50 years of film education in Berlin. 50 years of cinematic storytelling.

A Short History of the DFFB

After more than a decade of planning, it finally happens on September 17, 1966—the Governing Mayor of Berlin Willi Brandt ceremoniously opens the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB), thus welcoming the first film school in West Germany. The school’s artistic director is renowned documentary filmmaker Erwin Leiser, and its administrative director is Heinz Rathsack, former film advisor to the Kiel Ministry of Culture. In the first year, the school’s full-time lecturers are Ulrich Gregor (film history) and Peter Lilienthal (directing). Its inaugural students include impressive names such as Wolfgang Petersen, Helke Sander, Harun Farocki, Hartmut Bitomsky, and Holger Meins, although one name is missing—Rainer Werner Fassbinder was rejected by the admissions committee. And right from the start, Helene Schwarz—initially the administrator for student affairs—is present for the DFFB’s students, offering them a responsive and sympathetic ear.

Student movements are plentiful circa 1968, and students of the DFFB are right in the middle of the action. This gives the DFFB its ongoing reputation as Germany’s most politically active film school. In May 1968, the DFFB is occupied by a group of students, and, for a short time, renamed the “Dsiga-Wertow-Akademie.” On top of the building on Theodor-Heuss-Platz, which the DFFB shares with Sender Freies Berlin, a red flag waves. In November 1968, a conflict between the students and the directorate, which has been smouldering since the first examination in 1967, escalates: eighteen students are dismissed without notice and are banned from the building. After losing the lecturers’ trust, artistic director Erwin Leiser resigns. Politics are on the verge of disrupting the recently opened academy.

It is above all thanks to the diplomatic skills of Heinz Rathsack—who will remain in office until his death in 1989—that forward movement prevails. The following decade is marked by political filmmaking. The feature films of the “Berlin School of Workers’ Films” emerge. These films are created by students and graduates such as Christian Ziewer, Max Willutzki, Ingo Kratisch, or Marianne Lüdcke, and include political documentaries as well as some of the first feminist films of the Federal Republic.

In 1979, something changes: for the first time since its establishment, more women than men are enrolling in the DFFB. In the following years, filmmakers such as Ute Aurand, Lily Grote, Bärbel Freund, Ulrike Pfeiffer, Irina Hoppe, or Ilona Baltrusch bring new, and above all, experimental works to the school’s stagnant political film scene.

With OKAY, OKAY. DER MODERNE TANZ the first-year experimental film by Christoph Dreher and Heiner Mühlenbrock, the culture of punk and new wave erupts into the DFFB. Nick Cave performs in several student films, temporarily living on the same factory floor as Dreher and Mühlenbrock. Uli M. Schüppel follows Cave on his American tour, THE ROAD TO GOD KNOWS WHERE. Countless experimental film and video works emerge, and slowly, students find themselves moving back to feature filmmaking.

While Ludger Blanke, Wolfgang Schmidt, George Maas, Michael Freerix, and Christoph Willems are making strange and funny slacker films, for the first time since the DFFB’s foundation, there are strong ambitions to break into the commercial film and television industry. Wolfgang Becker and Detlev Buck are successful in this endeavour (side note: according to DFFB folklore, Buck, a farmer’s son from Schleswig-Holstein, “bribed” the entrance exam’s commission with a sack of potatoes!).

Even in the era of Heinz Rathsack —an era that ends with his death in December 1989 and is followed by the two short interludes of his successors Martin Wiebel and Thomas Koebner—a new wave of cinema d’auteur at the DFFB takes shape. In 2000, a name for this movement surfaces:  Berlin School. Its protagonists include Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, and Angela Schanelec who have remained the figureheads of this movement to this day.

During the twelve years of his tenure from 1993, Reinhardt Hauff focuses on professionalising the curriculum. Alongside the core study programmes, directing and cinematography, Hauff introduces two new programmes of study: screenwriting and producing. Collaborations with broadcasters are developed that allow students greater opportunities to create full-length graduation films, some of which are screened in cinemas. These include PLUS-MINUS NULL, BERLIN IS IN GERMANY, and MITFAHRER. Today, alumni directors and screenwriters such as Chris Kraus, Eoin Moore, Hendrik Handloegten, Hannu Salonen, Martin Eigler, and Lars Kraume actively work within the German cinema and television industry. After the resignation of Reinhard Hauff in 2005, students begin to protest. They criticise the appointment procedure, which is carried out together with the Berlin University of the Arts, as non-transparent. Finally, Hartmut Bitomsky, the preferred candidate of many students, becomes director of the DFFB in 2006. Following Bitomsky’s resignation in 2009, Jan Schütte is chosen through an appointment procedure. Over the next few years, many successful films emerge, such as OH BOY by Jan Ole Gerster, and festival favourites, DAS MERKWÜRDIGE KÄTZCHEN by Ramon Zürcher, ICH WILL MICH NICHT KÜNSTLICH AUFREGEN by Max Linz, and EIN PROLETARISCHES WINTERMÄRCHEN by Julian Radlmaier. After the departure of Jan Schütte in 2014, there are considerable differences between the students and the advisory board regarding the appointment procedure and the participation of students within this process. In 2015, Ben Gibson is elected as the new director of the DFFB by an appointment commission after an academy public presentation of the candidates.

To find out more about the history of the DFFB visit: https://DFFB-archiv.de