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Legendary Film Studio Struggles To Make Movies

December 13, 1990

BABELSBERG, Germany (AP) _ Cameras still roll on the sprawling sets, but Germany’s largest film studio hasn’t made a movie that received international acclaim since Marlene Dietrich dazzled the world in the 1920s.

The Nazis drove away such talent as Dietrich from the studios. The Communists failed to attract any when they took over the fabled Universal Film Co. studio outside Berlin after World War II and renamed it DEFA.

DEFA, the acronym for German Film Co., produced 680 films after the Communist takeover in 1946. Most are forgettable tales aimed at bolstering socialism. Not one became famous outside East Germany.

The DEFA owes any renown it might have to the studio’s pre-war days when it was called Universal Film Company, or UFA in German, a company that created movies rivaling those of the great Hollywood studios.

Fritz Lang filmed ″Metropolis″ in the principal studio, a cavernous hall so big another director was able to sink a replica of the Titanic for his movie.

Future Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg brought out the best in Dietrich - the husky laugh and the silky legs - in the 1929 classic ″Blue Angel.″

By 1933 when Hitler came to power, many stars and major directors had abandoned Germany out of disgust at the Nazis’ primitive racial and artistic policies. Joseph Goebbels used the studios to make propaganda movies.

Babelsberg, a wooded suburb of brick villas and peaceful lakes on the edge of Berlin, became part of East Germany and the studio the property of the Communist state. The studio is now under the auspices of the Treuhand, the national agency overseeing the privatization of 8,000 state industries.

Like many former East German companies, DEFA’s future is uncertain.

But studio employees, many of whom have worked there for decades, want to transform DEFA into an independent production center able to secure new audiences.

″We are a studio with great capacity and no orders. That explains our stress,″ said Andreas Scheinert, DEFA’s new market director.

Most of the 13 projects in production are old contracts. However, several former West German television studios and one independent producer have already worked at DEFA.

Scheinert, a screenwriter by training, is working on restructuring the concept together with officials from the Treuhand to turn the DEFA into a media center.

″We cannot survive only on feature films alone,″ he said. ″The decisive factor is to film projects ... that are good enough to enter the European market.″

DEFA is trying to develop a structure similar to the Bavarian film studio that groups a number of small companies under its wing. The studio is also eagerly renting out treasures from its store of 150,000 costumes, 50,000 uniforms or 2,000 wigs to quickly bring in cash.

The studio is ideally located to become a major film center now that Germany is united. Three airports are a short drive away. The Kurfuerstendammn, a broad boulevard located in former downtown West Berlin, is lined with big cinemas.

It will take a lot of money and time for the DEFA to match the standards of modern movie-making.

″A great deficiency is the obsolete technical standard in the studios,″ said Philipp Berens, press spokesman for the Bavarian Film studios in Munich.

Schreinert estimates that 120 million marks ($83 million) is needed to modernize the studio.

First comes cost cutting. Studio employees enjoyed subsidized meals, a day care center and medical clinic on the studio grounds. Some of those privileges will not survive.

Hundreds of the 2,400 employees have been fired, including a full symphony orchestra. More pink slips are on the way. By the end of 1991, no more than 800 people will still be employed there.

″We are a little afraid. People are depressed,″ said Waltraud Stockfisch of the public relations department, who started as a hairdresser at DEFA in 1950 and now gives studio tours.

Other employees are angry.

″Nobody wants to go to Duesseldorf or Bavaria. We don’t want to leave,″ said artist Alfred Born.

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