Arts & Entertainment

With rich history and tax breaks, Berlin lures Hollywood filmmakers

A scene from <em>The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2</em> takes place in the fictional capital city Panem, which was filmed in Berlin.
A scene from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 takes place in the fictional capital city Panem, which was filmed in Berlin.
Murray Close/Lionsgate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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