There's a nice kind of historical symmetry to this year's Berlinale, or the Berlin International Film Festival. The opening movie, Enemy at the Gates,and the highlight of the festival's big Fritz Lang retrospective, Metropolis,were both made at the same studio. Or rather incarnations of the same studio.
Studio Babelsberg, built in 1912, was, like the biblical tower after which it was named, a monument to enormous ambition. When Metropolis was shot there in 1925, the studio was at its height, home to Lang, Marlene Dietrich and the nascent European film industry.
The rest of the 20th century, however, did not proceed so favourably. Located in the former East Germany, the studio was taken over by the Communist state in the late 1940s. Facilities rotted, censorship blossomed. With the reunification, Studio Babelsberg was privatized and sold to the French Vivendi consortium, which has struggled to resurrect it.
If Enemy at the Gates is any indication, however, the studio's future glory may rest on the decay of its past. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud ( The Name of the Rose; The Lovers)decided to shoot Enemy at the Gates,the most expensive film in European history, at Studio Babelsberg precisely because of the traces of Soviet occupation and the ravages of war.
Enemy had been expected to be released in the United States last November, around Thanksgiving. When it wasn't, rumours began to circulate: Focus groups in the U.S. wanted a happier ending, more blood and guts, less blood and guts but more sex.
Last month, the Enemy at the Gates team reassembled at Babelsberg to reshoot two scenes. At short notice, 600 Russian or Russian-looking extras were summoned (12 of whom were one-legged) for one final bloodbath. And a scene was tacked on to the love story, giving it a more optimistic ending.
The cynical German press decried the reshoot as a defeat for European cinema and a victory for U.S. market forces (the film was produced by American Mandalay and Paramount Pictures). But the film's scriptwriter and executive producer, Alain Godard, retorted: "It had nothing to do with sex or violence or American audiences. It was Jean-Jacques's decision. The film really did need a more sentimental ending. And it is much better now."
Berlin audiences will now judge. And in the meantime, word has spread that Studio Babelsberg offers a perfect mix of Eastern European dilapidation and Western production standards. Since the shoot, award-winning directors Istvan Szabo ( Mephisto; Sunshine)and Roman Polanski have both chosen to film their most recent projects there.
Enemy at the Gates is set during the famous Battle of Stalingrad in the Soviet Union of 1942. The story revolves around the rivalry between a heroic young Russian sniper, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), and a German marksman, Major Konig (Ed Harris), sent by the Wehrmacht to kill Zaitsev. Complicating matters is a propaganda officer played by Joseph Fiennes. While he is busy building Zaitsev into "the hope of all Russia" through press reports, newsreels and radio broadcasts, he's falling in love with the same female Soviet officer (Rachel Weisz) with whom Zaitsev is smitten.
The story of Zaitsev has its genesis in an anecdote published in William Craig's epic history of the Battle of Stalingrad, Enemy at the Gates (1973). According to Godard, it's not clear if the story is mostly fact or mostly fiction, but that fuzziness wasn't bothersome. "For most Russians, the story is completely true. The Germans claim it was invented by the Russians as propaganda. But Vassili is a hero in Russia; you find statues to him."
Godard asserts that the film isn't about Stalingrad, the decisive German defeat in the early winter of 1943, on which several films have already been based. Rather, it deals with issues of personal responsibility and service to the state, honour and manipulation.
Annaud's original plan was to shoot Enemy at the Gates on location in Stalingrad (now called Volgograd), but an extended trip to the Russian city demonstrated that logistics would be too complicated. He then sent details of his proposed shoot to prospective studios all over Europe, with historical photographs of the war-torn city and battlefields surrounding it attached. Given the film's budget of $90-million (U.S.), the responses were plentiful.
The decision to film at Studio Babelsberg was based largely on the appropriateness of its immediate surroundings. Only three days of the 16-week shoot were spent in the studio itself; the remainder in locations in the former East Germany. A former Russian barrack was converted into Stalingrad's Red Square, an abandoned chemical plant into the famous tank factory Red October. No river in Germany could serve as the steep-sloped Volga, but an open-pit coal mine near Cottbus, flooded for the purpose, proved ideal.
The decision to film Enemy at the Gates was big news at Studio Babelsberg, which is situated in one of the poorest states of the united Germany. An estimated $25-million (U.S.) is estimated to have flowed into the Brandenburg region as a result, an additional $10-million (U.S.) in returns to the studio.
The president of the State of Brandenburg, Manfred Stolpe, paid two visits to the shoot last spring, effusively welcoming the international cast and crew. As someone who had visited Stalingrad not long after the end of the Second World War, he was visibly moved by the authenticity of the Red Square replica. The former Russian barracks had been cleared of any remaining land mines, burned, then covered with Russian graffiti and sprayed with artificial snow. Stolpe stood ankle deep in mud and recalled his previous visits to those barracks. As a young local, he had traded contraband with Russian soldiers at one of the barrack's back gates.
That a film of Stalingrad could be made on German, formerly Soviet-occupied soil, Stolpe considered a kind of "closing of the circle." Enemy at the Gates opens in selected North American cities on March 23.