Hitchcock in Babelsberg

Few people know that before churning out blockbusters in Hollywood the legendary British director started his career in Potsdam’s UFA studios, the centre of the world’s film industry in the early 20th century.

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Few people know that before churning out blockbusters in Hollywood the legendary British director started his career in Potsdam’s UFA studios, the centre of the world’s film industry in the early 20th century. It was here, in the early 1920s, that the master of suspense picked up tips and tricks from the German masters.

It is 1966 and Alfred Hitchcock is in Germany to shoot Torn Curtain. He’d been invited as a guest speaker on one of the first German talk shows, the Frankfurter Stammtisch. And as the journalists in three-piece suits barely understand his native tongue, Hitchcock feels compelled to give them a lecture about cinema in Denglisch: “So many films today are what I call Fotos von Leute der spricht. And they are not cinema.” It’s not the first time that the master of suspense is in Germany.

Further back in 1924, the 25-year-old Hitchcock was a jack of all trades. He was working as a set designer, scriptwriter, assistant director and stage manager at Islington Studios in London. But before trusting him with full directorship of a feature film, his production company Gainsborough Pictures sent him to Germany to work in the prestigious UFA studios in Babelsberg, Potsdam. “As a film-freak, Hitchcock must have felt like he was in seventh heaven when he came to Babelsberg,” says Nils Warnecke from the Deutsche Kinemathek, the film and television museum in Berlin’s Sony Center. “Besides Hollywood, UFA studios were the centre of the film world. Those years between the end of World War I and the early 1930s were fundamental in creating the principles of cinema as we know it today.”

For the young director-to-be this was a unique opportunity to get close to his favourite filmmakers – Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau were all working there at the time. “Those were the great days of the German pictures,” Hitchcock later explained to his biographer Donald Spoto in “The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius” (Collins, 1983). “The UFA studios were tremendous. They had a complete railroad station built on the back lot.” And many things were possible. In 1924, the technician Karl Freund, who would later go to Hollywood, developed his “Entfesselte Kamera” (unchained camera). The light apparatus, free of its base, allowed for a greater freedom of movement, and a new form of cinematographic writing. The invention marks a revolution in film technology: the camera could now go down with the elevator, cross the hotel lobby and zoom in on a musical instrument.

The man who didn’t know enough

Hitchcock was sent to Germany for three movies. The first, The Blackguard, was shot in UFA studios. Hitchcock was supposed to be the assistant director, working on the script and the sets only. In practice, he supervised the film from beginning to end. According to historians, the designated director, Graham Cutts, was often absent, busy with his mistress, an Estonian dancer living on Dorotheenstraße. “I arrived in Berlin knowing not a single word of German,” recalled Hitchcock. “My job was art director, and I worked side by side with a German draftsman. The only way we could communicate was by pencil – drawing things so we could understand each other. We were both designing titles and sets, and finally I was forced to learn the language.”

With his broken German, Hitchcock watched Murnau at work in the studio next to him. Murnau was shooting his masterpiece The Last Laugh, which became a classic of German cinema. It is the story of an ageing hotel doorman, played by the then-superstar Emil Jannings, who is downgraded to the rank of toilet attendant by the young hotel manager. “The Germans placed great emphasis on telling the story visually, if possible with no titles or very few,” Hitchcock would later say. “The Last Laugh was almost the perfect film. It told its story without any subtitles – from beginning to end entirely by the use of imagery, and that had a tremendous influence on me.”

The chubby Englishman, raised Catholic, found himself ill at ease with the tall German director, a wiry homosexual, with little interest in explaining his techniques. But for the young Hitchcock there was one essential takeaway: a master in the art of manipulating perspective, Murnau taught him how to achieve the maximum effect with very little resources. And his newfound skills were put into practice in one of the scenes of The Blackguard, taking place in front of the Milan Cathedral. Rather than rebuilding the whole thing, Hitchcock decided to reconstruct a very small part of it and borrow a couple of pigeons from the zoo. The illusion is seamless.

Hitchcock learns the ropes

“What influenced Hitchcock the most in Babelsberg is the level of preparation that the major studio was capable of, and due to this approach, the kind of camera movement and composite shots that became possible,” says Will Schmenner, curator of the exhibition “Casting a Shadow. Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film”, that ran in 2009 in Berlin. And indeed, his 1944 Lifeboat, an “enclosed” survival drama shot in a huge studio tank, is a prime example. Before shooting, Hitchcock meticulously planned all of the scenes using a miniature boat. The camera itself is in the boat, giving the audience the impression of being trapped. In Rope (1948), another huis-clos, the characters are waiting for a guest whose corpse is actually under the buffet.

All camera movements had been carefully thought out and numbered. The numbers were then placed on the ground, and the cameraman only had to follow them. At the time, the maximum recording time was 10 minutes, but Hitchcock arranged the transitions so that the action appeared to flow continuously, in real time.

Outside the studio, Hitchcock enjoyed life in Berlin. He frequented the theatre, even when his German was shaky. At the time, quality was at the forefront in the expressionist creations of the Deutsches Theater, the Schauspielhaus and the Volksbühne. As he delved into German culture, he read the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and classics like The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Puss in Boots by Ludwig Tieck. According to Spoto, the monstrous fairgrounds of Hoffmann’s tales – places where nightmares become real and madness erupts – particularly inspired Hitchcock’s films. Traces can be found in his famous Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941): the main characters, on a funfair ride, are prone to dizziness as they ascend into the sky. Eventually, they find themselves stuck on the carousel, trapped with each other in the rain. In later years, Hoffmann’s tales, in German and English, featured prominently on the shelves of Hitchcock’s London library.

By January 1926, Hitchcock had made his first films as a director with Emelka Studios in Munich. They are also the two last films he shot in Germany: The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle. The latter is now lost and on the top of the British Film Institute’s “Most wanted list” – even if Hitchcock himself reportedly considered it “awful”. Back in London in May 1926, Hitchcock began directing his first British movie, The Lodger, inspired by the story of Jack the Ripper. Al- ready, the Berlin influence is visible: to solve some lighting problems in cramped rooms, he employs techniques he saw used by the Germans to get their cameras up and down the stairs, hanging them on travelling rails or an overhanging scaffolding if necessary.

The graduate of Babelsberg

The master of suspense brought more than technique alone back from Germany. Hitchcock admired films like Destiny (“Der Müde Tod”, 1921), a masterpiece by Fritz Lang about a woman desperate to reunite with her dead lover before eventually dying herself. The whole film is about her struggle and bargain with death. “Each shot in the best German postwar cinema has a menacing, anxious, waiting quality, a quality of disequilibrium. And it is precisely this quality that informs the best moments of Hitchcock’s later black-and-white work,” Spoto says. Hitchcock incorporated this quality in Psycho (1960), where the Bates house, an old haunted castle, was like a “kingdom of death”.

According to the film studios in Babelsberg, Hitchcock would have said: “Everything I had to know about filmmaking, I learned in Babelsberg.” Will Schmenner is not fooled: “Hitchcock made these kind of claims more often than you might suspect. Although he was a master of silent film, he learned new things about sound later in his life. Of course, he learned a lot about filmmaking in Babelsberg. But one can’t be disappointed that it wasn’t everything.” Still, even if everyone remembers Bernard Herrmann’s music in the shower scene in Psycho, most of Hitchcock’s films, even today, can be watched without sound, and still be perfectly understood. The influence of his German masters is clearly present in his ability to tell stories through images, and not through “photographs of people talking”.


Ever wondered what Hitchcock sounds like speaking German? Take a trip to Potsdam’s excellent Filmmuseum, just a 45-minute S-Bahn ride from Alexanderplatz, to hear the then-67-year-old Master of Suspense reminisce on his early days at UFA studios, as a guest of German TV programme Frankfurter Stammtisch. The Hessischer Rundfunk talk show from 1966 is on video/audio display as part of the museum’s permanent exhibition.