The UFA Story. A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945

Klaus Kreimeier,
The UFA Story. A History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945.
London: University of California Press, 1999.
ISBN 0-520-22069-2

(Review copy supplied by California University Press)

Uploaded 1 November 2000

The story of the Universum-Film A.G., popularly known as UFA, is indelibly bound to the history of Germany’s cinema. As perhaps no other film company in relation to its national film culture, the UFA’s changing fortunes are a barometer of the economic, political, aesthetic, and ideological struggles that make up Germany in the first half of the 20th century. Although the UFA never monopolized the German market, the way Paramount-MGM-Fox controlled the American industry, its power was both real, in terms of its combined production, distribution, and exhibition potential, and imagined, as the symbolic core of the German film industry’s aesthetic aspirations. Founded by the German High Command in 1917, the object of an American take-over in a Germany torn by post-war inflation, revolutions and counter-revolutions, co-opted in 1933 and inflated to a state-owned and operated monopoly by the Nazis for the own propagandistic purposes, ultimately deconstructed after the war by the Allies to protect American film interests, the UFA mirrored Germany’s historical experience. Yet, ironically, the company also tried to create for both its own employees and its audience a fragile, hermetic world, a lebenswelt, outside the strictures and commands of history, existing only in the darkened caverns of the studio and in the minds of a people burdened with too much history.

Siegfried Kracauer was the first to recognize the UFA’s role in German film and history, stating unequivocally that “the genesis of UFA testifies to the authoritarian character of Imperial Germany”, developing from this thesis his reflection theory of Germany’s fall from Caligari to Hitler. David Stewart Hull’s Film in the Third Reich, on the other hand, placed the UFA at the center of a supposedly apolitical filmwelt, a world in a vacuum where the “overriding concern was continuance of the artistic status quo and to hell with politics”. In 1992, for the 75th anniversary of the company’s founding, Klaus Kreimeier published Die UFA Story, which synthesized these seemingly contradictory notions to create a massive narrative of German Realpolitik and dreams, of studio economics and artistic aspirations, of surrender to ideological imperatives and experimental daring. Now University of California Press has published in paperback the abridged translation of Kreimeier’s highly acclaimed history, first published in English by Hill and Wang in 1996.

Like Kracauer, Kreimeier begins with the World War I years and the founding of UFA in 1917 through the merger of several of Germany’s largest film companies. The first half of the book deals with the fate of the UFA under the Kaiser and the Weimar Republic, devoting e.g. individual chapters to the Lubitsch period, inflation, UFA’s cinemas, the Alfred Hugenberg take-over in 1927, musicals of the early 1930s, and the last days of the Republic. Part Two covers the UFA and the Third Reich, its relation to the Reichsfilmkammer (Reich Film Guild), its 25th anniversary in the middle of World War II, and its final collapse in 1945. An Epilogue describes the UFA’s troubles in the post-war period, and its metamorphosis into a sports programming network in the 1980s under the Bertelsmann media/publishing conglomerate.

Central to Kreimeier’s UFA history are two aspects of the UFA’s evolution that metaphorically inform his narrative. On the one hand, he focuses on the construction of the UFA’s board of directors, leaders all of the Prussian military-industrial complex, which founded the company as a war propaganda measure, sustained its anti-democratic thrust in the years of the Weimar Republic, and willingly integrated it into Nazi plans for world domination. On the other hand, the author theorizes, artisans and intellectuals working for the UFA nurtured their own utopian dream of a space where art and technology became the tools of collective effort to forge a new popular medium, this in spite of the authoritarian and distopian dreams of the front office. Kreimeier compares filmmaking in Babelsberg to the collective medieval project of building cathedrals, quoting Robert Herlth, one of the UFA’s most prolific set designers. Herlth, who designed both high art films (The Last Laugh, 1925) and some of UFA’s most odious and racist Nazi propaganda (Flüchtlinge, 1933) with equal aplomb, saw the Bauhütte (cathedral construction site, foundry) as the central metaphor for the UFA project. Kreimeier expands that essentially apolitical vision to a conception of the UFA as – “propaganda agency and do-it-yourself workshop, media giant, “guild” of film art, and retort of both beautiful and evil dreams”.(5)

Clearly, Kreimeier is trying to come to a new understanding of the UFA, viewing it neither as the bogeyman of the German right – bent on ideologically battering the German electorate, as have left-leaning writers, nor as the apolitical free trade zone of nostalgic German film buffs who have declared all but a few Nazi propaganda films to be nothing but entertainment. According to Kreimeier, the UFA was in fact big enough to outmaneuver almost everyone’s expectations, failing to make war propaganda films in 1918; producing art house cinema under Erich Pommer in the 1920s when management wanted exportable block-busters; cranking out profitable programmers in the early 1930s when the intellectuals were demanding film art; manUFActuring escapist fantasies in the twelve years of the 1000-year Reich, when Goebbels ordered Aryan blood and soil epics. Kreimeier’s UFA-Story narrates its central thesis convincingly with a dizzying array of facts, figures, and details of UFA’s management, business practices, film productions, and artistic personalities.

What gets lost in the process is the materialist base of his history. Thus, Kreimeier discusses the vertical and horizontal integration of the UFA without putting this economic strategy within the context of the international (and Hollywood) film industry’s development towards such a structural integration, unifying production, distribution, and exhibition. Likewise, Kreimeier discusses the ParUFAmet debacle of 1925 as a failure of UFA’s production (as did Kracauer), rather than as an offensive maneuver on the part of the American majors, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, and Universal, to take-over UFA’s first-run cinemas, which dominated the German market. Thirdly, Kreimeier is more than timid in his discussion of the massive blood-letting in the German film industry, caused by the Nazi blacklisting, expulsion, and murder of German-Jewish film workers after 1933, sacrificing a mere five pages to the subject. In point of fact, it was the decision of the UFA’s Board on March 29, 1933 to terminate all existing contracts with “Jewish” filmmakers, thus openly supporting the Nazi Boycott of Jewish business that commenced two days later on April 1st, that set the tone for the rest of the German film industry. Finally, Kreimeier seems a little too willing to forgive the UFA’s collaborationists and fascists who turned a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors, in order to reap the truly astounding financial benefits of working for Dr. Goebbels.

Part of the problem is that Kreimeier has discovered few new sources, relying instead on available (and mostly apologetic) German language secondary sources and the UFA protocols at the Bundesarchiv. While his synthesis of those sources is often brilliant, captured in an extremely readable prose, he seems blissfully unaware of some of the best research done by Anglo-American film historians, including Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson’s work on the development of the studio system and American export patterns in Central Europe, Thomas Elsaesser’s article on the UFA’s experimental film factory, and Eric Rentschler’s efforts on the history of film in the Third Reich. This is all the more true of this translation, where the editors had the opportunity to refer to some of that work. German film history here seems written in a vacuum. Without the context of international cinema, Kreimeier’s national cinema remains isolated and obsessed with its own fantasies, much like the cinema it seemingly portrays.

The American editors have also not done themselves any favors by a) abridging and very loosely translating Kreimeier’s prose, and b) publishing the 1992 book without any updates or corrections. While the translation is not wrong, it has drained the color out of Kreimeier’s writing, just as the abridgement has eliminated many culturally specific details. For example, compare my own direct translation of Kreimeier to the quote above: “propaganda central, experimental workshop, media concern, medieval ‘ Bauhütte ‘ of film art, and the receptacle for everyone’s beautiful and bad dreams”. What is lost in the translation by Robert and Rita Kimber is that UFA was not just any agency, but central to Nazi propaganda efforts, as well as simultaneously a reflection of Germany’s (everyone’s) collective unconsciousness. Given the fact that the book is for English language readers, it is also particularly noticeable that Kreimeier’s extensive German language bibliography has been simply jettisoned in the new edition, rather than adding English language sources that would have been useful to the Anglo-Saxon reader. However, for anyone interested in German film history who is not a German speaker, this book is, despite reservations, a must read.

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →