“You know that’s going to have to come off don’t you?” the motherly German hair and makeup lady tells me in flawless English. “But surely some G.I.s in World War II had beards?” I reply – I had been growing my beard since April last year and felt I owed it some sort of resistance against the razor about to condemn it to the dustpan. “He doesn’t have one,” is her riposte, pointing to a photo of Eisenhower tacked above the mirror. “Well, yeah,” I continue to protest, “but he was the Supreme Commander of all the Allied forces in Europe. Of course he can’t have a beard.”
A dispute ending expression breaks across her face – a sort of sympathetic smile tempered with ‘I haven’t got time for this’ eyes – and my defense of the beard crumbles. Then, with a lack of ceremony that leaves me feeling a bit aggrieved (I don’t know what I was expecting – maybe candles? Women weeping?), she shears me with a practiced professional swiftness and then sets about applying the appropriate amount of dirt to my face. “Don’t be mad at her,” I tell myself as I leave the chair a little too fresh-faced, “she has to do a lot of this” – I’m only US Soldier number 86 on a list of over 300…
Of course I knew that this kind of thing was liable to happen to me; especially as a mere extra in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster starring, directed and produced by a movie-biz megastar fresh off the back of a second Oscar win. And George Clooney is notorious for his hatred of beards (probably) – he only grew one for that film where he’s a hit man to implicate regular beard wearers in assassinations (again, probably).
Beards aside though, as a successful director, he’s got to have a sharp eye for detail and recreate the worlds that his stories unfold in with the utmost authenticity. So, if US soldiers in WWII didn’t have beards, the fake American soldiers played by Germans, Brazilians and English people in Clooney’s big-screen adaptation of Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men aren’t going to have beards either.
And because Clooney’s such a pro, adhering to such strict levels of authenticity, it makes sense that he’s been filming in Berlin. The movie deals with Nazi Germany in WWII and presumably requires a sufficient amount of location shots of Nazis doing Nazi things, like parading and shouting on Unter den Linden. But the rest of the in-studio stuff is being shot back in Hollywood right? Wrong. All the in-studio filming is being done in Berlin at Babelsberg Film Studios as well. And, according to a lengthy German contract I signed when I became US Soldier number 86, it’s all top-secret.
So then, what exactly is going on behind the gates at Babelsberg? And what does it mean for Berlin? First I’ll deal with the what. Although technically I’m not allowed to give any details, I couldn’t really understand the contract, so let’s plead ignorance instead…
Having emerged from hair and makeup, myself and my fellow ‘brothers in arms’ are herded into blacked out vans before being driven a short distance to the set – still in Babelsberg’s 25,000 sq. metre grounds. Once there, we’re shepherded into another queue. There’s a lot of queuing when you’re an extra. It’s a bit like being at a shit theme park – you queue forever for things that aren’t really as fun as they’re made out to be.
In this queue, though, there’s a buzz in the air. This is the gun queue. This is the queue where the gruff German military expert hands you an M1 Carbine rifle and tells you not to do anything stupid with it – like pointing it at other people, dropping it on the floor or putting the barrel in your mouth – or he’ll bash you and get you fired sans pay.
Now appropriately armed, and having digested the idiots guide to handling disarmed mid 20th century weaponry, we’re told to sit and await our instructions for today’s scene. Instructions that come in the form of an expletive-ridden speech from Billy, head of crowd control for the ‘military’ personnel, who tells us we’ll be unloading artistic treasures that the good ol’ U.S. of A has saved from imminent destruction at the hands of Hitler – yeehaw! Needless to say, we’re all pumped up and ready to be background action heroes as Billy draws to a close.
The excitement dissipates quickly though, as a period of interminable boredom begins – punctuated only by a pretty nice lunch and then, another couple of hours later, by the command to hand our guns back because we don’t actually need them. Boredom, sensing that we’re unarmed, intensifies its assault and our regiment’s morale drops alarmingly. Finally, after about seven hours (I can’t tell for sure, my watch has been left back at costume to prevent against anachronistic inaccuracies), the cogs of the production machine begin to turn at full speed. Up we jump and off we’re whisked to a huge hangar where the cameras are waiting.
On the inside, the hangar has been transformed into a very big, very expensive looking fake cave filled with lots and lots of less expensive looking fake sculptures, paintings and ornaments. I’m quickly grabbed by one of the Assistant Directors who, having identified me as a fellow Englishman, takes an immediate liking to me and stations me in the foreground of the shot with some props – a canvas sheet and a rope – before moving on to position someone else. All the other extras without props further in the background stare sulkily and I spend the next few minutes basking in my passport-based prominence.
Minutes later, Mr. English A.D. returns and gives me some rapid instructions – “when you hear ‘action’ take this canvas sheet off that painting, fold it up, look at the painting, pick up this rope, put it over your shoulder and then walk out across the camera in front of the main actors ok?” “Got it,” I say, having not actually got it.
There’s no time for second explanations though as the big guns – Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and two other guys (one young, one old) who I’ve never seen before but imdb assures me are actors – arrive on set, led by Clooney – who’s in directing mode today. Damon gets into a lift at one end of the cave, Murray is positioned opposite me, Goodman pads about in the middle of the space in front of the lift, young guy climbs a ladder next to me and old guy stands near Murray.
And then we roll. Damon emerges from the descending lift having (presumably) been off performing deeds of derring-do and all the other main actors rush to greet him. Once they’re clustered together swapping scripted pleasantries I shoulder my rope and walk across camera in front of them like a fucking pro (I have been walking for most of my life after all) and out of the other side of the shot. Cut. Then we reset and go again. This process repeats itself three or four times until Clooney declares himself satisfied and ends proceedings for the day. The following day we’re back in the cave doing the same scene several times over from different angles and I continue to prove myself each time as the gifted walker I always knew I had the potential to be.
On my third day of shooting, a couple of weeks later, we’re back in the massive hangar again. This time though there’s a field hospital in it as opposed to a cave. The regiment and I are looking a little worse for wear as well. All of us have been bloodied and some are sporting some creative looking injuries of varying severity. Out of nowhere I get promoted to the role of Field Medic, partly because I don’t look too injured and partly, I tell myself, because I’m a hardened on-camera walker.
The scene consists of Clooney, in full-blown acting mode this time, and young guy (who I have now learned is called Dmitri Leonidas) bursting into the tent with a mortally wounded soldier on a stretcher and then working alongside the head doctor to save his life. Gut-wrenchingly, though, the young G.I. cannot be saved and Clooney storms, inconsolable, from the tent while Leonidas clasps his fallen comrades hand for a few lingering seconds and looks super, super sad.
While all this is going down I’m utilizing all of my extensive field medical training to do my damnedest to help a guy with a pretty brutal looking face wound. As we get to shooting the final angle of the scene, which Clooney – back in directing mode – refers to knowingly as the ‘tableau’ (translation: monumentally cheesy and painfully slow reverse camera track of Leonidas holding dead guy’s hand looking super, super sad), I manage to maneuver myself right in front of the camera and almost certainly into the final cut of the film. Boo yah!
Now that’s all well and good for me, but what does the fact that this kind of movie is being filmed here mean for Berlin – and what does it say about the city? Well, the films being made at Babelsberg, the oldest large-scale film studio in the world, have always reflected, and been strong referents for, prevailing cultural trends in the German capital. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Joseph von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel, in which Marlene Dietrich received her cinematic debut, were indicative of the experimental and uninhibited attitudes of Weimar Berlin. In the 1000 films made between 1933 and 1945, when the studio became a principle tool of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, the National Socialist ideology that had pervaded the capital shone through the silver screen – Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will a case in point.
And now, the films coming off the production line near Potsdam are a microcosmic reflection upon present day conditions in the city. Big time real estate investors have come back to Berlin after they headed for greener pastures when the 1990s bubble burst, looking to exploit the city’s still growing reputation of international cool, buying up land and property city-wide – either waiting to turn a profit or stimulate further investment.
And Babelsberg was ahead of the curb – seeking to attract the film business’s biggest guns to Berlin, where the cost of filming was cheap and the quality of facilities high. In 2004 it was bought by investment company Filmbetriebe Berlin Brandenburg and in 2005 began trading on the free market. In 2007 it experienced its most successful year as 12 feature films – including Valkyrie with Tom Cruise and The International with Clive Owen – were made in its grounds. Then, in 2008, the studio struck a deal with big time Hollywood producer (and creator of Ultimate Frisbee) Joel Silver to produce feature films from his Dark Castle production company. In 2009, Babelsberg co-produced Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards and now it’s playing host to Clooney.
Hollywood, it seems, like the big time real estate players, has taken notice of the potential benefits that investment in Berlin can provide. In short, shooting costs are cheaper here and, thus, profit turned is greater. And of course Berlin can give a strong lick of authenticity to a WWII movie.
While The Monuments Men certainly isn’t the first sign of Hollywood coming to town, it’s certainly the biggest sign yet – in terms of the budget, star power and scale that I witnessed – that it’s probably here to stay and make hay while Berlin’s arm aber sexy sun continues to shine.
Image credits: 1. © N. Müller 2. Courtesy of National Archives/American Jewish Historical Society 4, 5, & 6. Provided by the author.