Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
How the history of the German cinema was made in Berlin.
On November 22nd, 1866 Mr Eduard Meßter and his lovely wife Marie Wilhelmine, a comfortably wealthy couple running a well prospering optical instruments business in Berlin-Mitte, welcome a new member of their family: a boy whom they shall have christened Oskar.
In 1896 Oskar, by then a 30-yeard-old with extensive knowledge of all things optical and with insatiable interest in all things cinematographic, opens his own screening room at the back of a restaurant in Unter den Linden 21. In this early “cinema” he is using a film projector of his own design and production.
For those will be Oskar Meßter´s chief passions: making films and making equipment for making as well as presenting films. He was doing well in both fields. So well, in fact, that he is forced to regularly move his production company to new, bigger locations.
After the back room of the restaurant in Unter den Linden got too small, he rented his first real atelier in Friedrichstrasse 94. The unpredictability of Berlin weather forced the film-makers to make use of artificial light and that is what Meßter employed as well.
Soon the rooms next to U-Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse got too cramped as well. For that reason Oskar Meßter was not exactly in mourning when the house fell prey to the demolition ball in 1902. By then his company had already moved to Friedrichstrasse 156. However, the change pertained to the address only – the conditions in which Meßter and his crew continued to work did not change almost at all.
Finally, in 1904 the ambitious inventor and film-maker found the perfect place for his film studio and adjoining rooms: in Friedrichstrasse 16, directly next door to the famous Zauberschule of Konradi-Horster (about which you could read in one of the posts – please follow the link).
It was one lucky strike for him to have found a glass atelier facing south in Berlin. Most of such ateliers were built facing the opposite direction as their regular tenants – photographers, painters, sculptors – preferred northern light when working. In Friedrichstrasse not only was the future “film studio” spacious enough to work comfortably but it also offered the all so needed extra rooms for the wardrobe/dressing room, cutting room, the scene shop (where decorations were made) etc.
Still, even despite the much better positioning of the new atelier – top floor, south-looking – and the glass roof over the 70m2 he had at his disposal, Oskar Meßter was still facing the same problem as before: with the weather being capricious and the natural light being unreliable due to its relative weakness, he had to make sure that there was enough natural light available for the shooting. To that end he employed the so called Sonnenkieker (a wonderful Berlinerisch word meaning somebody checking if the sun is out from Berlinerisch German kieken – gucken – look). His job was to sit on the roof and check which way the clouds were moving and when the next cloud opening would come. Once he saw clear sky, he was to shout and inform the crew about the fact to give them time to get ready for the “camera, go!”
Needless to say, the method, however clever and by all means fun, was deeply flawed. Artificial light provided by Bogenlampen was still saving the day. But only to some extent: in 1904 Meßter bought several brand new Cooper-Hewitt lamps at the exhibition in St. Louis. Wasted money as it turned out for although it seemed the blue-purple light they provided should be just perfect for the blue-purple-sensitive film they were using at the time, disappointment was ahead. The images on the film were simply flat – they lacked any depth due to the absence of shades and highlights. Meßter went back to using the old lamps which, as everything else in his studio, he modified to a great extent.
KREUZBERG GOES HOLLYWOOD
In the end, Meßter´s search for a new location took him to a big factory yard (Fabrikhof) south of Luisenstadt and Landwehrkanal. His new atelier was to be seated in the so called Blücherhöfe in Blücherstrasse 31/32. Here, in the large factory yard complex, among numerous other businesses of smaller and grander scale, he rented the whole top floor plus the 4h floor of both the Fabrikgebäude (factory building) and the Seitenflügel (the wing house).
The heart of Meßter´s new film studios was the glass atelier of 300m2 (facing south, of course) with a Schwebebühne (suspended platform – very useful in the days before moving cameras). The platform could be shifted and re-positioned using a small engine. This enabled Meßter and his people to both quickly re-position the camera during the shooting and to re-adjust the lights or decorations without having to dismantle everything first.
Directly next door to the atelier Oskar Meßter had now a Kopierwerk (film lab). Titelwerkstatt (the place where the text was added to the film) and Kleberei (splicery or editing studio). The other side of the rented space housed a brand new carpenters´shop while the scene shop for building decorations was established in a second glass-roof atelier. The offices of the film production company, the Mechanische Werkstatt (machine shop taking care of the equipment and anything with a whiff of engineering about it) as well as the screening room where new films and film equipment offered by Meßter´s company were presented to potential clients were all in adjacent rooms.
The still existing documents of the buildings present a very exact floor-plan of Meßter´s realm in all its complex glory. His was a labyrinth of rooms, corridors, stairs and staircases all of which seemed to be not only in two different buildings but also at many different levels. Some of the rooms were quite hard to access which eventually led to a big conflict that sooner or later would have ended in the company and the studio being expelled.
PLAYING WITH FIRE
The problem was of course safety. In the early days of the cinema film was not only a fascinating, magical thing that set people´s minds on fire. It could have set on fire practically everything else as well. It was covered with cellulose nitrate very highly inflammable substance, to make it light-sensitive. So sensitive to light and heat it was that it could practically self-combust under unfavourable (unfavourable for all those involved) conditions. That is why having a film production company and a film atelier in what in case of Blüchertrasse 31/32 was also a regular house with regular tenants presented a particular danger to the employees and the families living there.
Berlin´s Baupolizei (at the time the police were in charge of construction, planning and building maintenance matters) kept a close eye on Meßter´s business and when they discovered that the cellars under one of the buildings where used to store developed and unused film (“Zelluloidlager im Keller”!), they stepped in and demanded immediate removal.
Meßter had it all transported to the top of the building which basically changed only the end from which the Blücherhöfe could start burning. And how close the place was to being turned into a pile of glowing bricks shows the account of Carl Froehlich (yes, the Carl Froehlich!) , then the cameraman and later the director working for Oskar Meßter in Blücherstrasse.
He remembered quite vividly how one director working for Meßter stapled film ends on the table so high that the pile almost touched the lamp hanging above. The touching was no necessary anyway as the pile suddenly stood in flames and the irresponsible man run into the corridor screaming “Fire! Fire!!” on top of his lungs. Meßter seeing (and hearing him) slapped his face hard, quickly extinguished the fire himself and left.
That might not sound like much but this story only shows how extremely lucky they all were for on another occasion a man who picked up the film rubbish from them to re-sell it later came and after packing his booty, put the sack on the floor but leaning against a lamp…
Several minutes later the window panes and steel beams were spat out in the courtyard by a massive explosion and from the 2nd floor where all this happened to the very top the buildings was immediately on fire. Frightened and panicking people were trying to get out as fast as they could while the fire-fighters tried to prevent the already very bad fire from turning into a spreading inferno. Carl Froehlich reported later that although luckily the Mittelkammer – the heart of the business – was untouched, he almost lost his life as the door to the fire-proof safety room shut on him due to the powerful draught caused by the flames.
Another time, the chief manager of the atelier, Richard Kochanowski, stood helpless watching some one hundred 125cm x 80 cm window panes being smashed to pieces and walls threatening to collapse after – despite his explicitly forbidding it – a bigger amount of explosives was used for the filmed scene as necessary. The thud of the explosion attracted the military from Tempelhofer Feld who came galloping in case further “fireworks” were to be fired. That nobody was hurt in this incident only shows that human beings do have sometimes more luck than wits.
After such cheeky flaunting of regulations the Baupolizei decided to tighten the screw. Meßter´s company was banned from using the glass atelier as the scene shop: too many chemicals, too much highly inflammable material (as if the film itself weren´t enough already). However, the boss, being a resourceful man who knew his way around, decided to play a little charade or do some castling (for those who know their way around the chessboard – which I don´t, being a resourceful girl myself I had a vague idea and simple googled the rest).
He simply moved the scene shop from its original glass atelier at No. 31 where he was not allowed to have one, to another glass atelier at No. 32, where no strict police ban was issued yet. Both were separated by the Brandmauer (fire wall) and were in fact almost the same room. But No. 32 – although also used as the scene shop without a specific permit – at least had fireproof access and was directly connected to the staircase. And it would last a while before the Baupolizei would present him with a new order of inadmissibility for the atelier. Meßter was not particularly worried, though. The only thing he needed then was time to decide where to go next. Blücherhöfe grew to small again…
For Oskar Meßter his film studio in Blücherstrasse was a place of success. Since in 1912 he began producing films with Henny Porten, the star of pre-WW1 and pre-WW2 German cinema, and after he decided to abandon sound film (!) for silent feature films, his productions were received very well by the audience. He produced dozens and dozens of those during his time in Kreuzberg – the atelier in Friedrichstrasse 16 as well as Apollo-Theater where on the 29th of August, 1903 Meßter presented his very first sound film would be part of Berlin-Kreuzberg today as well.
As early as 1914 plans to find another location and to expand were ready. The atelier in Blücherstrasse 31/32 at the time of its opening was a huge step forward for him and for German cinema in general. It could easily compete with another important film studios of the time: with the Bioskop in Neubabelsberg (today Film Studios Babelsberg celebrating their 100 birthday this year) ready in 1912 and equipped just as Meßter´s Blücherstrasse atelier with 300m2 of filming space; it would hold its own against Greenbaum´s Vitascope in Weisensee after it opened in 1913 and similarly offered the film-makers 300m2 (albeit in two halls).
However, his plan to have a new film studio built at Südende never took off. WW1 forced him to change his plans and almost saw the fall of the whole business. War is not the time to be making amusing films for the masses. In war masses are busy fighting for the Vaterland (men) and for their own family´s survival (women) as well as for keeping up the life standard of the ruling classes.
Meßter, a convinced patriot and a man who joined the army as soon as he heard of the war, did everything he could to assure the continuity of his company in order not to let down those on his pay-roll (his employees always spoke of him with highest praise). So he built a special field camera and came up with the idea of a war newsreel – Messter-Woche – to be presented at the cinemas all around the country. The rest was, indeed, history.
Oskar Meßter´s film studios leave Blücherstrasse 31/32 some time in 1917 after he had taken over the newly built glass film studios in Oberlandstrasse in Berlin-Tempelhof, where a year later the world-famous UFA studios will settle down.
And it will be to UFA that at he end of 1917 Meßter will sell his whole business: the ateliers, the cinema in Mozartsaal, the labs, the production company. With the 53 millions GM (golden marks) he thus earned he gained a lot of money but completely lost any control over his creation. It did not take him long to notice that although nominally still a member of the executive, he had no more say there.
Messter (he changed the spelling of his name over the years: from Meßter to Messter) will move to the south of Germany or better said to Bavaria where he will be living at Tegernsee a comfy albeit not very fulfilled life.
WHAT IS LEFT BEHIND
The former rooms in Blücherstrasse 31/32 will become home to other hopeful entrepreneurs. Time doesn´t mean it well with it, unfortunately, as after some uncoordinated attempts at renovation the complex has been left to slowly crumble down .
Not much was happening there, apart from some small offices moving in and out without a break, until a couple of years ago the aikido school of Jean-Marie Milleville moved into several rooms on top of the building. The rooms which were the very heart of Oskar Messter´s film atelier and the same rooms in which German cinematography was not so much born as finally grew up and became its own person.
Luckily for me, these are also the rooms which I have the great privilege to visit weekly, accompanying my son to his aikido class. While he practices concentration (not easy but we see some progress) and drills gentle falling, I sit on the floor, look up and while the rattle of the film in the wooden camera fills my ears, I watch the Schwebebühne float across the room. And I am sure this is going to be another wonderful silent movie.
Here are some photos of the exterior of Blücherhöfe today.