European Times: Babelsberg - Darkness closes on German tinseltown

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MEDIEVAL GUARDS waving swords patrol the entrance to the restaurant in the bowels of Europe's greatest dream factory. Upon admission, the patrons of the Prince Ironheart are given paper aprons for the gargantuan feast that lies ahead: cured ham, pig knuckles and fatty goose, washed down with ample quantities of riesling and a smooth red from Wurttemberg.

While the digestive system battles with this fare, the visual and aural senses are assaulted by a succession of bare-bottomed female fire-eaters writhing on stage, followed by a gloriously camp troubadour, and rounded off with blood-curdling sword fights in the aisles. Take your eyes off them at your peril. On the other side of the hall, monochrome monsters snarl from a screen fixed to the wall.

Not all of this is real, of course. The troubadour's harp is plugged into an amplifier, the sword-fighters' swords are made of plastic, and maybe even the goose is only an old hen. But the hideous ghouls that flicker on the wall are real enough: they are the creations of Fritz Lang and his contemporaries in the golden age of German cinema 70 years ago. Here they came to life, in a dingy Berlin suburb stretched along a black lake.

Babelsberg needed no introduction in those days. It glittered as bright as any place on earth. But then darkness fell, and its denizens boarded the boat heading for a village named Hollywood.

Fast forward seven decades, tactfully skipping the artistic output of the Nazis and the Communists, as well as the post-unity chaos and decrepitude. In 1992, a French utilities company bought the run-down studios from the state, promising to turn them into the biggest movie-making facility this side of the Atlantic.

The hall where Marlene Dietrich made the Blue Angel and the adjoining buildings were gutted, filled with computer-controlled gadgets, and relaunched as the most modern production centre in Europe. Now the place is again brimming, the lights are coming on in the villas abutting that eerie lake, and the studio's cash tills are singing merrily. For the first year since the takeover, Babelsberg is breaking even.

A happy end, Hollywood-style. So why does that man sitting at the edge of the Prince Ironheart's stage look so forlorn? He is, after all, Mr Babelsberg, otherwise known as Volker Schlondorff, Germany's greatest living film director. Or he was, until about six years ago, when he agreed to become the manager of the studios. With international hits such as Swann in Love and The Tin Drum to his name, it was his job to sprinkle some pixie dust over Babelsberg, and - hey presto - Europe's Tinseltown would be reborn.

It did not happen. The movies did not come to Babelsberg and, while waiting anxiously for the miracle, Mr Schlondorff's creative juices dried up. "I gave six years of my life to being a manager," he says, sipping his riesling but giving the pig knuckle a wide berth. "In the end, I would only content myself if we made big movies here. Somehow, we had no luck."

A year ago, he resigned as head of the company, although he remains on the board. There is a new manager, "a young man out of business school". At least Babelsberg is no longer losing money, but nor is it making movies.

"My personal regret is that it's all television and entertainment," Mr Schlondorff said. Much of the revenue comes from German soap operas and game shows, as well as the theme park where day-trippers can meet the scary robot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

"We are suffering from the total lack of major production in Europe," he added. Even the beefed-up Babelsberg studios cannot compete with Hollywood, which accounts for 80 per cent of the German market.

Artistically, too, Mr Schlondorff's tenure did not bring universal success. The one big movie he directed here, The Ogre, failed to impress the critics. Now he is struggling to put his managerial career behind him, but reinventing himself as film director is proving difficult. "Once you've had your head full of economics, it's hard to get it out," he said. "It's somewhat paralysing." He is writing a script - "a small east-west German story" - which he will shoot in the spring.

There may yet be a happy ending. Mr Schlondorff will make his film; and perhaps it will be one that people want to watch. German films are beginning to win international acclaim again. But Babelsberg - like its restaurant - is stranded in the realm of make-believe. A new Hollywood it will never be, but its future as a purveyor of soap seems assured.

Imre Karacs