“Berlin is the newest city I have come across. Even Chicago would appear old and gray in comparison”
– Mark Twain
It was about eleven in the morning when I woke up after a brief three hour nap I put on a change of clothes, bunched up the ones I wore the night before into my backpack, washed up and checked out of my hostel. After wandering through the cold December night for hours on end, my colleagues who I decided to part with my colleagues who I’ll admit have much more stamina than I do when it comes to going out. Perhaps its because living in the United States, you are essentially conditioned to start winding your night down no later than two in the morning, maybe get a greasy snack, and be home and in bed by three. The notion that “nothing good ever happens after 2 A.M.” has essentially become a mantra for bargoer. However I’ll admit that in Berlin, the inverse is true and things only start to get interesting after two in the morning. Although the night was more low-key than previously expected, my expectations for the extremes that a night out in Berlin would be like were perhaps unrealistically set after watching Sebastian Schipper’s thrilling Victoria (2015):
Although our evening did not go to the heist-movie extremes of this modern masterpiece, it still was a whirlwind culmination to a long and exciting day that started at Babelsberg Studio in Potsdam earlier that morning. My visit to Studio Babelsberg was a pilgrimage of sorts, on one end it is the oldest large-scale film studio in the world, yet it is an active film set with many major international productions filmed there on a regular basis. The Masters Degree students in UGent’s Communications Department organized the field trip, while I and several of my fellow CIMS colleagues decided to travel to Berlin and join in on the fun. We rode the S-Bahn out to Potsdam without incident, except for the fact that we ended up on entirely the wrong side of town. We tried to enter the studio from back entrance (pictured left) yet were chased away by security. Knowing all to well the expectations that come with German efficiency, there was an added urgency to make it to the studio and meet with the students in a timely manner. After our small group completed an frantic impromptu 5k run along the outside of the studio, we finally were able to flag down a taxi which took us the rest of the way. Needless to say, our tardiness was not appreciated by the grandmotherly tour guide who had been forced to wait an additional five minutes for us to arrive.
I’ll admit that the tour itself was not as compelling as I expected. For one thing, despite the fact that we were a group of Dutch and English speaking students, the tour was conducted entirely in German. The closeness between German and Dutch helped most of the students understand about one half to a third of what the woman was talking about, while my dumb monolingual self was resigned to look around and soak in the environment. I am particularly drawn to the studio’s early history, which perfected a similar mass-scale production method that was only matched by the Hollywood Studio system which emerged during the same period. The first photo on the left shows a replication of the original 1911 glasshouse studio built by Deutsche Bioscope. Throughout the tour I was able to identify numerous set pieces, props, and facades from so many movies both old and new, that I could not help but feel immersed by the presence of place. The cinematic significance of Babelsberg is too extensive to mention in a blog entry, so instead this short promotional should help to summarize the experience:
The highlight of my time at Studio Babelsberg came after the tour was over and the students left. Although we are supposed to be the responsible Ph.D. students chaperoning the less experienced Masters students, we felt so underwhelmed by the tour, that we decided to sneak behind the scenes afterward and explore the off limits set pieces on our own. I managed to channel my previous experience working in production and purposeful walk as we meandered through a live film shoot, although we attracted the stray look from a teamster or crew member, we kept at such pace that we were never stopped and questioned. Because we were sort of trespassing there are no pictures to share from this part of the tour, but for anyone who has ever been on an active film set, you likely know the sense of the fake and fanciful that comes from walking through hollowed out buildings, watching actors stage scenes, and artificially move through the artificial world they are currently inhabiting. It was exhilarating and made me miss my previous life as a line producer quite a bit at that moment.
The next stop on our whirlwind German cinema tour was to the Deutsche Kimemathek Museum für Film und Fernsehen. This was by far the most impressive film museum I have ever visited, it even knocked my previous favorite the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens completely out of the water. The Deutsche Kinemathek officially opened in February 1963. Its founding director was Gerhard Lamprecht who over the decades had meticulously put together an extensive collection of films, documents and equipment. The City State of Berlin acquired this collection and then handed it over to the new institution for its preservation and use. Since September 2000 – as Filmmuseum Berlin – it has been able to present a part of its collections in the Permanent Exhibition Film. It invites visitors to make a journey, thematically and chronologically arranged, through German film history. Another main focus of the Permanent Exhibition is the relationship between Berlin and Hollywood. Special exhibitions complete the program.
The museum is designed to take you on a chronological tour through the entire history of German film production. It pulls no punches and does not shy away from the darker periods of national film production either. My experience was quite interesting since I made the mistake of starting on the the bottom floor, which took me through the latest developments in German cinema, and then gradually moved backwards through the exhibitions and through time. It was a surreal and almost overwhelming experience in that sense. As the album below indicates, the range of topics covered, the special exhibitions on science fiction films, and the Marlene Dietrich exhibit were all among the topsy-turvy highlights of this fascinating collection of national cinematic treasures.
From looking at the death mask of F.W. Murnau, navigating the upside down world of Dr. Calligari, experiencing the madness of Klaus Kinski while navigating the treacherous Peruvian rain forest in the Fitzcaraldo, or absorbing the set pieces of Fritz Lang’s utopic/dystopic Metropolis, there truly is too much to list in a single entry. If there ever has been a place in the world that could have or has effectivelyre given Hollywood a run for its money, it is Berlin. It is a city of contrasts, contradictions, all wrapped in a young nation with a complicated and divisive history. Fredrick the Great’s capital is without question not only an extraordinarily photogenic and organized city, but Berlin ability to reinvent its past and present, all the while making adjustments for an irresolute future is reason enough for filmmakers and film lovers to keep coming back.