The Savior of Babelsberg (Well, Almost)

Mary Williams Walsh is The Times' Berlin bureau chief

After a six-year interlude in which he sampled the high-pressure life of a studio executive, Oscar-winning director Volker Schlondorff has gone back to his real work: the adaptation of literature to film.

Schlondorff’s new $18-million feature “The Ogre,” starring John Malkovich, premiered nearly two weeks ago in Germany and was shown on the closing night of the Toronto Film Festival. The French premiere is Oct. 2; the American release remains unscheduled.

The film’s completion marks a pivotal moment for Schlondorff, not just as a director but also as a man who recently transformed himself, incongruously, from creative genius into business manager. Schlondorff, 57, did this in 1990, in hopes of rescuing Germany’s huge, historic Studio Babelsberg film complex here, just outside Berlin. “The Ogre” is the renovated studio’s first big production.

Sprawling Babelsberg used to be Germany’s equivalent of Hollywood: the place where, in the 1920s, such landmarks as “Metropolis” and “The Blue Angel” were made. Babelsberg continued to produce films throughout World War II, though the quality crashed. After the war, the studios fell into East Germany’s impoverished and less-than-artistic hands.


By the time Germany reunited in 1990, Babelsberg was in a state of such dilapidation that the government’s plan was to bulldoze it and sell off the land to real estate developers.

But the Wiesbaden-born Schlondorff, who at the time was casting around for new projects, was so appalled at the idea of leveling Babelsberg that he mounted a one-man campaign to save the studio. Talking up a vision of a reborn Babelsberg that would “make films with the scope of an American movie but with European content,” he eventually found an investor willing to put up the necessary funds: the French industrial conglomerate Compagnie Generale des Eaux. CGE then made him manager of the place.

Schlondorff says today that he had no idea what he was getting into.

“I thought of myself as a mentor, to give credibility to the French investment, and that while I did this I could continue to make films,” he recalls.


Instead, he says, “for four years, I couldn’t even breathe. I was here working 12 hours a day, just to get the thing going.”

Today, $120 million later, Babelsberg has evolved into a respectable business center. Germany’s largest and second-largest commercial television networks now produce their popular soap operas and daytime chat shows here, and the studio has a growing list of successful international co-productions. This month, work is beginning on an $8-million Cold War submarine thriller for HBO.

Younger Berliners have even taken to staking out the streets of Babelsberg, hoping to glimpse a TV star and cadge an autograph.

The big question now is whether Babelsberg will ever measure up to Schlondorff’s grand vision of a full-fledged studio creating important feature films or remain what it is now: a production site mainly rendering technical services to others.


The success or failure of “The Ogre” won’t make or break Babelsberg, but the fortunes of Schlondorff’s new production will do much to determine whether the studio fulfills his dream of kindling a renaissance in European filmmaking.

“If I were to give up my optimism, I’d have to give up filmmaking,” he says. “There was a time when all the cars in the world came from Detroit, and no one thought that would change. Now is the time when all movies come from Hollywood, and no one thinks that will change. Well?”

There is much in Schlondorff’s new film for an audience to savor--even an audience attuned to Hollywood action movies. There are tank battles, fireballs and even the apocalyptic destruction of a castle. There is magnificent rural scenery, lovingly photographed in France, Poland and Norway; there is a lode of literary imagery, taken mainly from Goethe; and, for those who admire Schlondorff for his exploration of Life’s Big Themes, there are the perennial great questions of predestination, individual responsibility and human salvation.

In making “The Ogre,” Schlondorff adapted the 1970 French novel “Le Roi des Aulnes” by prizewinning French writer Michel Tournier. It is a long and intricate story of a mechanic who, through one bizarre twist of fate after another, becomes an enthusiastic recruiter for an elite SS boys’ school in Nazi Germany.


How did Schlondorff settle on this book for his return to filmmaking?

“In Berlin, and especially out here [in Babelsberg], you always feel as if the war ended about two weeks ago,” he says, sitting in an office on the second floor of a building whose cornerstone was laid by Hitler’s minister of public enlightenment and propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

“People always try to explain [the Third Reich] through economics, or by saying that the Germans are evil and they will always remain that way,” says the director, who was 6 years old in 1945 and can remember vividly the way he naively glorified the Wehrmacht soldiers and their heroic-looking uniforms.

“But Tournier says that it can be explained by mythology. I thought that would be a way to shed a different light on that period, and how it must have felt from within, for these boys [in the SS school] and for the grown-ups, who were living in a very childlike way. They were allowed to bathe in the glory that the world belonged to them.”


Admirers of Schlondorff’s biggest critical success, “The Tin Drum” (which plays for four days beginning Thursday at the Nuart in West Los Angeles), will find many familiar features in “The Ogre”: a social misfit as the main character, the Nazi madness as the backdrop and an uncanny, childlike perspective on a lunatic world.

The coming weeks will find Schlondorff promoting all this in Europe and North America. Then, once “The Ogre” is in theaters, he says, he will temporarily distance himself from Babelsberg.

“My next project is a detective story set in Florida,” he explains. “I’ll take a leave of absence.”

Schlondorff now dares to hope, he says, that he will be able to act as a kind of “director in residence” for Babelsberg--the mentor he had intended to be before he got so bogged down in management.


“We don’t really need this father figure here anymore, a filmmaker running a studio,” he says. “We’re now at the point where the professional managers can take over, and the filmmakers can make films, like everywhere else.”