Truus van Aalten

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History Of Ufa

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Truus van Aalten was under contract to Universum Film AG, known to all as the Ufa. But what was Ufa?


During 1917, the head of the German war effort, General Erich Ludendorff, realized the potential of a new medium: the movies: "The war has demonstrated the supremacy of picture and film as instruments of education and influence", he wrote, seeing these new media as vital new ways for the government to spread propaganda, education and cultural ideas. Secretly bankrolled by taxpayers' money, Ufa was officially founded on December 28th, 1917, and set about buying up as many existing production companies as it could afford. If Ufa played its cards right, the government believed, it could eventually control film-making and distribution all over Europe, spreading German influence - and making a healthy profit as it did so.

Promising high salaries, Ufa was able to sign an impressive roster of ceative producers, technicians and performers from the start - visionary directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Paul Wegener; stars such as Emil Jannings, Pola Negri, Asta Nielson, Henny Porten and Harry Liedtke.

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During 1918 Ufa acquired a vast studio site on the Oberlandstrasse in Tempelhof to use as their main studio. It was their outdoor shooting area and back lot, and in 1922 the old Bioscop studios at Neubabelsberg in south-west Berlin were acquired and expanded into the biggest studio complex in Europe.


Ufa had been conceived by military minds - but its films were made by civilians. Stories with blatant propaganda messages tended to be hooted off the screen even by rural audiences - ordinary people reacted best to movies with simple morals, often set in a rose-tinted past - so that's what Ufa made. It now had the space to make epics - huge sets could be built at Tempelhof - castles or entire streets with room for 15,000 extras.

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The Ufa-Palast am Zoo, the biggest cinema in Berlin, opened in 1918. It sat 2,165 and hosted the glamourous premieres of many Ufa films. By 1920 the company was shooting innovative films like Madame Dubarry, Der Golem and Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari and distributing them all over Europe and even in the Ukraine, Hungary and Turkey. Exports to America brought in extra money, making even more impressive movies possible. Ufa wasn't the only production company in Germany, but it was by far the biggest.


During 1921 the government (having lost interest) sold its shares. From now on the Ufa would be controlled by bankers and business people, middle-aged establishment men who didn't approve of the post-war Weimar government and hoped for for a return to an earlier, more authoritarian system. Still, Ufa became a hothouse of artistic and technical experimentation, particularly under directors FW Murnau, EA Dupont and Fritz Lang, and cameramen Carl Hoffman and Karl Freund. Firebrand producer Erich Pommer became the head of production in 1923. He demanded innovation and dedication to quality: "Please come up with something new," he asked his employees, "Even if it's crazy!"

In 1924 Ufa sent Pommer and Fritz Lang to America to learn from the Yanks. The US controlled nearly 90% of the world market, and their studios (in Los Angeles) and head offices (in New York) were an inspiration to the Germans. The Manhattan skyline had another effect on Fritz Lang - he became fascinated by the huge skyscrapers, gleaming at night like a city of the future...

Even before Lang's movie Metropolis started shooting in May 1925, Ufa was forced to admit that the company was in financial trouble. Hollywood honchos raced each other to Berlin, where Paramount and Universal made a deal worth more than four million dollars to Ufa - on condition that American films would receive greatly increased distribution in Ufa territories. Only later did Ufa realize that the agreement favoured the Americans and did them no good at all.

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Great hopes lay in the international success of Metropolis. An enormously ambitious science-fiction epic, it had its premiere in January 1927. While the publicity men boasted of the movie's 36,000 extras and 1.3 million feet of camera negative, nervous Board members tried to hide the facts that its budget had ballooned from 1.5 million Marks to 5.3 million, and Erich Pommer had quit in disgust at his superiors' inefficiency.

Metropolis left European audiences cold, and the takings were disastrous. Its American distributer recut it, removing ninety minutes of plot. That (and its old-fashioned, melodramatic acting) was enough to destroy Metropolis in the US.

With Ufa about to go under, the Scherl publishing group, headed by industrialist/politician Alfred Hugenberg, took control in March 1927. Hugenberg was another old-fashioned, anti-Republic conservative. Day-to-day running of Ufa was the job of his manager Ludwig Klitzch, who cut budgets, scheduled fewer new films and scrapped costly experiments with sound equipment. He lured Erich Pommer back from Hollywood, and Ufa was soon making up for lost time.


In 1928, after trips to America and London, Klitzsch realized that talking pictures, once thought to be a one-day sensation, could no longer be ignored. Though horrified by the cost implications, Ufa started doing exclusive deals with the sound companies and converting their cinemas.

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In September 1929, after a hectic seven months of construction, they unveiled their four-studio "Tonkreuz" building at Neubabelsberg. By spending an astounding twenty million Marks, Ufa pulled ahead of everyone else, and watched as many smaller companies perished. Sound films were considerably more expensive to make than silents, but by 1932 Ufa ran one hundred and fifteen cinemas, all with sound, and they distributed movies to two thousand venues within Germany alone.


Alfred Hugenberg's inflence showed in another way too: producers soon learned that only a certain sort of story was being allowed into production. Ufa's management officially gave Hitler their full support in 1933, and from then on, any script which seemed not to support Nazi ideals was returned for revision, or simply banned. Social realism, investigative documentary and political comment started to die away. Movie people shook their heads in disbelief as propaganda minister Goebbels announced that the government had no desire to control the films that were being made, no intention "to force artistic and intellectual activity into any pattern. Art is free, and should remain so."

Early in 1933, a new law came into effect which required the "retirement" of non-Aryans in businesses across the country. Hugenberg started zealously combing through his staff. Many of Ufa's very best writers, camera people, designers, and directors were forced out. Homosexuals and other "degenerates" were removed from their jobs too, and the remaining producers struggled to replace all their creative talent.

Movie stars (those who were left) rose in importance. Hitler and Goebbels both adored actresses, and several of them became massively self-important, backed up by government approval and evenings at dinner with the Führer.

Ufa's 5,000 workers were forced to pledge an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and in 1937 the government bought Ufa out. German film-making was now 100% nationalized, and dedicated to producing product which "served the national community". There were four newsreel-producing companies in Germany, and audiences grew to loathe the boring, self-important, party-line newsreels (and tried to avoid them - but when cinema managers were ordered to lock their patrons in there was no escape). Feature films were jolly and bland and empty.

The war brought conscription, which robbed Ufa of many good people - but suddenly extra money was spent on movies to keep spirits up. Gigantic epics like Münchausen were made, but as the government proclaimed the importance of heroic struggle, the German population fell into listless apathy. Bombing raids demolished locations in Berlin on a daily basis and film stars tried to act through the stress of being bombed.

Kolberg, a gigantic war film reeking of self-sacrificial heroism, started shooting in October 1943. Finished nearly a year later, its 189,000 extras drafted in from the Army and Navy provided an impressive, empty spectacle. Ufa couldn't hold the premiere at the Ufa-Palast - it had been flattened in an air raid.

The Red Army, racing through the rubble-strewn suburbs of Berlin, took the Neubabelsberg complex on April 24th, 1945. While the majority continued on into the city, a small group of soldiers at once started to crate up any film-making equipment and film cans they could find, and sent them back to Moscow.

After the war, Ufa was declared bankrupt and died like a vast, rotting whale. While a large number of Ufa's feature films were missing, an organization called The FW Murnau Foundation was set up to administer the preservation and future use of what was left.


The Ufa, once an artistic and technological beacon, a superbly-running film factory, was gone. Its buildings remain, and today still run as Studio Babelsberg, where modern films such as V For Vendetta and Tom Cruise's Valkyrie were shot. Also on the lot is Filmpark Babelsberg, a Hollywood-style movie theme park.


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