1992
The studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg are inseparable from Ufa’s image of – especially after the political and economic developments of recent years. Rumors about the studios’ fate – from the abrupt end of the GDR and the disintegration of DEFA to the ambitious plans for a media metropolis under French guidance – are a blend of truth and legend. This can be seen with particular vividness in the much-publicized tug of war over whether to name the Great Hall after “Metropolis” or Marlene Dietrich: false monumentalism or the fleeting glamour of an international star. (...)
In the fall of 1911 Guido Seeber, cameraman and technical director of the Deutsche Bioscop-GmbH, which had previously produced its films in an attic studio at Chausseestraße 123, took on the task of scouting out suitable properties and buildings where the expanding production could be relocated. Seeber reports: “No stone was left unturned in the search for locations, which took me to Neubabelsberg among other places, where there was a complete wasteland of a property with no real access and a long-unused factory-like building. (...) Far and wide there were no apartment buildings, so that even in the event of a fire the surrounding area would not be at risk. One gable faced directly south, and given the location of the property, it seemed advisable to construct a glass studio as an extension to the building, because then it would be in the sun, i.e. in the most favorable light, from dawn to dusk. (...)
Out of a plethora of building plans submitted, the contract was given to the company of H. Ulrich, Berlin-Charlottenburg, Kaiserin-Augusta-Allee, and the dimensions of 15x20 meters, with a mean height of 6 meters, were chosen (...) To insure optimum use of the interior space, the struts necessitated by the iron construction were mounted outside rather than inside. Three big sliding doors were planned, making it possible to use part of the visible grounds as a component of the set at any time, and also to drive big, heavy trucks directly into the recording studio. Not only did this principle of constructing a studio at ground level stand the test of time, its advantages were immediately noted and imitated by other companies.
The ground floor rooms were converted into dressing rooms, prop rooms, a carpentry workshop, a painting workshop, and a canteen. The first floor housed the office and the negative and positive developing facilities, while the second floor housed the drying drums, editing studios, and title production.”
The building was converted in winter 1911/12, and on February 12, 1912 the studios officially opened with the shooting of the Asta Nielsen film “Der Totentanz” (The Dance of the Dead). Fears about the uncertain situation of the film industry initially proved unfounded (in 1916 a crisis arose, forcing a sale of the studio to be temporarily considered). In the very first year the studio was expanded. A neighboring property of about 6,000 square meters was purchased, and a new complex of buildings was constructed, corresponding in structure to the first. At 450 square meters, the glass house was half again as big as the first.
But even this expansion soon proved insufficient. Seeber managed to purchase an adjacent 40,000-square-meter property for the company at a reasonable price, where large free-standing constructions could now be built without having to be torn down again right away. This meant that certain standard sets could be used over and over again. “The first thing to be built on the newly-purchased grounds was a circus, at only three-eighths of its circumference, however. This circus, almost historic, was rented to other companies as well; it stood for nearly ten years and fulfilled its purpose perfectly. (...) When a second printing laboratory was built, the façade was designed in a range of different architectural styles with a view to the recurring panorama shots. So this building is quite unique, with one part of the façade Romanesque, another Gothic, another traditional German, Renaissance etc.. Even the roof was covered with different kinds of tiles so that we would always have German or Italian or Spanish roofs for filming.” (Guido Seeber, 1930)
In 1919 and 1922, state-of-the-art underground film depots were added, enabling safe storage of the highly flammable film material:
“The underground film chambers are an innovation. Modeled on film and explosives factories, 20 concrete chambers have been built under the ground, with only their roofs and ventilation shafts protruding above the lawn. These chambers have double walls and are constructed in such a way that in the event of an explosion (— which can arise only from spontaneous ignition —) one wall will be shatter and the gasses that develop will escape directly into the open via an air duct without the neighboring chambers being affected in the least. The raw film stock and the exposed negatives are stored on wooden shelves at a constant temperature, and the chambers are lit from outside though a window, offering no potential for mechanical ignition. The development and preparation of the raw film stock is done in a model printing laboratory in which 5000-6000 meters of negatives can be developed every day, employing 21 developers and editors and 4 still photographers.”
This description of the technical facilities comes from Alex Kossowsky, who visited the studios in 1924. He also noted the picturesque aspects of the grounds: “At present a large number of different constructions stand on the grounds of the Decla, like the dark ‘Turm des Schweigens’ [Tower of Silence] from the film of the same name (directed by Dr. Guter) and the interior of the tower’s highest room, set up in Studio I. From the Chronik von Grieshuus [The Chronicles of the Grey House] (directed by v. Gerlach) the thrillingly romantic castle courtyard with its dully-glimmering moat is still standing, along with the secluded, broom-choked house on the heath and the village church with its run-down cemetery, and from afar, upon entering, one is greeted by the wall from the ‘Nibelungen’, the one climbed by the Huns (directed by Fritz Lang), and the (now-dead) dragon peeks out from behind a bush… Proceeding further, we see the gigantic, 60-meter-high, back-building wall from ‘Der Letzte Mann’ [The Last Laugh) (directed by F. W. Murnau), its countless windows and infinite monotony embodying the big city and providing the foil for Jannings’ art. From the same film we see the city square with the enormous hotel, which actually has four stories, though in the film it looks like a skyscraper (manufacturing secret!). Sixty automobiles, real ones and models, drove across the intersection, and their foreshortened construction is worthy of admiration. (...) In a massive dark castle Dr. Robison was busy shooting his latest film ‘Pietro, der Korsar’ [Peter the Pirate] (set designed by Albin Grau), and I will begin my observations with a description of this construction.”
At the time of his visit, the Neubabelsberg studios had just passed into Ufa’s possession, after a brief interlude as the “Decla-Bioscop” studios. In the years to come, Ufa increasingly shifted the bulk of its production to Babelsberg, while the Tempelhof studio was largely leased to other producers.
The next big step toward turning the Ufa studios into Europe’s leading film production center was the construction of the “Great Hall” in 1926:
“Director Grau came back from his trip to America with the idea for this studio. Recognizing how incredibly useful this facility would be for concentrating the Ufa’s fabrication, the Deutsche Bank immediately agreed to finance the plan, and the giant new studio was built in the almost unbelievably short time of 4.5 months – a virtually American tempo. The building was designed by the architect Carl Stahl-Urach, who also supervised the construction.
“The new filming hall in iron construction, massively bricked-up, 123.5 meters long, 56 meters wide, 14 meters to the catwalks, surrounded by side rooms with about 8000 square meters of built-up surface area and 20,000 cubic meters of un-built-up space, is equipped with all necessary technical facilities and resources. “For operational purposes the great hall is subdivided by movable bricked-up walls so that several major films and a number of smaller films can be shot at the same time.
“On the east side between the terminal halls projecting to the front, there are 40 dressing rooms for stars, directors, and operators, 10 rooms for film screenings and set designers, as well as a big hairdressing salon and 6 bathrooms. On the ground floor there is an entry hall with an office, telephone booths, 4 big rooms for extras holding about 160 persons, toilets, showers, and the like; on the west side are the equipment rooms for construction parts, lamps, and so forth needed for film sets (...)
“All sorts of rumors had already spread about the price of the new studio. Everyone was amazed to hear that the entire gigantic building had cost no more and no less than 550,000 marks. Doubtless a good omen for the Ufa management’s will to work efficiently.” (Reichsfilmblatt, December 22, 1926).