UFA - The Iconic Contradiction

By David Parkinson | February 17, 2010
Palast am Zoo UFA’s Palast am Zoo movie theatre

David Parkinson, FilmInFocus’ resident film historian, casts an eye over the history of UFA, the studio that played a central role in Berlin’s cinematic history.

UFA is one of the most iconic names in cinema history. It has variously been credited with creating film art in the 1920s and spewing pernicious propaganda during the Third Reich. But neither claim is strictly accurate. Indeed, UFA's reputations for innovation and infamy are founded as much on myth as hard fact. Yet Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft dominates any assessment of German cinema between 1917-45.

The famous UFA logo

The famous UFA logo

The company was founded in the depths of a crisis. With stalemate in the Great War fostering domestic unrest, General Erich Ludendorff persuaded Deutsche Bank director Emil Georg von Stauss of the need for a consolidated film industry that would not only be able to compensate for the lack of imported pictures on German screens, but also to respond to the anti-Kaiser propaganda being produced by the Allies. Thus, on 4 July 1917, Ludendorff sent a memo asserting that such an amalgamation would be in the national interest and secretly committed the government to 7 million mark stake in the company. However, it took the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to accelerate the process and, on 18 December, UFA was established with a capital stock of 25 million marks supplied by investors from the banking, shipping, mining and electrical sectors. Even the gramophone manufacturer, Karl Lindström, took a seat on the board.

The nucleus of the company was the Bild und Film-Amt (BUFA), which had been set up by the High Command to explore film's potential for psychological warfare. However, UFA emerged primarily through a series of forced mergers that subsumed such thriving concerns as Paul Davidson's Projektions-AG Union (PAGU), the Danish Nordisk-Film and Oskar Messter's diverse production and exhibition arms. The following year, independents like Heinrich Bolten-Baeckers (BB-Film), Hanns Lippmann (Gloria) and Max Galitzenstein (Maxim) saw their businesses disappear and UFA's hegemony was guaranteed when it acquired Erich Pommer's Decla-Bioscop in November 1921.

However, this year also saw the Weimar government sell its shares to Deutsche Bank and, although powerful industrial players like Krupp and IG Farben now joined its backers, UFA found itself having to compete on equal terms with France's rejuvenating giants Pathé and Gaumont, as well as the increasingly potent and expansionist studios in Hollywood. Fortunately, it had solid foundations, thanks to its vertically integrated structure.

UFA headquarters in the early days of the company

UFA headquarters in the early days of the
company

Initially operating out of Messter and Davidson's appropriated glass premises in Berlin's Templehof district, UFA eventually relocated to Decla's imposing Neubabelsberg lot in Potsdam, which became the largest studio in Europe on the completion of the Grosse Halle in 1926. The company also controlled Germany's biggest theatre chain, having been bequeathed over 90 venues by the Projektions Union and Union-Theater AG. Within five years, it had doubled this number and opened such prestigious capital locations as the Ufa-Palast am Zoo, the Capitol, the Gloria-Palast and the Marmorhaus, as well as the continent's biggest cinema, the Ufa-Palast in Hamburg, which seated 2667 patrons.

In addition to controlling 10% of domestic exhibition, UFA also supplied projectors to its rivals, as well as offering laboratory facilities. It also produced newsreels and advertisements, as well as sponsoring works by such acclaimed avant-gardists as the abstract animators Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling. UFA even ventured into the multi-media business with its book, magazine and music publishing subsidiaries.

Yet, while UFA became a byword for German cinema in this period, it was not responsible for such landmark Expressionist features as Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) or FW Murnau's Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens/Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922). Moreover, it acted solely as a distributor for such small stand-alones as Terra, Nero, Deulig and Meinert, as well as semi-independents like Joe May, whose three-hour epic Veritas Vincit (1918) and eight-part serial Die Herrin der Welt/Mistress of the World (1920) were among UFA's first box-office successes.

UFA's Palast am Zoo movie theatre

UFA's Palast am Zoo movie theatre

Indeed, it took some time for UFA to establish a distinctive studio style, as the component companies continued to adhere to their trusted formulae. Ernst Lubitsch's Anna Boleyn (1920), for example, harked back to such PAGU Kostümfilme as Madame Dubarry (1919). The Kulturfilm, however, was entirely an UFA invention.

Designed to act as a corrective to such salacious Aufkläringsfilme (or Enlightenment films) like Hayänen der Lust/Hyenas of Lust and Aus eines Mannes Mädchenjahren/A Man's Girlhood (both 1919) and Sittenfilme (or Sex Situation films) like Opium (1919), Kulturfilme were accessible introductions to such specialist topics as medicine, science, nature, culture and travel. Mostly intended for schools and community centres, shorts like Der Hirschkäfer/The Stag Beetle (1921) were followed by such features as Wein, Weib, Gesang/Wine, Women, Song, Des Menschen Freund/Man's Best Friend (both 1924) and Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit/Ways to Strength and Beauty (1925), which respectively examined viniculture, dog breeding and the body beautiful.

Some would later claim that these seemingly harmless educationals espoused sinister ideologies and honed the skills of film-makers like Ulrich KT Schultz, Nicholas Kaufmann, Martin Rikli, Wilhelm Prager and Svend Noldan, who would became key figures in the wartime propaganda machine. And the same was also said of the Bergfilm (or Mountain film) that launched dancer Leni Riefenstahl as an actress. Romanticising the Heimat (or homeland) and such vigorous outdoor pursuits as climbing and skiing, features like Arnold Fanck's Der heilige Berg/The Holy Mountain (1926) glorified the Germanic physique and brought Riefenstahl to the attention of Adolf Hitler, who would entrust her with recording the 1934 Nuremberg rally in Triumph des Willens/Triumph of the Will (1935).

But theorists like Siegfried Kracauer saw portents of doom in almost every picture produced in the Weimar era, as National Socialist sympathisers sought to precondition the German psyche for totalitarianism. Yet Erich Pommer's goal, while production chief at UFA between 1923-26, was to give creative artists the freedom to produce critically and commercially successful silents that would appeal to audiences around the world. Thus, he hired cinematographers with a unique vision like Karl Freund, Eugen Schüfftan and Carl Hoffmann, provocative writers like Thea von Harbou, Carl Mayer, and Robert Liebmann, original designers like Walter Röhrig and Robert Herlth, and such versatile performers as Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Lya de Putti, Lil Dagover and Camilla Horn.

Moreover, he encouraged Fritz Lang to follow such Expressionist masterpieces as Der müde Tod/Destiny (1921) and Dr Mabuse, der Spieler/Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) with a fantastical two-part rendition of the folkloric Die Nibelungen (1924) and the spectacular futuristic allegory, Metropolis (1927). Similarly, he gave FW Murnau the latitude to progress from the archetypal Kammerspielfilm, Der letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (1924), to such dazzling experiments in studio stylisation as Herr Tartüff/Tartuffe (1925) and Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926), while also backing Carl Theodor Dreyer's Michael (1924), EA Dupont's Varieté and Ludwig Berger's Ein Walzertraum/The Dream Waltz (both 1925) and distributing Paul Leni's Das Wachsfigurenkabinett/Waxworks (1924) and Lotte Reiniger's silhouette gem, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed/The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

On his return from a stint in Hollywood, Pommer also oversaw UFA's conversion to sound, with Hanns Schwartz's Melodie des Herzens/Melody of the Heart (1929) and Josef von Sternberg's Der blaue Engel/The Blue Angel (1930), which made a star of Marlene Dietrich. However, the other repercussion from this American association proved to be much less beneficial.

The national humiliation of defeat in the Great War had been compounded by the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles, which stipulated that the victors were entitled to reparations. However, adverse economic conditions forced Weimar to default on its payments in 1923 and it became dependent upon American loans made under the Dawes Plan, whose terms curtailed the export of German films. Deprived of its overseas markets, UFA lost $8 million in 1925 and, in order to meet its debt to Deutsche Bank, Pommer concluded the Parufamet Agreement with Paramount and MGM, which secured a loan of $4 million at 7.5% in exchange for access to UFA's studios, theatres and personnel.

Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis was one of the seminal UFA titles

Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis was one
of the seminal UFA titles

It proved to be a ruinous pact, as while domestic quota regulations compelled UFA to produce one picture for every American import, it had agreed to devote 75% of screen time in its theatre chain to Parufamet titles. Moreover, while UFA was forced to accept MGM and Paramount potboilers, the Hollywood partners could refuse any German films they deemed unsuitable for US audiences. As talents like Lubitsch, Murnau, Jannings and Dietrich were lured to the States, the spiralling budgets of Faust and Metropolis saw UFA post losses of $12 million in 1926 and it sought the assistance of Dr Alfred Hugenberg, the head of the Scherl-Verlagsgruppe publishing empire and the leader of the right-wing Deutschnationalen Volkspartei (DNVP), who became the company's chairman in March 1927.

Despite owning less than half the shares, Hugenberg was determined to set a nationalist agenda and appointed Emil Georg Stauss and Ludwig Klitzsch to terminate Parufamet, repatriate Pommer and reorganise the studio on a producer-unit system inspired by the Hollywood model. With Günther Stapenhorst, Alfred Zeisler and Gregor Rabinowitsch now supervising prestige and genre output, UFA began releasing hits again, with Joe May's Heimkehr/Homecoming (1928) and Asphalt (1929) among the first successes. Yet while UFA began giving the Nazis increasing prominence in its newsreels, it was the talkie boom that enabled it to regain control over German cinema, as Pommer invested heavily in lavish musicals like Wilhelm Thiele's Die Drei von der Tankstelle/Three from the Gas Station (1930) and Erik Charell's Der Kongress tanzt/Congress Dances (1931), which made Willy Fritsch and the British-born Lilian Harvey the country's leading romantic team.

With their acerbic dialogue, saucy innuendo and cheerful ditties, UFA musicals borrowed shamelessly from the Broadway style that Hollywood had already seized upon. Moreover, the likes of Reinhold Schünzel's cross-dressing Renate Müller vehicle Viktor und Viktoria and Friedrich Holländer's historical operetta for Lilian Harvey, Ich und die Kaiserin/The Empress and I (both 1933), followed the Tinseltown lead in striving to raise spirits in the face of growing economic and political uncertainty.

Consequently, when Hitler came to power in January 1933 and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels enforced the Reichsfilmkammer (July 1933) and Reischlichtspielgesetz (February 1934) that respectively reorganised the German film industry and outlawed its Jewish employees, UFA was allowed to continue peddling glamorous escapism. Indeed, Goebbels proved to be such a populist that light entertainments accounted for over half of all production over the next 12 years.

The early deaths of Renate Müller and the dancer La Jana saw the emergence of new stars like the Hungarian Marika Rökk, whose `Puszta charm' was most readily evident in husband Georg Jacoby's Gasparone (1937) and Frauen sind doch bessere Diplomaten/Women Really Do Make Better Diplomats (1941), which saw her having to choose between career and domesticity before finding love and fulfilment in the last reel. Even more popular was the Swede Zarah Leander, who invariably passed through temptation, transgression, remorse and redemption in musical melodramas like Detlef Sierck's La Habanera and Zu neuen Ufern/To New Shores (both 1937).

Ultimately, Harvey, Rökk and Leander would all incur Goebbels's wrath. Yet their films have never been rehabilitated in the same manner as their Soviet counterparts starring Lyubov Orlova and Marina Ladynina, even though they are markedly more accomplished and less overtly political. Indeed, of UFA's wartime output, only Josef von Baky's fantasy Münchhausen (1943) has been widely seen outside Germany. Yet, even though Hugenberg served in Hitler's first cabinet and supervised the government's use of the Cautio Treuhand corporation to acquire 99% of UFA stock by 1939, the famous diamond logo was never attached to such stridently propagandist titles as Franz Seitz's SA Mann Brandt (1933), Veit Harlan's Jew Süss and Fritz Hippler's Der ewige Jude/The Eternal Jew (both 1940).

Erich Pommer was production chief between 1923 and 1926, a golden period at UFA

Erich Pommer was production chief between
1923 and 1926, a golden period at UFA

Nevertheless, UFA was involved in the production of Gustav Uckicky's Morgenrot/Dawn and Flüchtlinge/Refugees, Hans Steinhoff's Hitlerjunge Quex/Hitler Youth Quex (all 1933) and Erich Waschneck's Die Rothschilds (1940), as well as such jingoistic Karl Ritter efforts as Verräter/The Traitor (1936), Patrioten/Patriots (1937) and Stukas (1941). It also distributed Triumph of the Will, Wolfgang Liebeneiner's Bismarck (1940) and Veit Harlan's Der grosse König (1942). Yet even after the German film industry was essentially nationalised by UFA's 1942 merger with Terra, Tobis, Wien and Bavaria to form UFA Film GmbH (known as UFI), funding came not from the state, but from private investors and the Filmkreditbank. Thus, the executives preferred to churn out crowd-pleasing fare like Erich Engel's Fahrt ins Glück/Ride into Happiness (1944), Hans Deppe's Wie sagen wir es unseren Kindern?/How Will We Tell Our Children? and Helmut Käutner's Unter den Brücken/Under the Bridges (both 1945) than flagwavers like Veit Harlan's Napoleonic era epic, Kolberg (1945), which became UFA's most expensive production as its costs spiralled to 8.5 million marks.

On 24 April 1945, the Red Army captured the studios at Neubabelsberg and, by May the following year, much of its staff had been rehired by the Deutsche-Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA), which controlled cinema in the German Democratic Republic until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1990. The remnants of UFI were further dismantled as part of the denazification of the German film industry by the occupying British and American forces, with the Reich's film assets being entrusted to Lex UFI in September 1949, until they could be auctioned off. Four years later, however, the West German government decided to relax the regulations and, in 1956, it allowed a consortium headed by former Lex trustee Arno Hauke and funded by Deutsche Bank to buy Ufa-Theater AG and Universum-Film AG for 12.5 million marks.

The Afifa processing laboratories and the Tempelhof studios were subsequently added to the portfolio. But, by 1964, Universum-Film was in trouble and it was acquired by the media conglomerate, Bertelsmann. Within two years, however, it had entered into negotiations with the American Seven Arts company to offload some 3000 German features and the Spitzenorganisation der deutschen Filmwirtschaft and the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau-Stiftung were established to purchase the UFI back catalogue at a cost of 14 million marks and they have administered it ever since.

In 1972, Heinz Riech bought UFA's surviving film theatres. However, Bertelsmann retained the corporate name and still appends it to its small-screen soap operas and sports coverage. The Neubabelsberg complex also continues to thrive, despite several changes of ownership. In August 1992, the Treuhand agency detailed to supervise the privatisation of DEFA sold the studio to France's Compagnie Générale des Eaux, which was later absorbed into Vivendi Universal, which invested around €500 million in renovating and updating the facility before selling out to Filmbetriebe Berlin Brandenburg GmbH in July 2004. Subsequently, Studio Babelsberg has hosted such Hollywood runaways as Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, Stephen Daldry's The Reader (both 2008), Tom Tykwer's The International, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (both 2009) and Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer (2010).

It's estimated that only 10% of UFA's output survives. Yet disputes continue to rage about the company's legacy. Some historians see Neubabelsberg as a bureaucratic prototype for the concentration camps, while others consider it a haven for artistic expression. Some denounce UFA as a fascist mouthpiece, while others celebrate it as a purveyor of apolitical entertainment. As always, the answer lies somewhere between the conflicting viewpoints. UFA was an amalgam of widely diverging companies and it was this root contradiction that enabled it to balance experiment and extremism, individuality and monopoly. Thus, it not only survived its various fiscal, ethical and creative crises, but it also produced some of German cinema's finest achievements.

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