Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft)

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Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft)


The story of the Universum-Film AG, popularly known as "Ufa," is inextricably bound to the history of German cinema in the first half of the twentieth century. As perhaps no other film company in relation to its national film culture, Ufa's changing fortunes were a barometer of the economic, political, aesthetic, and ideological struggles that took place in Germany until the aftermath of World War II. Although 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, Ufa was the object of an American takeover in a country torn by postwar inflation, revolutions, and counterrevolutions, then co-opted in 1933 and inflated to a state-owned monopoly operated by the Nazi Party for its own propagandistic purposes, and ultimately deconstructed after the war by the Allies to protect American film interests, mirroring the German experience of war and revolution. Yet, ironically, the company tried to create for both its own employees and its audience a fragile, hermetic world, a Lebenswelt outside the strictures and commands of experience that existed 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 Ufa's ambiguous role in German history and cinema, stating unequivocally that "the genesis of Ufa testifies to the authoritarian character of Imperial Germany" (p. 37).

From this thesis he developed his reflection theory of Germany's fall, seeing in the myriad monsters created in Ufa's Babelsberg studios the precursors to the bureaucrats operating the concentration camps. David Stewart Hull, on the other hand, places Ufa at the center of the Filmwelt, a world in a vacuum where the "overriding concern was continuance of the artistic status quo and to hell with politics" (p. 7). Most film historians have taken one of these two positions: while more liberal writers have viewed Ufa as a bogeyman of the German right, bent on ideologically battering the German electorate, conservative historians have described Ufa as an apolitical free-trade zone catering to the desires of German film buffs. Most recently, Klaus Kreimeier has tried to move beyond this dichotomy, arguing that Ufa was always a massive bundle of contradictions and functioned precisely because it was able to bring under one roof German Realpolitik and expressionistic dreams, monopolistic studio policies and individual artistic aspirations, simultaneously surrendering to ideological imperatives while encouraging experimental daring.

Ufa was officially founded after a highly covert operation on 18 December 1917 when the banking firm of Lindstrom AG bought all German branches of the Danish Nordisk-Film Company for ten million reichsmarks. Included in the deal was the largest German cinema chain, Union-Theater AG, its distribution company, and the Oliver-Film, Nordisk's German production studio. Also purchased were Germany's oldest film producer, the Messter company (and its distribution arm, Hansa-Filmverleih), for an additional four million reichsmarks (plus 1.3 million reichsmarks in Ufa stock), and the Projektions "Union" A.G., Germany's second largest producer and owner of fifty-six cinemas, for 1.11 million reichsmarks, as well as several other smaller companies that owned laboratories, manufactured camera equipment, or provided related services. Thus with one fell swoop Ufa became Germany's first vertically and horizontally integrated film conglomerate, controlling exhibition, distribution, and production, which followed similar structural developments among the Hollywood majors. The merger had been organized by Emil Georg von Stauss, director of the Deutsche Bank, who, in association with high-placed individuals in the banking and electrical industry, had convinced the German military High Command under General Erich Ludendorff that such an enterprise was in the national interest: Ufa was to produce war propaganda and pro-German propaganda for neutral countries. Ludendorff had sent a memo on 4 July 1917 outlining the general strategy as well as the Prussian government's secret 55 percent financial participation. With the Armistice in 1918, however, the imperial government abdicated and Ufa was left to its own devices to produce entertainment films.


Paul Davidson, the founder of the Projektions "Union" A.G., became the production head of Ufa, but he left most production decisions to the subsidiary companies, which were still largely independent, while continuing a policy of acquisition. Thus, in 1918 Ufa purchased the May-Film Co. (Joe May), BB-Film (Heinrich Bolten-Baeckers), Gloria (Hanns Lippmann), and Maxim (Max Galitzenstein) film companies. Ufa's first international success came with the so-called "Monumentalfilme" of Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) (Passion [Madame DuBarry, 1919]; Deception [Anna Boleyn, 1920] and Joe May (Herrin der Welt, [Mistress of the World, 1919–20]), big budget historical epics calculated for an international market. However, a sea change occurred when Erich Pommer's (1889–1966) Decla-Bioscop AG was merged with Ufa in November 1921; simultaneously its capital was increased from 25 to 200 million reichsmarks. Ufa was now a major player in the German and European market, controlling distribution in large parts of Central and Eastern Europe, much to the chagrin of the Americans.

Pommer, who had won an international success with Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), gave his directors a large degree of freedom, preferring to concentrate on increasing Ufa's export business by guaranteeing a cinema of quality, which would be saleable abroad. As a result, Ufa directors produced some of the greatest films of the era, including Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1923–24), Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau,1924), Varieté (Jealousy, E. A. Dupont, 1925), Ein Walzertraum (The Waltz Dream, Ludwig Berger, 1925), and Geheimnisse einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul, G. W. Pabst, 1926). This was accomplished by hiring Germany's best directors, expanding the Babelsberg studios outside Berlin to become the most modern facility in Europe, and bringing together a team of technicians, art directors, and cameramen who were encouraged to experiment. Among the innovators were cameramen Karl Freund (1890–1969) and Fritz Arno Wagner (1891–1958). The giant studio sets, innovative lighting designs, optical tricks (Schüfftan process), and daring camera movements in the films of Murnau, Lang, and Dupont would not have been possible without an atmosphere Kreimeier has described as that of a medieval "Bauhütte" (cathedral builders' guild). Unlike American studio stars, Germany's best known actors, including Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), Emil Jannings (1884–1950), Werner Krauss (1884–1959), and Brigitte Helm (1906–1996), were never contractually bound to the company, each working only intermittently for Ufa. Ufa also established newsreel, documentary, educational, and advertising departments and an experimental film laboratory, where Viking Eggeling (1880–1925) completed his abstract animations.

But by late 1925 Ufa was at the brink of financial collapse due to multiple factors, including the revaluation of the reichsmark after a period of hyperinflation, failing to invest profits in infrastructure, high production costs (Metropolis [1927] is later blamed), and the mounting pressure of American companies attempting to make inroads in the German and Central European markets. In December 1925, Ufa announced the so-called Parufamet contract, which gave virtual control of Ufa's first-run theatres to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount while also granting them 50 percent of income from Ufa's own productions. In exchange, Ufa received a loan for four million dollars and American distribution of its "suitable" films in theatres in the United States. But the Americans claimed that all but a handful of German films were unsuitable for distribution.

The contract was a disaster, and Ufa continued to bleed cash. Relief of sorts came in the form of Alfred Hugenberg, Germany's greatest newspaper czar who was also the leader of the right-wing German National Party (Hugenberg entered Hitler's first cabinet in 1933). Hugenberg purchased Ufa in March 1927 and immediately instituted reforms, putting his longtime lieutenant Ludwig Klitzsch at the head of the company. Klitzsch renegotiated the Parufamet contract by paying off the loan and establishing a producer-unit system of production, much like the one Hollywood had in place by the late 1910s. He also brought Pommer back from Hollywood to head the company's A unit while B units for genre films were headed by Günther Stapenhorst (1883–1976), Alfred Zeisler (1897–1985), and Gregor Rabinowitsch (1889–1953).

b. Hildesheim, Germany, 20 July 1889, d. 8 May 1966

Erich Pommer is one of the few internationally known German film producers, responsible for the "golden age" of Weimar cinema as the head of production at Ufa in its most productive period. He joined the Berlin branch of Gaumont Production Company in 1907 and by 1919 he was the sole owner of the Decla company, which produced Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920), establishing Pommer's reputation far beyond Germany's borders. While accounts differ as to Pommer's role in that production—the scriptwriters even accused Pommer of watering down the film's ideological message—most agree that Pommer's advertising campaign made the film a success. In April 1920 Decla merged with its largest competitor (besides Ufa), Bioscop, giving Pommer control over forty more theaters and the newly constructed Babelsberg studios outside Berlin.

The success of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari convinced Pommer to continue a policy of mixing art and commerce, which he pursued by green-lighting films by Robert Wiene, F. W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang and establishing a stable team of film technicians who would come to dominate German cinema. When Decla-Bioscop merged with Ufa in November 1921, Pommer became production head, producing such classics as Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang,1922), Die Nibelungen (Lang, 1923–24), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau, 1924), Varieté (Jealousy, E. A. Dupont, 1925), Faust (Murnau, 1926), and Metropolis (Lang, 1927). Yet the latter film's cost overruns also spelled Pommer's doom, forcing him to resign in January 1926.

Pommer went to Paramount Studios in Hollywood and before year's end released Hotel Imperial (Mauritz Stiller, 1927), then Barbed Wire (Rowland V. Lee, 1927), both melodramas situated in World War I Europe, before being called back to Berlin. The media czar Alfred Hugenberg now controlled Ufa and had instituted an American-style producer-unit system to control costs. Some directors, like Wilhelm Thiele or Robert Siodmak, thought Pommer too controlling, but the fact remains that over the next several years he produced some of the most successful German silent and sound films of the late Republic, including Asphalt (Joe May, 1929), Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg, 1930), Der Kongress Tanzt (Congress Dances, Erik Charell, 1931), and F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht (F.P.1 Doesn't Answer, Karl Hartl,1932). Unlike many of his earlier art films, these were highly profitable light entertainments, whether musicals or science fiction dramas.

The rise of National Socialism forced Pommer into exile and he never recovered, even though he worked in Paris (Fox), London (Korda), and Hollywood (RKO). In August 1946 Pommer was invited by the United States Army to return to Germany as a film control officer to rebuild the German film industry—a difficult task, given government bureaucracy and German resentments against the émigrés.


Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920), Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1923–24), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, F. W. Murnau,1924), Varieté (Jealousy, E. A. Dupont, 1925), Barbed Wire (Rowland V. Lee, 1927), Der Kongress Tanzt (Congress Dances, Erik Charell, 1931), Jamaica Inn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1939), Kinder, Mütter, und ein General (Children, Mother, and the General, László Benedek, 1955)


Hardt, Ursula. From Caligari to California: Erich Pommer's Life in the International Film Wars. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1996.

Jan-Christopher Horak

In September 1929, Ufa completed construction of its new sound film studios in Babelsberg. Its first sound film, Melodie des Herzens (Melody of the Heart, Hanns Schwarz) opened on 16 December 1929, followed by Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), which made Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992) famous around the world. Both

films were shot in multiple language versions (German, English, and French) because synchronization still presented technical difficulties. Musical comedies, like Melodie des Herzens, Die Drei von der Tankstelle (Three Good Friends, WilhelmThiele,1930), and Der Kongress Tanzt (Congress Dances, Erik Charell, 1931), were wildly popular, apolitical, and staple products in the early 1930s. Another genre that gained increasing prominence was historical films that resurrected the past glories of Prussian militarism, including Das Flötenkonzert von Sanssouci (Flute Concert of Sans-Souci, 1930) and Morgenrot (Dawn, 1933), the latter film opening one day after Adolf Hitler's ascension to power. Dawn depicts the "heroic" struggle of U-boats in World War I and was the perfect fascist film for the new era. (The hero states, "We Germans may not know how to live, but we certainly know how to die.")


Just as Ufa's Dawn anticipated Nazi cinema, its board preempted official Nazi policy: three days before the official Nazi boycott of German Jews was instituted, Ufa fired all of its Jewish employees (29 March 1933). While in the course of 1933 the Propaganda Ministry was established under Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945) in order to create a pre censorship office for the ideological control of all German film productions and the industry was aryanized by making it illegal for Jews to make films, Ufa and other film companies remained economically independent. However, in 1937 the German Reich secretly purchased 51 percent of Ufa through a dummy corporation, Cautio Treuhand GmbH, and by 1939 owned 99 percent of Ufa stock. The government's ownership of Ufa was not publicly announced until February 1941, after which all other remaining German production companies were dissolved and integrated into the now wholly state-owned Ufa. This allowed the Allies to completely dismantle Ufa after the end of World War II, ostensibly as part of the denazification process but with the hidden agenda of guaranteeing that German cinema would never again threaten Hollywood hegemony.

But in 1933 Goebbels still had big plans for Ufa. His goal was to wean Germans from American films by creating a Hollywood-style star system on the one hand and by producing seemingly apolitical entertainment films on the other, which would lull the German public into believing that there were still ideology-free zones in the cinema. He specifically stated that he did not want to see Nazis on the screen but rather that the best propaganda was presented covertly. In order to create an atmosphere of internationalism (allowing Germans to forget that they could no longer travel abroad), Ufa imported new female stars, like Zarah Leander (1907–1981, Sweden), Marika Rökk (1913–2004, Hungary), and Kristina Söderbaum (1912–2001, Sweden), who appear in overheated melodramas by Detlef Sierck (1897–1987, also known as Douglas Sirk) and Veit Harlan (1899–1964) and musicals by Georg Jacoby (1883–1964). Leander, in particular, became wildly popular in such films as Zu neuen Ufern (To New Shores, 1937) and Das Wunschkonzert (Request Concert, 1940), films that addressed women's desire, all the while subtly inserting fascist attitudes in order to prepare women for war. For young male audiences, Ufa produced adventure films with Hans Albers (1891–1960) that glorified combat and war, thus preparing German youth for the coming war of aggression without overt political tones. As the war went from bad to worse for the Germans in 1942–43, Ufa focused almost exclusively on entertainment films that kept the minds of audiences off the rising death toll and falling bombs.

Meanwhile, Ufa also produced a yearly quota of Nazi propaganda films, usually historical epics that reconfigured German history by using the vocabulary of Nazi ideology and valorizing their heroes as Führer -figures in the image of Adolf Hitler. The cycle began with Gustav Ucicky's (1898–1961) Flüchlinge (Refugees, 1933), about the struggle of German nationals in China and ended with Harlan's Kolberg (1945), which portrays an episode from the Napoleonic Wars (1813) during which a group of

Prussian citizens holds off the marauding Russian Army, thus directly paralleling the contemporary situation on the Eastern Front. However, by the time the film was premiered in Berlin, 90 percent of German cinemas had been bombed to smithereens by the Allies.

Ufa's history ends with a whimper. In June 1953 the "Lex Ufi" took effect, a law passed by the West German government to reprivatize the company, which by then consisted of little more than real estate. The giant Ufa studios in Neubabelsberg, within the Soviet zone of occupation, fell under the control of the Deutsche-Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA), the state-owned film production company of the German Democratic Republic. In 1964, Ufa film rights to the catalogue eventually passed into the hands of the F. W. Murnau Foundation, which was controlled by the German Ministry of the Interior.

SEE ALSO Censorship;Germany;National Cinema;Propaganda


Elsaesser, Thomas. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany's Historical Imaginary. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Hull, David Stuart. Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema, 1933–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Koepenick, Lutz. The Dark Mirror: German Cinema between Hitler and Hollywood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947.

Kreimeier, Klaus. The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company, 1918–1945. Translated by Robert Kimber and Rita Kimber. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Rentschler, Eric. The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Jan-Christopher Horak