Movies of a turbulent century: German film company Ufa turns 100


International success stories

"The Blue Angel" (1930), now a classic of German cinema, is perhaps the film that best reflects the Ufa's first years of film production and established its international reputation. The film's lead, Marlene Dietrich, moved on to become a Hollywood star thanks to the role. The movie's depiction of Berlin from the 1920s still fascinates to this day.


Fritz Lang's monumental productions

Many of the silent movies that had previously been shot in the Ufa studios in Babelsberg near Berlin also became film classics, including the works of directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Fritz Lang. However, the latter's ambitious productions, such as "Metropolis" (1927, above) and "Nibelungen" (1924), put the company in deep financial trouble.


F.W. Murnau's influential works

Along with Fritz Lang, who established new ideals in cinematographic art direction, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau also became an influential film director through his works produced at the Ufa studios. Murnau's acclaimed films include "Nosferatu" (1922) and "The Last Laugh" (1924, above), in which Emil Jannings plays a nameless hotel doorman who loses his job.


The master of comedies: Ernst Lubitsch

Along with Lang and Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch was one of the best-known directors of the German silent-cinema era. Gaining international recognition with his comedies, Lubitsch moved on to Hollywood in 1922. Murnau and Lang followed later on.


Creating a German star system

The Ufa established not only the careers of directors who would later make it big in Hollywood but also a series of stars. Lilian Harvey was one of them. She is best known for her role in the Ufa production "Congress Dances" (above), a musical comedy from 1931.


The Ufa as a propaganda tool

After Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, the Ufa was quickly pulled into the Nazis' propaganda machinery. That same year "Hitler Youth Quex" was produced in the Ufa studios. Shown in the US under the title "Our Flag Leads Us Forward" and promoted as "a film about the sacrificial spirit of German youth," the work unequivocally demonstrated the studio's new role.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

The Ufa was also involved in the distribution of the Nazis' most prominent works of propaganda, including Leni Riefenstahl's so-called documentary "Triumph of the Will" (1935), which chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Hitler himself commissioned the film; his name appears in the opening credits as an executive producer.


Propaganda through entertainment

However, Ufa's biggest commerical success during the Third Reich era didn't star Hitler, but rather borrowed from traditional film genres. "Die große Liebe" (The Great Love, 1942) starred Zarah Leander, Viktor Staal and Grethe Weiser. The drama with musical numbers told a singer's love story with a lieutenant, showing him both on the front and off-duty.


A glimpse of fantasy

Sidestepping immediate political issues, Josef von Baky's fantasy comedy "Münchhausen" (1943) starred Hans Albers. The film, which aimed to distract the population from the war, was ordered by Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Ufa film studio. Goebbels is said to have been strongly impressed by the Technicolor cinematography in "The Wizard of Oz."


The Ufa's final battle

Germany was already losing the war when the Ufa invested huge sums in this production: Veit Harlan's "Kolberg" (1945) was the most expensive German film of World War II. Inspired by historical events, it mythologized how a besieged town defended itself during the Napoleonic Wars. The film aimed to bolster the morale of both the troops and the general population.


Post-war comeback

Germany's defeat in 1945 also meant the end of the Ufa in its previous form. The Allies took over the country's structures and decentralized the film industry. The name Ufa, however, remained. At the end of the 1950s, the studio had a short comeback. Ufa's most remarkable post-war production is the film adaptation of B. Traven's novel "The Death Ship" (1959), starring Horst Buchholz.


A relaunch in the 1990s

Over the following decades, the name Ufa became rather synonymous with a large movie theater chain. Since the 1990s, new works have been produced under the banner UFA, initially mostly TV series, then later for the big screen as well. The film "The Physician" (2013) is one of the recent big-budget productions of the production company.


Award-winning German TV series

UFA, now spelled in capitals, has obtained international recognition with some of the TV series it has produced. Among them is the eight-episode series "Deutschland 83," which won an International Emmy Award.

It is the most famous German film production company: Founded in 1917, Ufa produced films that remain great classics — as well as works of propaganda for the Nazis.

UFA: the name evokes classic German feature films as well as propaganda works from the Nazi era.

More recently, the production company has been behind major TV series revisiting German history.

2017 has been a special year for UFA. The company was officially founded 100 years ago on December 18, 1917— an anniversary the company has been celebrating all year long.

An exhibition on UFA opened at the end of November at the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum for Film and Television in Berlin.

DW asked Rainer Rother, artistic director of the museum, about UFA's role over the decades.

Rainer Rother

Rainer Rother, artistic director at the Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum for Film and Television in Berlin

Deutsche Welle: UFA stands for totally different film eras, cultures and styles  is there any connection at all?

Rainer Rother: Yes, there is a common ground: "We want to be important, nationally and internationally!" That pursuit was still in a fledgling state when the firm was founded, played a role when the company was revived in the 1950s, and took on steam in the 1990s after it was absorbed by Bertelsmann.

UFA is Germany's most prominent film production company: What is specifically "German" about it?

Perhaps its history. It was born in World War I, at a time when official attitudes towards motion pictures had already changed. Before the war, authorities felt films tainted morals, and that only educational programs were worth supporting. That changed during the First World War, as the reaction to allied propaganda back then was: "We want to have a big film production company, too."

That is an intrinsic German development. One could say that Ufa has always had an eye on the international stage, defining itself as a production firm that seeks to be successful by focusing on typical German issues, and that makes it distinctive. That concept is still behind much of what the new UFA produces today.

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How characteristic is the link between politics and culture in the company's long history?

The film production company was created with the goal of exercising political influence. It was expected to make money without being a pure propaganda institution, but rather a company that reaches the audiences with its films. Both aspects endured. In the 1920s, a two-part movie on World War I was produced in close cooperation with Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann.

During the Nazi era, the authorities were clearly in control.

In the 1950s, UFA was newly founded with the backing of the German government. Then, too, Germany was interested in having a major German film production company. That said, the years after Bertelsmann took control in 1964 are really the first time there was no state influence at all.

Geschichte der Ufa - ASPHALT 1929

Silent films made the German film production company famous

Who are some of the great UFA producers and directors?

There is producer Erich Pommer, and directors including Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Georg Wilhelm Papst and Wilhelm Thiele. People remember the great silent film productions in the mid-1920s, and the firm's quick reaction when the silent movie era ended, making way for sound films.

How do you rate the movies UFA produces today, many of them mega TV projects about historical events in Germany?

These films are typical for German TV, and what the audience wants to see, feature films about German history. With the 2001 film "The Tunnel" — a made-for-TV movie about events after East Germany closed the border and began to build the Wall in 2001 —, UFA started to cater to people's interest in recent history.

Geschichte der Ufa - Plakat-Motiv zur Ausstellung: „Die Ufa – Geschichte einer Marke“

Poster of the exhibition "Ufa: The History of a Brand"

The company produced propaganda films for the Nazis  from 1933-1945. How damaging was this for its reputation?

A large part of the films produced in those years are to be judged in a negatively. At the same time, we must admit that UFA was always strongly committed to the audience's tastes in various eras. The "classic" Ufa [Eds. how the name was spelled before the Bertelsmann takeover] produced a lot of "bread and butter" films, the same is true of today's UFA TV productions, including daily soaps that cater to a certain segment of viewers.

What does UFA still have in common with the "old" Ufa?

By pursuing the greatest possible diversity and through its claim to international competitiveness, the company which currently has the UFA name rights carries on the old Ufa concept.

However, the new UFA has made it clear, and rightfully so, that it is not the old company's legal successor. The new UFA moves in a different media environment and develops strategies in this different media environment that come close to the old Ufa's strategic orientation — without having had to learn any of it from the old Ufa.

"Ufa  The History of a Brand" is a special exhibition at Berlin's Deutsche Kinemathek - Museum for Film and Television. It runs from November 24, 2017 through April 22, 2108.

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