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Film History from Babelsberg to Hollywood

By  Kim Kandler  •  October 15, 2020  
History of film and cinema from Lumiere in Europe to Edison in the USA

Film History – Starting in Babelsberg

The history of cinema is at the same time film history, starting in Babelsberg until the advent of Hollywood, because at least in the first 50 years one did not exist without the other. There were many technical, artistic and commercial aspects involved in the development, which influenced each other. That’s why I think the topics should not be considered separately; otherwise connections are lost.

Today, modern film is mostly equated with productions from Hollywood or at least the USA. But this was not always the case. How and where did it all begin? It turns out that German and especially French films, along with English films, have had a decisive influence on cinema from the very beginning.

In the 125 years of its existence, the commercial aspect has always been at the forefront.

But the contents of the film appealed to the masses from the very beginning. Those who could not afford to go to the theatre, or did not have the necessary evening clothes to be admitted, or who did not get enough adrenaline from going to the theatre.



The first film projector was presented in Paris in 1895 by the Lumière brothers at the Grand Café in Rue des Capucines. He called it the Cinématographe. This was preceded by an experiment in Germany by <a href=”https://www.filmportal.de/thema/filmgeschichte-als-kinogeschichte” title=”Max Skladanowsky showed “Living Photographs”>Max Skladanowsky with the electric double projector “Bioskop”, which presented a kind of flowing slide show in the Berlin Wintergarten, a variety stage existing since 1888.

The Cinematographer of Lumière. Hard to believe that the wooden box actually worked!

Because the method of Lumière was simpler, better and smaller, it eventually established itself as the method by which all film projectors were built. It was only with Lumière that the necessary infrastructure was in place to record moving images, as the film was called at the time, and then play them back via the projector.

There is no clear answer to the question of who invented cinema and film. The official name here is Lumière, because they invented the film projector.

But in the USA Edison was at work. If cinema was not invented in the USA, it was certainly 35 mm film in the five years before. That was a patent from Edison. He made the first step. Lumière have improved the idea and made it suitable for mass production, complete with camera.

Before 1895 Edison did not believe in the projection method as a reproduction, but relied on a different kind of reproduction. This was the so-called Kinetoscope, a device with a peephole (a kind of precursor to video glasses) in which the film could be watched by only one person at a time.

The Lumière carried out intensive marketing after 1895. They travelled around the world, where they took many pictures and sold their equipment – camera and projector in one. So Edison heard about it again. And because many show booth owners around the globe were suddenly able to make a lot of money with the new technology as an attraction, it was clear to Edison that he needed such an invention too, and quickly. That is why his corporation at that time bought a Lumière imitation from England, thus introducing the projection method to the USA. It should not be forgotten that Edison’s Firms has already produced its own films in order to provide its Kinetoscope customers with new material.


It may not be easy to digest, but the cinema is the heir of the show booths and panopticons of the time as they existed at fairs, and the Vaudeville-Theater, magicians and circuses. All were aimed at a mass audience, who were offered either exceptional attractions or affordable entertainment.

In the beginning the film itself was a technical attraction. They even advertised with the brand of the projector. But now the owners of the show booth were able to make films themselves and so the film became a continuous main attraction because new content was constantly being shot. The attraction now had to go into the film.

Film thus became a medium – a magnet – for sights. This is reflected not only in the objectives of producing a film, but also in the expectations of the audience. It runs like a red thread through the history of film and is still noticeable today.

The Lumière brothers quickly got it right. With the short film (approx. 1 minute) about the railway entrance in a railway station, which because of the perspective looks as if the locomotive is entering the hall, they panicked the whole hall at the time, which caused a storm outside. It was realistic and exciting. Actually, they made the first documentary films like this one.


Where no adrenalin flows and what is not an attraction, or at least amazes you, is not suitable as a cinema film. It also explains why Hollywood movies that are packed with special effects and captivate viewers with impossible worlds and events are so popular today.


The films were all very short back then, just one minute long. Things like journeys on the high seas, the entry of a locomotive into a station, jokes and farm horse races were recorded. The recordings came from the show booth owners, not from specially hired professionals. Wan wanted to amaze people, offer a scoop, collect an entrance fee. It was a business – show business.

In the USA, however, the first films were produced by Edison’s company as early as 1890. There the productions were apparently more professional early on, albeit still very technocratic. To this end, film mechanics were then transformed into directors and producers.



Towards the end of this era, the films, which were only a few minutes long around 1900, became longer and longer. Before 1910, films were usually one reel long (“One-Reeler” or one-act play) with a duration of up to 12 minutes. From about 1910 onwards, an average film reached a length of 20 minutes – that is, two rolls. After the First World War, the feature-length film established itself with feature lengths of over 60 minutes.

Among the monumental works of the silent film era, some of which lasted several hours, are Quo Vadis? (1912), Cabiria (1914), Birth of a Nation (1915) by David Griffith.

Until 1927, almost exclusively silent films were made, which were accompanied by orchestras, announcers and recordings on records.


Until the beginning of the First World War, French and Italian films were world leaders. In Berlin alone, 206 cinemas have already been counted. From this time on, greater emphasis was also placed on comfort and luxury. Spectacular cinema palaces such as the Marmorhaus in Berlin served as premiere cinemas. It was there that the world premiere of Robert Wienes “Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari” took place in 1919.

The war forced the European film industry into a devastating disruption. The German film industry was also very weakened by the war. In France, production even had to be stopped completely due to the general mobilisation of the country at the beginning of the war.

Although film production in Europe resumed from 1915, this was on a very limited level. By then the largest producers had already withdrawn from the business. The Italian industry did better, but their “diva” films with unlucky leading actresses were not economically successful.

The years during the First World War were a complicated transition period for the film industry. Performances changed from short one-act plays to the screening of feature films. The venues everywhere became larger and charged higher ticket prices.

An exception were the Nickelodeons in the USA – admission at that time was 5 cents, which is now worth 1.27 dollars – and the shop cinemas in Europe. These venues were very popular among the working class of the time, who could not afford a theatre performance. By 1910, around 9,000 Nickelodeons had opened in the USA. In Europe, the number of retail cinemas was correspondingly high.

At that time the whole film industry in the USA moved from the East Coast to a suburb of Los Angeles. Thus the whole industry became known as “Hollywood” under the name of the suburb. Reasons: stable weather, natural scenery nearby, cheap land to build studio halls; and most importantly, a Decision of the Mayor of Jacksonville (FL). The stunts that were done back then were totally crazy. What happened in Jacksonville at that time becomes quite clear in The Show (1922).

The US reached the era of its greatest production output to date, with an average of 800 feature films a year (representing about 80% of world production). Hollywood has more or less held this position ever since: Film factory of the world with exports to almost all countries.

To give you an idea of how profitable the business was back then and where the power came from, one example: the production of the racist and still controversial “Birth of a Nation” by Griffith cost around 100,000 dollars in 1915. That was an astronomical sum for a film at the time. According to estimates, Griffith and his business partners earned between 50 and 100 million dollars. That would be between 1.3 and 2.6 billion (!) dollars today.

The studios were efficiently organised and controlled the entire value chain, allowing for increasing luxury and ever more sophisticated technical developments. Unfortunately, this was at the expense of the willingness to take risks, which meant that hardly anything new was dared, but instead everything was concentrated more on glamorous escapism as a theme.

This period also includes the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the adventures of Douglas Fairbanks and the love stories of Clara Bow, who, with the success of her films, became actors known on every continent.

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin. "Charlie Chaplin" shows off some of his merchandise (1916)


Until the turn of the century, the technical aspects of film were the focus of attention. Film is used for documentation similar to a camera or a record. This news value is slowly wearing off. Filmmakers gradually began to experiment with the possibilities of film as a new medium.

Thus, technical innovations allowed filmmakers like Parisian cinema owner Georges Méliès to experiment with special effects to achieve magical transformations on the screen: Flowers were given to women, people disappeared in clouds of smoke, a man appeared where a woman was standing just now, and other tricks.

Méliès, a former magician, invented the cartoon that producers in England and the USA have imitated. And he was the one who transformed cinema into the narrative medium we know today. To this end, Méliès has combined various “short films” to create stories. The “Journey to the Moon” (1902), a 30-scene film based on a novel by Jules Verne, was probably the most watched production in the first decade of cinema.

Another innovative filmmaker was Edwin Porter, a “projectionist” and engineer at the Edison Company. With the 12-minute “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) Porter broke with stage-like compositions in the Méliès style. He used montage, camera movement, diagonal compositions and background projections to create continuous movement. This film was not only the first box office hit; it also introduced realistic narrative as a standard.

What else was played in the cinemas at that time? These were reports of current events from the city, the country or elsewhere in the world – such as major social events, major fires, natural disasters. This item of the programme developed everywhere into a newsreel. Further programme items were mostly comic short or animated films, each lasting about five to 20 minutes, and from 1910 on also episodes of film series such as detective series as well as documentaries or cultural films. In the cinemas, the main film was usually shown last, as the highlight of the screening.

The general trend in filmmaking was to express the narrative content of a story. The dramaturgical structures known from the theatre were used for this purpose.

Griffith was particularly good at it. Among North American directors he had the highest reputation because he managed to convey the dramatic enthusiasm to the audience with his films.

He also introduced various innovations such as the narrative close-up, flashback and other structural elements that still exist today. During this time, continuous montage – now a classic – became the visual norm in American-European film.



Experiments with various sound film processes had already been carried out since the World Exhibition around 1900, but it was only with the light sound process (sound track on film) around 1930 that sound film made its breakthrough. From 1920 onwards, records for films were mostly played here, for example by the Vitaphone from 1925 by Warner Bros. It was also the last so-called “sound-on-disc“. system. The challenge was to synchronise the sound with the events and dialogues in the film. Because the film often tore during playback and had to be mended. One picture (a “frame”) was always cut out. As time went by, the sound and film, which was getting shorter and shorter, got out of sync, which then became quite unsightly during the screening.

A Vitaphone projection setup at a demonstration in 1926. engineer E. B. Craft holds a soundtrack disc in his hand. The turntable on a solid tripod is located in the lower centre

A pioneer here was the German engineer Hans Vogt who, together with two colleagues in Tri-Ergon, realised the sound film idea. The company where the process was developed was located in Babelsberger Straße in Berlin. In 1922, the first German sound film using the optical sound process was presented to the public in the Alhambra cinema in Berlin in front of 1,000 spectators. It is noteworthy that the criticism of the press was not directed against the technical level of the dialogues, but against their content. With foresight, they realised that this would permanently destroy the real art of silent film, pantomime. In 1927 the system was sold to Fox Pictures and renamed “Movietone”. From then on it found its way into the films produced by Hollywood.

Colour was also experimented with around 1900. However, the procedures used at the time were expensive and commercially unviable.

In 1912 Rudolf Fischer developed the first usable three-colour process for colour film. With his camera he recorded three quite small and blurred colour extracts through three filter discs tinted in the basic colours on black-and-white film, which were projected through three equally tinted filters during the screening. However, despite his successful presentation to the French Photographic Society and despite the films with music, which were shown in New York in 1913, his films did not become commercially accepted.

From 1917 Technicolor introduced their version for a more sophisticated three-colour process for recording and reproduction. The colour separations were used as gravure printing templates. The positives were printed with colour on blank film. That is why film positives in the American language are still called prints. This paved the way for the construction of a new Technicolor camera that simultaneously recorded three colour separations in blue, green and red. The breakthrough for colour film came in 1937 with Disney’s animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”.

Technicolor continued to refine the process, which culminated in 1955 in what was known as “Technicolor Process No. 5” until the introduction of digital technology. Agfacolor then caught up in 1939 and introduced its first process. It was a three-colour process that required only one negative and was therefore simpler than the Technicolor process. However, the colours were weaker and subject to greater fluctuations. The subsequent colour films from UFA in Germany, for example, all used the Agfacolor process until 1950.

Commercial Hollywood

While Europe was the leader before the First World War, the tide turned during the war. While production in Europe came to a standstill because of the war, North American film production has caught up so much that after the war over 90% of all films shown in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia came from the USA.

In the last year of the war, all production companies in Germany were united by decree into a state-subsidised conglomerate which was henceforth called Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA). It was so effective that in the 1920s it grew to become the largest studio in Europe, and most of the films it produced belonged to the golden era of German cinema during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933).

The restriction of exports from Germany as part of reparations payments around 1924 plunged the film industry into crisis due to the lack of income from exports. At the same time, the sound film that was now becoming established meant a massive restriction of the sales market for German productions, which now had to be limited to the German-speaking world.

During this period, Hollywood studios bought independent cinemas in Germany in order to further restrict UFA, the only serious competition in Europe. It became insolvent in 1925 and was rescued by a loan from (the later) Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer with access to their studios, cinemas and creative staff. Immediately afterwards, numerous UFA actors, directors and technical talents emigrated to Hollywood. Lubitsch, Freund and Murnau all remained in the USA on long-term contracts. But many went back to the UFA, disgusted by the industrial mass production of films in Hollywood – only to emigrate to the USA for good during the Nazi regime.

Again, the UFA collapsed financially in 1927. This time all shares were bought up by politically right-wing motivated financiers, first and foremost Alfred Hugenberg, until it was incorporated into Göbbel’s propaganda machine in 1933.

The film industry in Germany changed during the Nazi regime: over 1500 film-makers emigrated – including Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Max Ophüls, Elisabeth Bergner, Friedrich Hollaender, Erich Pommer, and Detlef Sierck – among them many film artists of Jewish origin.

In the USA, the production, distribution and screening of films became a national mainstream business – and perhaps even the general passion anyway. The fees of the stars reached monumental proportions. Filmmaking was standardised, even industrialised, as a so-called studio system. Wall Street invested heavily in every company in the industry. All genres in use today were introduced in the 1920s.

The lascivious lifestyle of the stars caused many big scandals and the government tried to bring the situation under control. To counteract this, Hollywood founded the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA – which later became the Motion Picture Association of America), an industry association for self-censorship headed by a conservative politician, Will Hays. That is why it was also called the Hays Office. One of the principles formulated by Hays was the victory of law and morality in film over crime and violations of conservative social values. However, the MPPDA was hardly taken seriously, just as Prohibition (1920-1933) took it seriously. That is why between 1927 and 1933 the most liberal films ever made in Hollywood were produced. The ex-UFA director Lubitsch was particularly successful with his sensual, sexual innuendoes (previously tried and tested in German costume films). Whole ex-UFA legions stayed at Paramount, which was considered the most “European” and sophisticated of the studios.

It is hard to believe that the switch from silent to sound film at the end of the 1920s was completed within a few years and is mainly due to a marketing campaign by Warner Brothers. In the 1920s Paramount, MGM, First National and other studios had ambitious expansion plans. Everyone was shopping like mad for cinema chains. Warner Brothers and Fox wanted to dominate the smaller cinema chains by offering recorded musical accompaniment to their films. The unexpected success of this campaign forced the whole industry to switch to sound film and turned Fox and Warner into very big studios. Fox bought MGM. Warner bought First National. Only Paramount was even bigger. But they bought half of the new Columbia Broadcasting System (then Radio) and proposed a merger with Warner. Then the US Department of Justice (the equivalent of today’s Federal Cartel Office) intervened, prohibited the merger and separated Loew from Fox. By 1930, 95% of all US productions were already in the hands of just eight studios, five of which were fully vertically integrated with a total of 2600 premiere cinemas.

At that time, Hollywood was so vertically integrated that the main source of income was cinema admissions. Accordingly, more than 90% was invested in the expansion of cinema chains (not in films!). Hollywood thus became an industry in which cinema operators could produce their own films with their own studios.

Premiere of Don Juan in New York City in a Warner Bros cinema

The switch to clay involved major investments. In addition, there were the high loans taken out during the Great Depression. The studios could no longer afford to take any risks and therefore hardly tolerated eccentric and artistically daring directors. Famous film talents such as Griffith, Sennett, Chaplin, and Keaton found it difficult to survive as filmmakers in this rigid system.


After legions of UFA employees such as directors, cameramen, actors, artists, lighting technicians and musicians emigrated between 1925 and 1933 and found accommodation at Paramount in particular, here we return to the golden decade of German film.

The first productions of the UFA at the beginning of the 1920s were elaborate costume films based on the model of the Italian super spectacles of the pre-war period. The master of this genre was Ernst Lubitsch. His films gave German cinema a firm place on the world market. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919) was the first expressionist work that brought him great artistic recognition. It was the impetus for the movement known as German Expressionism.

Caligari influenced the following UFA films enormously. It depicted disturbed mental states mainly due to decor – after all, in the post-war period, people had to save electricity and therefore lighting was sparse. It was primarily films of fantasy and terror that used terrible plots to express the theme of the soul in search of itself. The films of this movement were shot entirely in the studio and often used distorted sets and lighting effects to create a highly subjective mood.

Alfred Hitchcock, who was still an unknown assistant director at that time, shot his first film in 1924 at Studio Babelsberg. Years later he summed up: “Everything I needed to know about filmmaking I learned in Babelsberg.

Expressionism brought Germany international prestige and created personalities of world renown such as Fritz Lang (Metropolis, 1927) and F. W. Murnau. After the production of his early sound film masterpiece “M” (1931) Lang emigrated to the USA.

Murnau made several smaller expressionist films. But it was “The Last Man” (1924), a chamber play, which made him world famous. He used a complex narrative structure through the innovative use of camera movements and subjective point-of-view shots. For example, he strapped a lighter camera to his chest and then stumbled through the set of a bedroom as if drunk, capturing the view from the eyes of the drunken doorman. Murnau practically invented cranes and dollies. Murnau placed the camera in various positions during the shooting: on moving bicycles, fire ladders and taut ropes to create a flowing movement.

Murnau with silent film camera during the filming of "The Last Man"
Murnau with silent film camera during the filming of “The Last Man”

“The Last Man” is generally regarded as a masterpiece and probably had more influence on the style of Hollywood films than any other foreign film. This also brought Murnau a long-term Hollywood contract, which he signed in 1927.

The counterpart to Expressionism was the “new objectivity”. These films dealt with the disillusionment, cynicism and resignation of the ordinary people whose lives were made so difficult by the post-war inflation.

A master of such films was G.W. Pabst, whose work established conventions of continuity montage that became indispensable for sound film. Pabst created complex, continuous sequences using methods that later became the basis of Hollywood’s so-called “invisible” montage style, such as cut-on-action, cutting from a shot in which an actor’s gaze is directed at what the actor sees (motivated point-of-view shots), and cutting to a shot with a reversed angle (one in which the camera angle rotates 180 degrees).

The contribution of the former Soviet Union to film is often underestimated. Lenin was the first political leader of the 20th century to recognise both the importance of film as an instrument of propaganda and a medium of communication: “For us, cinema is the most important of the arts”. But there was little infrastructure to build on. Most of the pre-revolutionary producers had fled to Europe, devastating their studios and taking their equipment and footage with them when they left. Therefore, there is no other choice than to found the Vsesoyuznyi Gosudarstvenyi Institut Kinematografii (VGIK), the first film school in the world.

Lev Kuleshov was the great teacher there. He got himself a print of Griffith’s Intolerance and played it to the students in his “Kuleshov Workshop” until they knew the recordings by heart and could then rearrange the complex sequences of cuts on a piece of paper in hundreds of different combinations. Kuleshov and his students became intellectual montage experts. For them, film editing was the great overriding structural element with which to influence the direction and value of the narrative.

Two of his most brilliant pupils were Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin. Eisenstein was an intellectual who formulated a modernist theory of montage and made many films that were successful in the Soviet Union. As usual, Bronenossez Potjomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) was also a propaganda that was intended to provoke a strong emotional reaction in the audience in the spirit of Soviet mass ideology. But the film goes far beyond propaganda in form and content and has been awarded several times as one of the most influential and best films of all times. In Potemkin he demonstrates a new method of film montage. In his view, film montage is the highest structural element.

Scene from the sequence "The steps of Odessa" from the film Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein]

In Hollywood, self-censorship became a topic again in the early 30s. The MPPDA has been trying to censor Hollywood since 1922. But it simply did not work. The cinema moved on unchecked, despite the many convictions.

As a result of the change from silent film to sound film, Hollywood began to try out new, experimental directions. Some films dared to do it with nudity, and in others criminals were portrayed as heroes. The wild 1920s brought a radical change towards liberalisation, as sexuality was viewed in North America. For the first time in the country’s history, women began to be respected as professionals. Women, for example, were not granted the right to vote until 1920. But that did not suit the Catholic Church.

From 1929 to 1934 Hollywood produced one of the most progressive films of the 20th century. They made box office hits such as: The Divorcee (1930), Frankenstein (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), Red Headed Woman (1932), and Baby Face (1933). This period – and the films made during this period – is widely known as Pre-Code Hollywood. These films had the following characteristics: progressive ideals, women’s emancipation, gangsters, social issues, monsters and chaos, commentaries on the church.

High-ranking representatives of the Catholic Church in the USA were angry about the direction in which cinema was developing. They fought for “better” and “more moral” films. In 1933 (strangely enough, at the same time as the Nazis came to power in Germany) the bishops joined together in the Legion of Decency and even obtained a mandate from the Vatican. When a nationwide cinema boycott was called for in 1934, it was too risky for Hollywood to ignore. The Production Code was agreed, which this time was successfully implemented by the MPPDA and was adhered to by the studios until 1968.



So far we have half a century of film history behind us. These first 50 years are in my opinion the most exciting. Technically and artistically little is happening until 2020 in comparison, apart from the introduction of television (just another kind of individual “film projector”), surround sound, computer-based effects and digital film and cinema.


The 1940s were record years in terms of visitor numbers. Between 1942 and 1944, the approximately 7000 cinemas in Germany, Austria and the occupied territories reached annual audiences of over one billion. As early as 1933, German film was no longer able to continue its international cinema tradition. The main reasons are the introduction of the sound film (German is not a world language with a large audience) and the continuous drain of talent that continued after the Second World War. Then the long historical coping with the Second World War and the division of Germany led to the breaking off of many film traditions. A rejection of regional, national or even European identity went hand in hand with this development. State-supported (West German) cultural funding largely withdrew from the art form of film, which had risen to become the leading medium of the 20th century. In the period that followed, film imports from the USA were relied upon in particular.

In the early 1940s, film in the USA was the eleventh largest industry. During the Second World War, when the US economy was booming, two thirds of North Americans went to the cinema at least once a week.

Average weekly cinema attendance in the USA from 1930 to 2000

Post-war inflation, the temporary loss of important foreign markets and the advent of television have put an end to this rapid growth. In addition, in 1948 the court case against Paramount forced the studios to relinquish control of the cinema chains. This was a devastating blow from which the studio system would never recover. The large studios were eventually taken over by multinational corporations. The powerful studio managers lost the influence they had held for 30 years.


The most extraordinary film to emerge from the studio system was Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), whose controversial subject matter and experimental technique made it a classic. Using newly developed film material and a wider, more light-sensitive lens, he went to the limits of montage, staging and sound, thus redefining the film medium.

After the Second World War, new film movements emerged all over the world, such as the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism and the Scandinavian Revival. They wanted to bring movement to the cinema, just like in the pre-code Hollywood.

Many of the themes and questions from this period were taken up again in the works of directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini. Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist films contrasted with Hollywood. He shot in the streets with untrained actors and on grainy black and white film. In doing so, he lyrically captured the desperation and confusion in Europe after the Second World War.



For the film industry, the greatest threat came from television. After the studios lost control of the cinemas in the wake of the Paramount ruling, the number of visitors they lost to television also declined. The studios therefore tried to win over audiences by exploiting the two real advantages that film had over television: the size of the image and, at a time when all television programmes were broadcast in black and white, the ability to produce colour films. In 1952 stereo sound was introduced.

Technicolor’s monopoly as sole producer of colour films was abolished by decree. Kodak coincidentally introduced a new multi-layer film material at the same time, with the inks on a single roll. The process offered excellent colour resolution at low cost, as it could be used with conventional cameras. This accelerated the changeover to colour. By 1954, more than half of US features were being produced in colour, and by 1970 the figure had risen to 94 percent.

Therefore, a lot of experiments were made with widescreen (Cinerama, 1952) and stereoscopic 3D images (Natural Vision, 1952). In the end, Twentieth Century-Fox’s CinemaScope came out on top, using special anamorphic lenses to capture a wide angle on existing film material. The system had the great advantage that no special cameras, film material or projectors were required. Thus, from 1954 onwards, many films were shot in the new widescreen format, especially films with visually spectacular themes of epic proportions.

But despite the ingenious strategies of the big studios, the number of visitors continued to fall in the 1950s and 1960s. They also faced serious competition from independent and foreign filmmakers. Many films have now been shot outside the studios around the world to save on costs.

The Production Code of 1934 lost its legitimacy because a series of decisions of the United States Supreme Court between 1952 and 1958 extended the protection of freedom of expression to cinematographic works. There was also increasing competition from foreign films. The studios had no possibility to keep foreign films out and foreign films were not subject to the Production Act. By the end of the 1960s, enforcement had become impossible and the Production Code was completely abandoned.

The MPAA changed to a rating system for films in 1968. A G Rating is used when the film is suitable for people of all ages. PG-13 contains scenes that may not be suitable for children under 13. An R is proposed when children between the ages of 13 and 16 must be accompanied by an adult. Films with X rating are only for viewers over 17 years of age. The X rating was renamed NC-17 in 1990. However, distributors of pornographic films continued to use their own X, XX and XXX symbols to market their products.


The sole rule of the cinemas did not even last half a century. Only in the United States was there a boom during this period, favoured by the increasing motorisation in the post-war years, a special form of open-air cinema: the drive-in cinema. However, the increasing popularity of television led to a drastic drop in cinema attendance. Many cinemas went bankrupt or closed.

The film industry in Germany continued to struggle with a recovery. Here, in addition to the structural losses of the post-war years, the film policy goals of the occupying powers – to consolidate the irrelevance of the German film industry – made any upswing difficult. She also had nothing more to offer creatively.

Innovations came more from France from directors such as Jean-Luc Godard who, in his À bout de souffle (Out of breath, 1959), introduced many new elements of the French Nouvelle Vague: the use of the jump-cut, the hand-held camera and loose, improvised directing. Films that were produced for $90,000 in just four weeks. The jumpcut was an attack on the “invisible”, seamless, traditional film editing, and thus on the narrative continuity of the film. Suddenly things were dared that were outside the norm of Hollywood.

Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1959) was, together with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, one of the major works of the French New Wave, inspired by American film noir


The 1950s were the “golden age” of Indian cinema, which produced 200 films a year. Indian independent films have been recognised by international film festivals. One of the most famous films of that time was the Apu trilogy (1955-1959) by the Bengali director Satyajit Ray. His films had a profound influence on world cinema and influenced directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, François Truffaut, Steven Spielberg, and Jean-Luc Godard.

During this period, Japanese cinema was also very active and creative, producing successful films such as Kakushi Toride no San-Akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958) by Akira Kurosawa. “The Hidden Fortress” was also the inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars (War of the Stars, 1977) Other famous Japanese filmmakers from this period include Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Hiroshi Inagaki and Nagisa Oshima. Japanese cinema became one of the main inspirations of the New Hollywood movement of the 1960s to 1980s.

The Hidden Fortress (1958) by Akira Kurosawa



In Hollywood, studios continued to use new performance techniques to win back viewers from television. However, the wide-screen strategies of the 1950s did not show the desired long-term success. A brief boom was triggered by 3D films, and there was further frantic experimentation with new wide-screen techniques.

The “cinema dying” continued. Other cinemas gave up until the beginning of the 1980s. Then there was further competition from video stores, computer games and the private broadcasters.


Hollywood films were still largely aimed at a conservative family audience. The rather old-fashioned films brought the studios the greatest success. Films such as Mary Poppins (1964), My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) were among the big hits of the decade.

The studio system in Hollywood continued to lose influence as many films were now shot locally in other countries or using studio facilities abroad, such as Pinewood in the UK and Cinecittà in Rome.

Hollywood was in a major financial crisis. Despite some success, however, most of the films only brought losses, because they had missed the chance to adapt to a new, diversified and younger audience. The result was a series of takeovers of all the studios by various financial investors, who appointed new managers who, after 1965, opened the doors to the hitherto unusual New Hollywood directors.


In the USA, interest in foreign language cinema also grew during this period. French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard broke the rules of Hollywood film narrative structure in films such as Les quatre cents coups, À bout de souffle and Jules et Jim.

The Deutsche Welle says that besides Godard, François Truffaut also became the most famous face of the Nouvelle Vague, whose films were more popular than those of Godard. Films such as “Jules and Jim” (1961) proclaimed new forms of love and hinted at what was to gain broad social relevance in 1968: a different approach to sexuality and a new image of women.

Free love in "Jules and Jim" (1961) by Truffaut

As one of the most influential film movements, the French “New Wave” changed the way films were made forever and influenced some of the greatest directors of our time. It produced a new kind of films that were confident, authentic, sincere and therefore revolutionary. And then in 1968 there were local nouvelle vague movements all over the world.

Meanwhile in the UK, the free cinema of Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and others has led to a number of realistic and innovative dramas, including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving and This Sporting Life. Other British films such as Repulsion, Darling, Alfie, Blowup and Georgy Girl (all 1965-1966) helped to limit the prohibitions of sex and nudity on screen. Hence the popularity of the James Bond films, which from 1962 were released with “Dr. No” made sex and violence as incidental elements acceptable worldwide.

In Germany too, there was a “Neue Welle” in the 1960s. A few young filmmakers wrote the “Oberhausen Manifesto” in 1962 and called for a departure from dusty German post-war cinema: “The old film is dead. We believe in the new one.” The director Alexander Kluge became the intellectual head of the German cinema awakening. The manifesto was signed by Haro Senft, Edgar Reitz, Peter Schamoni and Franz Josef Spieker, among others. Later Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, Jean-Marie Straub, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder joined the group. With the advent of this movement, German film regained some international importance for the first time since the 1920s and early 1930s. First and foremost, however, in the circles of critics and less so in terms of audience response.

In Europe, for example, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Francois Truffaut were among the leading directors of the “New Wave”. Together with the Japanese Akira Kurosawa, these four directors have changed the landscape of their domestic film industry with radically new ideas. The “New Wave” has also inspired North American directors. Italian Neorealism in particular had a particular influence on Scorsese. Film distributors regularly brought these foreign films to the USA, where they were literally devoured by the new generation of film schools.

In the mid-1960s, cultural change in the USA began to influence the film industry. In a step not seen for a long time, the big studios again let authors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese take over the complete direction of a film. This was the beginning of New Hollywood, which rewrote the rules for film productions.

In the late 1960s, Hollywood began to make more innovative and unconventional films that now reflected the social upheaval. Films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Easy Rider (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969) all had international success. Bonnie and Clyde is often seen as the beginning of the so-called “New Hollywood”.

New Hollywood was a film movement in the United States between 1967 and 1976. The movement was led by a group of film students with the desire to turn the stagnant status quo around. These filmmakers were even able to work within the studio system because of Hollywood’s new open-mindedness and brought a fresh perspective to mainstream film productions. Well-known filmmakers of that time were: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanowitsch, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola

Two films from 1967, however, finally heralded the New Hollywood era: The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Both films were very daring. The Graduate with its explicit sexual scenes and Bonnie and Clyde with sex and violence.

Scene from Bonny and Clyde (1967) by Arthur Penn



The complete liberalisation of society in the United States in the late 1960s did not take place as hoped. Instead, there were more and more mergers and inflation, especially between 1972 and 1979, and the average cost per feature film rose by more than 500 percent, reaching $11 million in 1980.

Some films by the new New Hollywood directors have had unprecedented success (Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather”, 1972; Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws”, 1975; George Lucas’ Star Wars, 1977). This brought enormous profits and stimulated a financial risk-taking within the industry. In this environment, it was not unusual for large companies to invest their working capital in the production of only five or six films a year, in the hope that one or two films would again be very successful.

Thus the phenomenal success of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), a genre mix of drama and thriller with expensive technical effects, was the beginning of the model of a modern “blockbuster”. The production cost $9 million and made $472 million. The studio managers saw Jaws as a recipe for success that could be reproduced indefinitely. Thus the summer blockbuster was born.

Bruce the mechanical shark from Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975)

The even greater success of George Lucas’ film Star Wars two years later (production costs $11 million and box office receipts of $776 million) finally established the blockbuster strategy in Hollywood’s business plans. Managers there were now increasingly concentrating on producing a smaller number of films with a huge budget, supported by massive marketing and advertising campaigns.

With the blockbuster strategy, the days of the New Hollywood movement were numbered. Artistic risk taking is out. Duplicating tried and tested film recipes is in. It is ironic that it was the huge success of Spielberg and Lucas, two of the most prominent New Hollywood representatives, that heralded the end of the movement. Yet the escapism of the films was also in contrast to the socio-critical approach New Hollywood actually pursued.


In the early 1970s the English-speaking public was exposed more than ever to the new West German cinema, whose leading international representatives included Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders.

Among New Hollywood directors, the auteur theory à la Truffaut was particularly popular. The director or filmmaker is at the centre of the film as the intellectual originator and central creator of the artwork of film. Film directors should be free to express their personal vision and creative insight.

The introduction of the auteur film style in Hollywood helped these directors to have far greater control over their projects than would have been possible in earlier years.

However, this also led to a number of failures, including Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love” and Michael Cimino’s extremely expensive Western epic “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), which contributed to the bankruptcy of its producer, United Artists. The financial disaster of Heaven’s Gate marked the end of the visionary auteur film style in New Hollywood.

By the end of the 1970s, Hollywood had split in two. One continued the artistic approach of New Hollywood in independent productions. The others adapted to the market and became blockbuster directors.



The Lucas Spielberg duo dominated Hollywood cinema in the 1980s, with major consequences: two sequels to Star Wars, three Jaws and three Indiana Jones films.

In principle, Hollywood’s new company managers lacked the competent film understanding of industry veterans. They relied on what was already proven and what was visually sensational, which led to the production of an unprecedented number of highly budgeted sequels.

In the 1980s, the North American film industry made increasing use of new video delivery and image processing technologies. Cable networks, satellite television and video cassettes offered new ways of distributing cinema films. And computer-generated graphics (Tron, 1982) opened up new production possibilities for special effects. Many studios devoted most of their capacity to the production of television films for commercial broadcasters.

This dominance of the cable television and video rental industry led Hollywood to optimise films for the appropriate medium. For example, efforts have been made to produce films that are not only suitable for the cinema, but also for viewing on the smaller television screen (Flashdance, 1983; Footloose, 1984). There was also the approach of luring the audience into theatres with the promise of spectacular 70mm photography and multi-track Dolby sound (Amadeus, 1984; Aliens, 1986).

British cinema received a boost in the early 1980s with the arrival of David Puttnam’s Goldcrest Films. The films Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Killing Fields and A Room with a View appealed to a “middle-intellectual” audience that was increasingly ignored by the major Hollywood studios.


Japanese cinema was also on the upswing, largely due to the success of anime films. The 1980s were also the beginning of original video animation films (OVA films), i.e. films that bypassed the cinema and the television station and were only distributed on video cassettes. Two prominent early OVA films are Noboru Ishiguro’s cyberpunk film Megazone 23 (1985) and the cyberpunk film Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomos, which, although initially unsuccessful in Japanese cinemas, later became an international success.

Scene from the early Japanese cyberpunk animation by Noboru Ishiguros Megazone 23 (1985)

Hong Kong action cinema also made a comeback. After the death of Bruce Lee, it sank into the swamp of endless bruceploitation films. In the 1980s, it managed a revival, which is mainly due to the reinvention of the action film genre by Jackie Chan. The next step was to enhance this comedic martial arts genre with elaborate and highly dangerous stunts reminiscent of the silent movie era.



In the 1990s, computer-generated images became a standard part of Hollywood action adventure films. Examples of such groundbreaking films were Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), and The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski brothers.

How Jurassic Park (1993) looks like without special effects

In 1995 the first fully computer animated feature film, Toy Story, was produced by Pixar Animation Studios and marketed by Disney. Computer animation became the dominant means of creating full-length animations. Studios like DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox competed with their own successful animation films. These elaborate effects made the films optically more luxurious and helped Hollywood and the new animation studios at the end of the 20th century to maintain and even expand their dominance in the global film market.

And this is what Matrix looks like without special effects. Of course, the complete background is first assembled in the computer

In the late 1990s, another trend began, away from physical film material and towards digital cinema technology. In the meantime, DVDs have replaced VHS cassettes and become the new standard for video sales and rentals.


At the turn of the millennium, the film industry in the USA was obsessed with the idea of synergies. This has resulted in an unprecedented wave of mergers and acquisitions. Cinema films, radio and television, cable and satellite systems, broadcasting networks, theme parks, newspapers and magazines, book publishers, producers of entertainment products, sports teams, Internet service providers – these were just some of the different elements that came together under one roof in various forms with the idea that the individual products would sell each other. Whether this ultimately had positive effects remains to be seen.

With the multiplex cinema in the shopping malls came the film industry’s desire to provide the young audiences there with special effects-filled genre works such as teenage horror films and comedies. This generally diminished the influence of directors as dominant figures in the creative process and further reduced the status that Hollywood directors had achieved in the author-oriented 1960s and 1970s. But a handful of established filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, veterans of the earlier era, managed to maintain their status.

In the early 1990s, a commercially successful independent film production developed in the United States. Although cinema audiences were increasingly inundated with special effects films such as Terminator 2 Judgment Day (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009), independent films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Wim Wenders Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) also enjoyed great commercial success, both in the cinema and in home video rental.

The origins of independent films may have been due to the now limited opportunities in Hollywood for creative filmmakers. This gap was filled by organisations such as the Independent Feature Project and the Sundance Film Festival, which both wanted to stimulate and promote independent filmmaking.

But then the big studios began to set up their own “independent” production companies to finance and produce non-mainstream films. One of the most successful independents of the 1990s was Miramax Films, which was bought by Disney before the release of Tarantino’s later hit Pulp Fiction (1994).

Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino with (perhaps unknown at the time) John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman

Thanks to very attractive films by filmmakers such as Steven Soderberg, Spike Lee, David Lynch, Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, independent films became interesting for many in the mainstream audience. This promoted the so-called niche films and documentaries that dealt with ethnic issues and the search for identity in contemporary American culture. These included films by African-American and Native American filmmakers, as well as works dealing with topics such as feminism and LGTB.


By the end of the 20th century, the concept of national cinema had become irrelevant in the traditional film centres of Western Europe. Except in France. But there was a trend towards international co-productions and towards filmmakers and actors working in different countries and languages. Film movements in Europe that identified themselves only with national culture, such as Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave or the New German Cinema, no longer existed. The best example is Heaven (2002), which was written by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski together with Tom Tykwer as director from Germany, and is set in Italy and shot partly in Italian and English with American and Australian leading actors.

Other prominent figures in European cinema of the time include Pedro Almodóvar from Spain, Manoel de Oliveira from Portugal, Théo Angelopoulos from Greece, Aki Kaurismäki from Finland and Nanni Moretti from Italy.

The only not entirely unsuccessful attempt to re-launch a film movement in Europe came from a filmmaking collective in Denmark, which presented a doctrine called Dogme 95 (Dogma 95) at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. This manifesto is basically against technological gimmicks in film and is in favour of a pragmatic realism in style and content.

After the turn of the millennium


In terms of the number of feature films produced, India, the United States, China, Nigeria and Japan are the most active. The production of films has become increasingly globalised. Even foreign-language films are seen more often in the English-speaking markets. Examples include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Mandarin), Amélie (French), Lagaan (Hindi), Spirited Away (Japanese), City of God (Portuguese), The Passion of the Christ (Aramaic), Apocalypto (Mayan) and Inglourious Basterds (several European languages). But in the Oscar awards, for example, Italy came out best: 14 prizes, 3 special prizes and 31 nominations.

Because the film industry is constantly facing new competition (video games and other forms of home entertainment) from other media, there is a constant effort to increase the attractiveness of films. It will build on 3D digital technologies and epic films (i.e. fantasy and superhero films), the latter having become the main source of revenue. At the same time, films are produced in IMAX format. The first was Treasure Planet (2002), an animation by Disney. Then came The Matrix Revolutions (2003), the first live-action film, which was later followed by a new edition of The Matrix Reloaded and then The Dark Knight.

Starting in 2001, there was the Harry Potter film series, which became the best-selling film franchise of all time until the last episode in 2011, when the many Marvel Comics films they overtook from 2015. This is a phenomenon. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is probably familiar to everyone. The first Captain America, and the first Marvel-based film in general, dates from 1944 – which is why scenes from the Second World War are often seen there. Then there were five more Captain America film adaptations until 2019. And the four Avenger films from 2012 to 2019 alone have brought in a total of $7.6 billion. I have counted a total of 60 Marvel Live-Action film adaptations from 1944 to the present day. If you add the animation films and TV adaptations to this, the number triples! Marvel films include: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Wolverine, Daredevil, Deadpool, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Logan, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

A very normal type. The Captain Marvel creator C. C. Beck (1910-1989) at the Comic-Congress in Minneapolis in October 1982.

No wonder that Hollywood, building on the existing popularity and financial success of these films, has several Marvel and DC Comics superhero movies to the world. Just to complete the picture, here are a few examples of DC Comics films: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow. Shocked? We live in a funny film era.

Fortunately, documentaries such as March of the Penguins and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 also enjoyed some success, leading to documentary films being taken more seriously commercially. Then, with Martin Kunert and Eric Manes’ Voices of Iraq, the new genre of docu-reality was born, when 150 cheap video cameras were distributed to people in Iraq and normal people suddenly became filmmakers.

German film has a weak presence in the domestic market with a 20-25 per cent market share. There is no success with the international audience either. The reasons for this are weaknesses in the realisation of screenplays with an audience appeal, and productions with insufficient emotional audience loyalty.


One of the main features of the post-2000 period is the decline of traditional television and the increasing use of digital streaming services. In general terms, these are the successors of the DVD distributors of the 80s and 90s. In the US, viewers use streaming services for an average of 11 hours per month, more than 50 percent compared to the previous year.

The rise of video streaming has profoundly changed television in just a decade. With the spread of Netflix, it was easier to cancel the TV subscription completely, at least in the USA. Series were now also available on Netflix, cheaper and more comfortable to use.

Cable and satellite broadcasters felt the effects of this from 2010 onwards. For the first time, there was a decline in subscriptions, as the Millenials and recession-stricken consumers either cancelled or never ordered subscriptions.

Netflix went ahead and started the production of original series, which were first successful with the mob-drama Lilyhammer from 2012. Netflix made television history with 14 Emmy nominations in 2013 for its critically acclaimed political drama House of Cards – the first ever nomination for web-based programming. Other streaming services quickly became competitors to fill the gaps in Netflix’s programme: Amazon, Hulu, Apple, HBO, and more recently Peacock (part of NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast) – all in the US with offerings more or less adapted to other countries and languages. These streaming services provide the independent film industry with a relatively large number of projects in order to continuously produce new films and series for small to medium budgets.


In the first 50 years of film history there was only the cinema for showing films. Therefore, all genres were shown there. There was no other option. This of course also explains the very high weekly visitor numbers at the time. With the introduction of small, personal screens such as the television at the beginning and streaming after the turn of the millennium, the presentation has shifted accordingly to the different “projection methods”.

What was then the newsreel, the series and the vaudeville shows, has largely shifted to the TV screens. What used to be the B-movies in the 1930s, i.e. the cheaper productions (today, for example, the Netflix Originals), series and documentaries, has mainly shifted to streaming devices. The epic glossy films with elaborate effects and high-quality sound are still more likely to be watched first in the cinemas with friends and family.

The cinema experienced many ups and downs. But only today, after 125 years, is cinema really in an existential crisis because of the Corona pandemic. For the first time, the question now arises: can film survive without cinema? After all, the cinema film, which was produced at a cost of 200 million dollars, would be best shown immersively on a big screen with the best surround audio system. Or will we in future only watch films on the iPad with Bose headphones? Or at best on a 50-inch TV with surround speakers? This is reduced to the question, will we live in future only on take-away and delivery? Private consumption at home as the new standard? Or is it no longer fun to eat in a chef’s restaurant? Isn’t it more fun to experience a film in a cinema – without popcorn sounds? Attraction and experience are the key words here. You don’t get this at home, but only at specially equipped places. So I think that cinema will survive. Perhaps not in its previous form, but certainly in another form that offers a sufficiently high level of experience, such as the IMAX.

The art house cinemas still have a niche existence. In Germany, their share of the cinema market is around 17 percent; in other European countries such as France or Switzerland, it is as high as 30 percent. These cinemas specialise in independent films and have an audience that is not so much going to the cinema to eat popcorn, but rather to enjoy more thematically demanding films – perhaps with a good espresso in hand – in a proper setting.


It looks as if what the show booth attractions with their magicians were back then has been perfected in Hollywood movies today and has taken over this tradition. So if Hollywood has perfected the show booth tradition, Babelsberg has perfected the swagger – light humour, harmless cheerfulness without problems, carefree cheerfulness.

In the founding years of the German film industry, everything was basically organised under the UFA around Babelsberg (Potsdam). There has been a great deal of restructuring in recent decades. Today, Studio Babelsberg is still the oldest large-scale studio in the world and the largest film studio in Europe. And the UFA, with its eventful history, gained production expertise in the production of films and television series. In addition to the Bavaria Studios (Das Boot, 1981), a number of other production and service companies are now spread across Germany.

Please also have a look at my latest documentary film project. The following links are suggestions what you could read if you’re interested in social change projects:

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