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Berlin's Film Museum
by Becky Tan

Berlin ’s film museum was built after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Sony Center went up at Potsdamer Platz. The interior is black and silver and has metal ramps leading from room to room. My first impression was that I was inside a Star Wars space ship. Although the décor is ultra sparse and modern, the exhibits of films, photos and memorabilia take you back to Germany’s film roots. The Skla(n)danowsky brothers, Max and Emil, developed a camera called the Bioskop which used the “new” Kodak celluloid film. They showed their first film on November 1, 1895, in Berlin even before the Lumiére brothers demonstrated their movie camera. The honor of being “fathers of cinema” should have gone to these two Germans but Max and Emil’s camera was perhaps too bulky and impractical so that the Lumiéres won out.

German silent movie stars were Jenny Porten, Fern Andra, and Asta Nielsen. Directors were F.W. Murnau with Nosferatu, Robert Wiene with Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), as well as Ernst Lubitsch with Madam Dubarry. Cutting edge in German film history were Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and M (Mabuse). Metropolis was restored several years ago and toured all over Germany, e.g., at Zeise Kino in Hamburg. The film has been made part of the national trust, although it was a flop when it first appeared in 1927; many thought it was overly long at 149 minutes; the science fiction idea was not popular. Naturally, the basic themes: freedom versus oppression and might versus powerlessness are universal and might be summed up in this film’s quote, “There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as a mediator.”

Stachow metal cameras replaced the heavier wooden ones, making them more flexible and easier to haul around (much like digital cameras today make filming easier) When talking movies came, Josef von Sternberg made Der blaue Engel and Marlene Dietrich got her first big break. In posters you can trace her metamorphosis from brown-haired and plump to blond and svelte with thin eyebrows. There are six mannequins dressed in original Dietrich film fashions, including her famous floor-length swansdown coat for performing in concerts. Her original steamer trunks are stacked as if ready to board ship to Hollywood. There is the original telegram from von Starnberg, “Beloved goddess – am burning with longing and love of you constantly and search for words to tell you what you mean to me.” She received this on the Santa Fe train to Albuquerque, New Mexico, drawing room B, Car 202. It doesn’t get more romantic than that.

Technicolor was a big sensation in 1932 and looked so very – well: technicolor-y. German film was a propaganda vehicle during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with the help of director Leni Reifenstahl. Actors and directors went to the U.S. as early as 1922 (Lubitsch, Murnau, Von Sternberg, and Erich von Strohheim). Others fled from the Nazis to the U.S., only to return to Germany after the war (Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Curt Bois, Max Ophüls, Luise Rainer, Billy Wilder). Some died under the Nazis such as Max Ehrlich. Others such as Lilian Harvey, Willy Fritsch, Zarah Leander, Heinz Rühmann, and Hans Albers stayed in the country to entertain a war-torn population in films which were light and optimistic, contrary to daily life at that time.

Post-war actors, whom you can still see in television reruns, were Hildegard Knef, Gert Fröbe, Romy Schneider, Angelica Domröse, Mario Adolf, Manfred Krug, Hanna Schygulla, Otto Sander, Gerd Fröbe, Götz George, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, right up to Run LolaRun by Tom Tykwer with Franke Potente. Behind the scenes Germans were involved in Fay Wray’s King Kong, Jurassic Park, Robocop, Spiderman, and Abbott & Costello Go to Mars.

All of this and more is in the Film Museum, Filmhaus in the Sony Center, Potsdamer Sr. 2, 10785 Berlin, open Tue-Sun, 10-18:00 and until 20:00 on Thu, Tel 030-3309030. Adults pay EUR 5.The website has an English section (click part-way down on the right side). All the signs in the museum are in English and German. Children will like the last part of the museum which features growling, screaming beasts, dragons, and lizards. Film fans will love all of it – especially older generations who remember these stars. This is purely German film history, so don’t expect the slightest mention of anyone Am erican, British or French, except for one small propaganda photo of Charlie Chaplin. Special exhibits come up often, such as a Fußball & Fernsehen (soccer & TV) exhibit which will run until July 30.