Will they fall in love again with the birthplace of the Blue Angel?

A Pot-Holed road leads to the dream factory on the wooded fringe of Metropolis, past decaying tenement blocks and lakes of mud. Inside the gates, rubble is all around amid giant molehills that could be straight out of a science fiction set. We are at Babelsberg Studio, birthplace of German cinema and, according to the publicity blurbs, the Hollywood of tomorrow.

By the year 2005 this sprawling heap of brick and twisted metal will be transformed into an empire of glass and concrete; a realm of superlatives boasting the biggest film production centre in Europe and the most modern in the world. Some of the hi-tech has already arrived.

In the ancient hangar where Fritz Lang toiled away 70 years ago, technicians today fiddle with keyboards, enveloping flesh-and-blood actors in a virtual architecture at the click of a button. The power is still generated by a rusty device that might well have featured in a Frankenstein movie of the 1920s, but its cables snake towards a room stacked with a supercomputer furiously crunching gigabytes.

There is, of course, more to movies than money and machines, but Babelsberg also has the creative juices of one of the world's best film directors on tap. Artistic success is seemingly assured by the presence at the company's helm of Volker Schlondorff, a man who passionately believes in a bright future for German cinema.

Or at least he believed, back in 1992, when the bankrupt studio was bought for a song by the French Compagnie Generale des Eaux. Schlondorff moved to Berlin and promised a renaissance for the European film industry. Hollywood, he suggested, would finally get a run for its money.

There were many people even then who shook their heads in disbelief, but most seemed to have fallen under Babelsberg's spell. After all, the studio had a long tradition of defying reality, from the hedonistic days of the "Roaring Twenties", when it served up beguiling images of a wrecked country partying away, to the ensuing spectacle of blond supermen goose- stepping towards oblivion. Even in Communist times, the stirring epics about the interesting lives of lathe-operators and Westerns in which the Indians always won had some artistic merit.

But five years after Schlondorff took over Babelsberg, Hollywood it certainly ain't, and nor is it an up-market art-house. The Marlene Dietrich Hall, the movie studio where the actress made The Blue Angel, stands empty. The studios that are occupied are churning out soaps, chat shows and game shows for German television. Some movies did make money, but its biggest production. Schlondorff's The Ogre, a beautiful film about the war, underwhelmed the critics and sank in the German market last year without a trace. Its only, slim chance of recouping the DM27m (pounds 10m) invested is with foreign sales and video rights.

There are rumours, hotly denied, that Schlondorff is so dispirited that he is threatening to quit. His name still adorns the company letterhead, but the real power now rests with the French owners' employee, a manager named Pierre Couveinhes who climbed the corporate ladder of his native steel industry before embarking on a glittering career in water. Mr Couveinhes and his masters were always more interested in cash flow than art, and are now deftly repositioning Babelsberg in the market.

Future profits lie in television - yet more game shows - and the theme park. Fritz Lang's robot from Metropolis and gimmicks salvaged from more recent productions are pulling in the punters in their thousands. The company is also looking for post-production niches where its hi-tech expertise is almost unrivalled. Rather than compete with Hollywood, it is trying to entice big American studios to bring some of their work to Berlin. Babelsberg will become a "media city" with expensive apartments and wine bars.

That seems to leave the phoenix of German cinema firmly stuck in the ashes. They do not talk so big at Babelsberg as they used to five years ago. German movies, they now say, do not have a chance, because 80 per cent of the home market is occupied by Americans, and the language barrier keeps the rest of the world closed. Everything from funding - even Frankfurt banks invest in Hollywood, rather than Berlin - to marketing is stacked against Europeans. The box office hits in the past two years have been comedies, but German humour is thought not to travel well.

As for Schlondorff, he will no doubt make great films again, though perhaps not in German and not in Babelsberg. He is about to start work on a new movie, a thriller entitled Just Another Sucker. It will be made in America.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high