The world may not come to an end in 2012, as Roland Emmerich foretold in his movie of the same title. But it’s indisputable that the Babelsberg film studio outside Berlin, where Emmerich is currently filming Anonymous, will turn 100 that year. Babelsberg, the oldest large-scale film studio in the world, was the birthplace of many of the masterpieces of silent and early sound cinema of the ‘20s and ‘30s: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). During the rise of the Third Reich, as German directors and actors (including Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich) fled the country to make their careers in Hollywood, Babelsberg was pressed into service by the Nazi propaganda machine. Joseph Goebbels constructed two new buildings here in the starkly neoclassical National Socialist style. He envisioned, and drew up plans for, a grand vista that would sweep from the central lawn at Babelsberg to the Reichstag building in Berlin, a half-hour’s drive away. As a studio head, Goebbels oversaw the production of films like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and the virulently anti-Semitic Jew Süss (1940).
After the war, the studio fell under East German control, turning out mainly light entertainments such as the children’s fairy tale Three Wishes for Cinderella (1973) for distribution behind the Iron Curtain. Since the unification in 1989, Babelsberg has struggled to find its place in the global film industry, and the studio nearly went broke under the stewardship of the French media company Vivendi. But since being acquired in 2004 by a pair of independent investors, it’s experiencing a renaissance as a center of international film production, aided by a Germany’s recent creation of a state fund to subsidize the making of feature films. International productions made here in the past few years include V for Vendetta, Black Book, Speed Racer, The International, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Ghostwriter.
I wandered around Babelsberg with Eike Wolf, the studio’s press liaison, who knows the site’s history and geography forward and backward, and whose love for the place is palpable. Babelsberg, he told me with pride, is one of the few studios that still works on the old-school model Hollywood has since abandoned: It’s not just a rentable set of soundstages for outsourced labor but a full-service moviemaking facility with an on-site stable of carpenters, seamstresses, and production designers. Filmmakers often bring in their own teams to supplement the existing infrastructure, as Emmerich has done with Anonymous, but if you need on-site expertise on, say, how to weather the lumber for a half-timbered Tudor-era house, Babelsberg’s your place.
The 250,000-piece costume warehouse, which also serves as a rental source for TV and stage productions, specializes in historical costumes: There are endless racks of Renaissance gowns, chain mail, breeches, and bustles. A stairway leads to a second floor almost entirely devoted to the studio’s specialty: Nazi and other German military uniforms. Many recent WWII-themed films have been shot at Babelsberg: The Reader, Inglourious Basterds, Valkyrie, The Counterfeiters and Enemy at the Gates. The full-time staff includes a consultant on the period, the guy who decides whether, say, the lettering on the files in Hitler’s office looks historically accurate. Handling these brittle, aged-looking files with their Reich eagle insignia, you feel as if you should rush them to the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek for preservation.
The flea-market-like prop department is crammed literally to the rafters with shelves of vintage telephones, complete table settings from different eras, taxidermied animals, sextants, cigarette cases, brooms. Along one wall, copies of master paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, and Manet hang in rows. When I remark on them, Wolf tells me the studio has a copy artist on site who can imitate any painting style. For the office of the studio’s CEO, the producer Charlie Woebcken, he’s created a fake Rothko that’s passable enough to look both luminous and melancholy.
The heart of Babelsberg is the soundstage known as Marlene-Dietrich-Halle, originally constructed for the filming of Metropolis in 1926. In 2008, many scenes from Inglourious Basterds were shot there. It’s an endearingly low-tech place: a pockmarked brick-lined hangar a few degrees cooler than the air outside, its original wooden ceiling studded with thousands of metal rings for suspending wires for lighting equipment. When he first set foot in the studio, Tarantino reportedly fell to his knees and touched the walls in awe. For Basterds, the Dietrich stage housed the set for Le Gamaar, the Parisian Deco-style movie theater where the final conflagration takes place. In one corner, you can still see a stain from some of the fake blood shed in the movie’s final shootout. The Babelsberg crew call this brownish splatter Tarantino’s Fluch (curse), because no amount of scrubbing has been able to remove it. Tarantino has left his mark elsewhere at Babelsberg as well; the streets in the complex are all named after famous German-language film directors, but as of last year, you can stand at the intersection of G.W.-Pabst-Strasse and Quentin-Tarantino-Strasse.
Not far from that intersection, I join the salmon stream of international journalists making their way to the set tour for Anonymous. After learning about everything that’s happened on this site in the past century, it seems perfectly natural that we’ll soon be debating Shakespeare authorship with a German disaster-film director on the straw-strewn floor of a fake Elizabethan theater.