DEFA Film Library
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Cinema of East Germany
Babelsberg’s Last 35mm Print
When director Helke Misselwitz and film-conservation expert Harald Brandes arrived at Babelsberg Postproduction on July 27, 2009 to approve the new print of Herzsprung, they learned that the facility was closing—–after almost 100 years in service.
In 1911, the Deutsche Bioscop Gesellschaft built its first glass film studio in Babelsberg, Germany, outside of Potsdam. Filming began in February 1912 with The Dance of the Dead, by Danish director Urban Gad. The Babelsberg duplication facility—where the actual film prints would be produced—was built in in 1912-13.
After World War I, Bioscop merged with the Babelsberg-based German branch of the French film concern Eclair Decla to create a new company, Decla Bioscop. In 1921, this company was acquired by the Universum Film AG (Ufa), which had been founded in 1917. It was at Ufa that the internationally-known films of the Weimar Republic—such as Metropolis, The Blue Angel and Dr. Mabuse—were produced, as well as all the films made under the Nazis from 1933 to 1945.
After World War II, Potsdam and Babelsberg—and, as a result, the Ufa Studios—were located in the Soviet Zone of occupation. In 1947, the studios and duplication facility were claimed by the Soviet Military Administration and transferred to the Soviet-owned company SAG Linsa. It is during this period that the classic postwar rubble films were made—including The Murderers Are among Us, Marriage in the Shadows, Rotation and others.
In 1950, ownership of the company was transferred to the new East German state and the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) was founded. Over the next 42 years, the East German film industry would turn out almost 1,000 feature films and countless documentaries, newsreels and children’s films. The production facilities were first set up as an economically independent department within DEFA, and then later as their own company. DEFA duplication facilities (including those in Köpenick and Johannisthal, as well as Babelsberg) produced all the masters and distribution prints for domestic and international screenings of DEFA films These included 16mm, 35mm and 70mm prints, in color and black-&-white, as well as film material used on East German television. They also duplicated amateur and private 8mm films—for example for the many film clubs that existed in East Germany.
The process of German unification included an attempt to privatize all companies formerly owned by the East German state. The effort to find an investor who would take over the DEFA duplication facilities as a whole and establish them as a private company in the new German economy failed. The duplication facility in Babelsberg, however, was privatized as part of the DEFA studios’ Babelsberg campus. Then, in February 2006, the studio was bought by Elektrofilm and the production facility incorporated as Studio Babelsberg Postproduction GmbH.
In 2008, when the DEFA Film Library started organizing its series, WENDE FLICKS: Last Films from East Germany in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, it was not always easy to find the negatives made during that historic and tumultuous period. As with other DEFA films in the series, the negatives for Helke Misselwitz’ Herzsprung were found where they had sat for almost two decades—on the shelves at Babelsberg Postproduction GmbH. When Misselwitz and Harald Brandes arrived for the approval screening of the new 35mm print, they were informed that it would be—quite literally—the last screening at the duplication facility in Babelsberg. Herzsprung had been the last print that would ever be produced there. Elektrofilm, the largest shareholder, had opted not to invest in new digital technologies that are a must for modern production facilities.
Only two days after the approval screening, the company closed its doors and all sixteen employeeswere laid off. As Helke Misselwitz explained in her interview for the DVD release of Herzsprung, “It was especially sad for the woman who had been responsible for light and color-grading to bid farewell to her workplace with this film. The first images in Herzsprung—the scenes with the kitchen workers who lose their jobs—had been filmed in the kitchen of the DEFA cafeteria . . . which was right across the street from the duplication facility and had already disappeared a few years earlier.”
With the closing of this facility vanish the traditions and experiences of an important branch of Babelsberg film production, which was long famous for the efficiency resulting from grouping all aspects of film production in one place—including the duplication of prints. We would like to thank Thomas Plonus , who supervised the production of the Herzsprung print, and Daria Sichling—who shipped the print only minutes before receiving her layoff notice and wrote us “This was truly my last official act here at the company.”—for her work on Herzsprung and all our Wende Flicks prints.
Historical information from: Günter Jordan, Film in der DDR, Daten Fakten Strukturen, Filmmuseum Potsdam, 2009
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