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  • Meirion Harries

DAY SEVEN The Babelsberg Studios


It was snowing as I left Marlene Dietrich's birthplace and pedalled off to Potsdam and the Babelsberg Studio.

Production in a major film studio - the actual filming - is an extraordinarily intricate task because of the capabilities that a major studio offers. There are a wide range of film cameras with a multiplicity of lenses and different abilities to move; the sound guys will have an array of microphones, special effects, and music to enable an endless spectrum of sound worlds; lighting directors similarly has at their disposal a galaxy of lights, with a profusion of filters. And this is to ignore set design, and the attendant legion of carpenters and electricians; costume design and manufacture; the script; casting; blocking the action – and the long editing process to follow.


Big film studios are powerful places staffed by talented and creative people and the great directors, in the studio film era, had to have the ability to harness and control all that power and creativity in order to make their films.



All directors use storyboards to impose some sort of control but directors like Hitchcock, and also Kurosawa, draw out every scene and every camera angle in the minutest detail. Hitchcock also wrote the visuals into the script itself. Sternberg's early expertise as "cutter, editor, writer and assistant director" (as he described himself) meant he understood the importance of every single frame in a movie. His New York Times obituary says his films of the late 1920s and early 30s were ….”the most beautifully photographed body of work in the history of the cinema" … Sternberg was "the screen's greatest master of pictorial composition." He could control the machine of the studio - and here, as my pedal-power bike comes to a stop at the gates to Babelsburg, is another director, James Norton, to introduce us to this famous studio: “Babelsberg is the world’s oldest film studio and is still going strong. It opened in 1912 as a large glasshouse to capture the natural light of Potsdam’s green open spaces. The first film to be made there was The Dance of Death, nothing to do with medieval plague images with that title but a melodrama that was just as cheerful, starring the Danish Asta Nielsen, one of the first actresses and producers to have total control over her films, which included her portrayal of an über cool cross-dressing Hamlet. You can now stay at her apartment in Berlin, the splendidly named Pension Funk, a fin de siècle gem stuffed with her memorabilia.


Asta Neilsen as Hamlet


The first big studio was built in 1926 for Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic Metropolis, still famous for its astounding designs and the creation of an artificial world. This building was later named the Marlene Dietrich Halle in honour of the star who made her name at Babelsberg in 1930 with The Blue Angel. During the twelve years of Nazi rule Babelsberg churned out industrial quantities of Fascist tosh and propaganda such as Triumph of the Will - see a critique at https://youtu.be/p7hJVaTW45M


After the war, as Potsdam was in East Germany, Babelsberg became headquarters of state film company DEFA. As with most Soviet bloc countries, despite their repressive regimes, the DDR produced many films of remarkable quality and great originality, its greatest international success being the trippy children's’ film The Singing Ringing Tree - see https://youtu.be/CEhnimw1HD4 Today Babelsberg is as busy as ever, hosting German and Hollywood films from superhero blockbusters to films such as Bridge of Spies which dramatise Berlin’s turbulent past. Here is a short film about Babelsburg: https://youtu.be/F1hMr4B2Av4 And here is a really wonderful 56 second trailer by James for his Gauguin film at the National Gallery: https://vimeo.com/365565800

And more about James at https://www.thetalentmanager.com/talent/13500/james-norton

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