Exhibition at German Cinematheque Museum of Film and Television celebrates Ufa's centennial anniversary

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Exhibition at German Cinematheque Museum of Film and Television celebrates Ufa's centennial anniversary
Installation view of the exhibition "Ufa – The History of a Brand“. Photo: Marian Stefanowski / Deutsche Kinemthek.

BERLIN.- Ufa – these three letters embody a century of film and television history. Founded in December 1917, the “Universum Film AG” quickly became the most important film production company in Germany. Today, the “UFA GmbH” is the industry leader in German television production.

In the special exhibition Ufa – History of a Brand, the Deutsche Kinemathek is showing the strategies with which this commercial enterprise reacted to aesthetic and technical developments, as well as to the general social and political conditions of its times. Not surprisingly, this special exhibition is also an exemplary reflection of the development of audiovisual media from World War I to the present.

The special exhibition Ufa – History of a Brand is divided into six sections, representing the history of the Ufa film company and its well-known brand name. Additionally, it takes a look at the approaches of the present-day UFA, which has transformed the company from a German television producer into a global media provider. Concluding with an epilogue on the innovations of the media group, the exhibition reflects on digital conversion in the 21st century. Full-length UFA productions can be individually searched and screened in the Mediathek Fernsehen (Television Media Library).

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue Die Ufa – Geschichte einer Marke (in German), published by the Kerber Verlag and available for sale in the museum shop.

1917 – 1929 | Chapter 1 | 4th floor
Universum Film AG was founded in December 1917 with a mission to make the German Reich’s war propaganda more effective. One year later, Germany was on the road to democracy. Backed by a generous supply of capital from industry and Deutsche Bank, Ufa persisted and started drawing international attention with epic films like Ernst Lubitsch’s MADAME DUBARRY (1919). The company was vertically structured: production sites— including the Babelsberg Studios, which Ufa took over in 1922—a distribution division, and cinemas all operated under the Ufa rhombus logo.

In the mid-1920s, Ufa got into financial trouble with ambitious productions like Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS. The conservative nationalist “Media Czar” Alfred Hugenberg saved the day in 1927 by purchasing the company and having it restructured and modernized by trusted associate Ludwig Klitzsch. The construction of a new studio complex laid out in the shape of a cross in 1929 marked Ufa’s investment in a technological innovation and media revolution: talkies.

1930 – 1949 | Chapter 2 | 4th floor
Despite a worldwide economic crisis and mass unemployment, Ufa was thoroughly successful in the early 1930s. Talkie operettas like DIE DREI VON DER TANKSTELLE (1930, Regie: Wilhelm Thiele) gave audiences a temporary escape from everyday life, and conservative pro-Prussia and other patriotic films were produced— entirely along Alfred Hugenberg’s lines.

The company conformed quickly with the National Socialist dictatorship, firing Jewish colleagues and premiering HITLERJUNGE QUEX (1933, D: Hans Steinhoff) in Adolf Hitler’s presence. Ufa continued to produce and distribute entertainment and propaganda vehicles, and the company was nationalized in 1937. During the Second World War, its empire stretched over the territories under German occupation. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels consolidated the entire German film industry under the name Ufa Film GmbH (Ufi) in 1942. Ufa’s last big production was Veit Harlan’s 1944 morale-booster KOLBERG.

One year after the war’s end, Deutsche Film AG (DEFA) was founded in the Soviet Zone; DEFA would operate the Babelsberg Studios from that point on. The Western Allies attempted to prevent a resurrection of Ufa through legislation.

1950 – 1969 | Chapter 3 | 4th floor
The laws passed to break up the Ufi concern were undermined in West Germany, likely with the support of Konrad Adenauer’s government. From the fragmentation of the film studios and cinema park to the decreed ban on the Ufa name, ultimately none of the key initiatives found long-term implementation. Instead, Universum Film AG was re-incorporated, privatized, and recommenced producing films under the rhombus logo in 1956. Deutsche Bank once again supplied the founding capital. Among the leadership and the creative personnel, there were multiple hold-overs from the Nazi era.

Despite all the restructuring, post-war Ufa didn’t fare well during the cinema crisis of the late 1950s: by that time, television had become the new medium to watch. In 1964, Ufa was sold to Bertelsmann, whose initial interest was in the incidental music rights. With Ufa Film- und Fernseh-GmbH, however, they were set to invest in a new market.

1970 – 1989 | Chapter 4 | 4th floor
TV screens may still have been small, but the shows they brought into living rooms enjoyed outspoken and widespread popularity. Ufa’s television productions presented broadcasters with the whole gamut of mainstream entertainment genres and formats: from music show to literary adaptation, period piece to family series.

While Ufa-Filmproduktion was working with West Berlin cabaret star Dieter Hallervorden on slapstick comedies for cinemas—the subsidiary had in fact been founded for this very purpose—about a dozen East German DEFA stars came to Ufa-Fernsehproduktion, also based in Berlin. Many of them either wanted or had to leave the GDR after singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann was expatriated. Directors such as Frank Beyer, authors including Jurek Becker, Günter Kunert, and Klaus Poche, DEFA stars Manfred Krug, Hilmar Thate, Angelica Domröse, etc. made critically charged current affairs pieces for West German TV, earning new respect for Ufa-Fernsehproduktion with the networks.

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