With Rich History And Tax Breaks, Berlin Lures American Filmmakers

Nov 28, 2015
Originally published on November 28, 2015 7:40 am

Berlin is a favorite with many top American filmmakers and actors, and chances are you've seen landmarks from the German capital in movies — even when you didn't expect it.

Take The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2. The film's fictional capital, Panem, was partly filmed at Tempelhof. This one-time airport was the focal point of a humanitarian airlift in 1948 and 1949 that helped break the Soviet blockade of West Berlin.

One of the German capital's biggest Hollywood fans is Tom Hanks. He first came to Berlin four years ago when filming Cloud Atlas, and has been back many times since.

"I have been in the deserts of Morocco, I've been on the islands of Fiji, I've been in Moscow, London, Paris, Florence. I've been in some very glamorous world capitals," he tells NPR. "But the affection I have for Berlin is much deeper than anywhere else."

Hanks, who lived in Berlin last year during the filming of Bridge of Spies, says he's fascinated by the city's complex history, especially its frontline status during the Cold War between the Soviet Bloc and the West.

"The Cold War aspect of Berlin is something I grew up with," he says. "It was in the news, it was part of our social studies."

But Berliners themselves are also appealing, Hanks says. There's "the most fabulous conversation to be had in your average coffee house or hotel lobby or cinema at 2 o'clock in the morning, as you are lining up to see an old movie that everyone else in the neighborhood is showing up to see as well."

Such enthusiasm for Berlin, and Germany in general, from Hollywood A-listers is something the government has tried to nurture since 2008, says Die Welt newspaper's veteran film critic Hanns-Georg Rodek.

"The German culture minister said we must get big productions in order that German filmmakers can learn their craft, actually," he says. "So you can get a percentage of your film's budget [from the government] if you do it in Germany."

And American film and TV companies keep coming. Besides Bridge of Spies and the latest Hunger Games, the current season of the Showtime series Homeland recently wrapped up production in Berlin.

A new spy series for American TV by Epix called Berlin Station is shooting at Studio Babelsberg now. The 103-year-old studio, which features Nazi-era architecture and sprawls over 40 acres on the outskirts of Berlin, is legendary among cinema buffs.

Studio spokesman Eike Wolf says the concept for the V for Vendetta mask was created here, as was the countdown eventually used by NASA to launch spaceships. The countdown first appeared in the 1929 German movie Woman in the Moon, Wolf says.

The studio grounds are chock-full of bits and pieces of Hollywood and TV productions, like the V for Vendetta mask and a Styrofoam recreation of part of the Berlin Wall.

Studio Babelsberg "is the full-service company for these film projects," Wolf says. "We do location scouting, get all permissions. We take care of film funding, accounting, all the insurances. We set up the crew, we do set construction with our art department, so a film producer can get everything."

But film critic Rodek says neither the studio nor the German government should rest on their laurels if they want to keep attracting American moviemakers.

"The problems for Berlin are not the technical capabilities, but the working costs," he says.

Filming in Eastern Europe, for example, is far cheaper than in Germany. And Great Britain subsidizes a quarter of the costs of movie productions shot there, which is a lot more than the roughly $11 million maximum per film provided to American productions filmed in Germany, Rodek says.

Hanks has another suggestion: "If you want to attract the big motion pictures to your local film industry, the best thing you could do is probably build five or six very large, state-of-the-art sound stages that motion pictures can move into for their duration."

Wolf says he agrees in theory, but that in reality, it's a costly proposition the studio can't afford without more big movie projects. Nor does Wolf believe sound stages can lure filmmakers away from the generous tax incentives and other funding provided in other countries.

He says the studio is among those lobbying the German government to become more competitive.

"If we want to set up a really good film industry here in Germany," Wolf says, "these subsidies must be so attractive that the American films are coming to Germany."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many top U.S. filmmakers and actors are choosing to shoot their films in Berlin. The capital of Germany provides the backdrop for the final chapter of "The Hunger Games," in theaters now. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin on the rewards and the struggles that can come with being a favorite destination for Hollywood.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Tom Hanks is one American actor you'll often see working here in the German capital, a city he came to know four years ago when filming "Cloud Atlas."

TOM HANKS: I've been in the deserts of Morocco, I've been in the islands of Fiji, I've been in Moscow, London, Paris, Florence. I've been in some very glamorous world capitals, but the affection I have for Berlin is much deeper than anywhere else.

NELSON: Hanks, who was recently here for the premiere of his latest movie, "Bridge Of Spies," says he's fascinated by the city's complex history. And that's only part of the attraction.

HANKS: You get into the energy of this city that is wide and flat and only about six stories tall. So it's a big city, but it seems to me, oddly enough, to be uncrowded and almost tranquil, as well as the most fabulous conversation to be had in your average coffeehouse or hotel lobby or cinema at 2 o'clock in the morning.

NELSON: Such enthusiasm from Hollywood A-listers is something Germany has tried to nurture since 2008, says Die Welt newspaper's veteran film critic, Hanns-Georg Rodek.

HANNS-GEORG RODEK: The German culture minister said we must get big productions in order that German filmmakers learn their craft, actually. So you can get a percentage of your film's budget if you do it in Germany.

NELSON: And American directors have been coming. In the past year or so alone, scenes in the Steven Spielberg-directed "Bridge Of Spies" and "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2" were shot here, as was the current season of the Showtime series "Homeland." But Rodek says Germany can't rest on its laurels.

RODEK: The problem for Berlin are not the tactical capabilities, but the working costs. And another problem, which has come up, is a new kind of film support, which has come from Great Britain.

NELSON: He's referring to a 25 percent refund of expenses to filmmakers who shoot in Great Britain. It also costs less to film movies in Eastern Europe. To keep up, Rodek says his government will have to raise the current $11 million or so limit on grants it gives to any one moviemaker. Tom Hanks has another suggestion.

HANKS: If you want to attract the big motion pictures to your local film industry, the best thing you could do is probably build five or six very large state-of-the-art soundstages that motion pictures can move into for their duration, in which you can build anything and shoot anything and keep it up for a very long time. So if I was going to say there's anything to improve, I would say, hey, build some really big soundstages here and they will come.

EIKE WOLF: (Laughter) But it's also about the film funding. You need a project to build more stages.

NELSON: That's Eike Wolf, the spokesman for Studio Babelsberg, which works with Hollywood directors who film in Germany. The more than century-old studio with its Nazi-era architecture that sprawls over 40 acres in the outskirts of Berlin is legendary. The studio grounds are chock-full of bits and pieces of Hollywood and television productions that Babelsberg was recently involved in. But Wolf says the studio needs more American directors to use the soundstages here.

WOLF: This is why we do a lot of political work right now, talking to the minister of finance, minister of culture, that if we want to set up really a good film industry here in Germany, the subsidies must be so attractive that the American films are coming to Germany.

NELSON: Even now, some American directors are still coming. Wolf says a new spy series for TV called "Berlin Station" is shooting in his studio right now. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.