IAMHIST Challenge Event – “Extras, bit-players, and historical consultants in media history”

Anna Luise Kiss, Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf

10 August 2017


This blog reports on the IAMHIST Challenge Event: “Extras, bit-players, and historical consultants in media history” held at the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf and the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies in Potsdam (Germany) from July 17 to 18 2017.

As the Film University is located next to the Studio Babelsberg it makes good sense to offer seminars dealing with the history of the oldest studio in the world and the production site of such outstanding films as The Student of Prague (1913, Hans Heinz Ewers), Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang) and Solo Sunny (1980, Konrad Wolf). And as the practice of giving our Master students the possibility of conducting a cooperative research project before they have to work independently for their master’s thesis has proven to be successful, I thought the overlooked history of extras and bit-players in Studio Babelsberg would perfectly suit a researched based seminar for Master’s students in Media Studies. The thematic focus was motivated by my observation that in contrast to the amount of studies focusing on the upper sphere of the actors’ hierarchy, only few academic contributions address the role played by extras and bit-players in film. The reasons for this lack are many. To name only two: film historians were for a long time manly interested in outstanding directors, successful producers and stars. There was insufficient documentation of extras’ activity in film business, so that they were literally invisible to research. Although my students knew that the situation regarding the source material would be a major challenge to them, they agreed to my suggestion that we should, for two semester, address ourselves to that topic.

Our group of nine students divided into three subgroups: One group concentrated on the time from the founding of the studio (1912-1921), the UFA (1921-1933) and the “Drittes Reich” (1933-1945). The second group focused on the time of the DEFA (1946-1992). And the third group looked at the studio from reunification to the present (1993-2017). The students decided to focus on four questions:

  • Why were people motivated to work as extras?
  • How did the production companies find people who were willing to work as extras?
  • What were the working conditions like?
  • And, how was the extra treated in public discourse?

In addition, the students wanted to do a comprehensive analysis of the staging strategies of extras. Here they distinguished between films telling explicitly the story of an extra (most of the time in the mode of a fairy tale – the extra becomes a celebrated star) and films using extras to represent a crowd, or masses, and those which sought to represent a group within a milieu, types or pedestrians. Here they wanted to pose the question: in what kinds of aggregate structures (from an element of a mass to the individual being) did the extra appear? The methodological approach was very much orientated on Anthony Slide and Kerry Segrave: the students analyzed historic newspaper articles, production documents, they used the tools for film analysis, and – if possible – conducted interviews. The idea was to bring the results of the different groups together in a final research report. [*endnote]

While working on our research project we came across the IAMHIST Challenge. We decided to apply with the idea of hosting a workshop on extras and bit-players. On the one hand we wanted the opportunity of having our results critically discussed by other scholars, on the other hand we wanted to widen our perspective on the phenomenon on the basis of the contributions of the participants. We were happy to learn that our idea was one of the three winners of the challenge. With the support of IAMHIST we published a call for papers, and received the financial backing to invite guests, for film screenings and special events. Particularly Prof. Dr. David Culbert was very supportive. He suggested widening the frame of the workshop by examining the links between extras, bit-players and historical consultants. We were looking forward to a keynote from him on that subject matter. It was a shock for us to learn of the death of David Culbert only a few weeks before the workshop. Sadly, because of his absence, we failed to benefit from his ideas on how to conduct research on the historical consultant. But the representatives of IAMHIST Prof. Dr. Tobias Hochscherf and Dr. Paul Lesch immediately volunteered to conduct a discussion on the historical consultant.

Tobias Hochscherf, Paul Lesch and Anna Luise Kiss discussing the historical consultant as a potential research object

Despite a general discussion on how far the historical consultant can be seen as a research desideratum and on how one might approach this phenomenon, they worked out the connections between extras and historical consultants. For instance both can function as vehicles for authentication. Clamming that extras where hired who were, in real life, witnesses of the event staged for the silver screen, can be as effective in suggesting a strong bond to reality as the contention that the staging of the events in the film were approved by a historical consultant.

Besides this discussion, the first day was dedicated to the presentations by the master’s students:

Group 1: Iskander Kachcharov, Julian Gruß and Sarah Dombrink

They were able to reveal in detail major changes in the motivation of people who work as extras and bit-players: while during the founding years of the studio and the UFA, people were motivated to look for such work because of unemployment and  poverty or were as prisoners of war forced to work as extras, during DEFA times working as an extra became a  part-time job for students and pensioners. Nowadays the high number of runaway production produced at the Studio Babelsberg situated the work as an extra in the field of fan cultures. The casting process itself is an event and the shooting process a possibility to have an exclusive peek behind the scenes.

Group 2:  Judith Wajsgrus, Henrike Rau and Virginia Martin

Concerning the strategies of production companies to find people who were willing to work as extras the students worked out that until the “Dritte Reich” extras were hired in an uncountable number of Cafes and Restaurants in Berlin sometimes firming under the name of “Filmbörse”. During the Nazi Era the hiring of extras became regulated and centralized. The same with the DEFA, where an office for “Kleindarsteller” at the so called “Kleindarstellerhaus” hired extras with the help of their own catalog and played them on the basis of then existing salary scales. Today the Studio isn’t hiring extras by themselves anymore. Instead, when extras are needed for a production, the Studio consults specialized casting agencies, most of them situated in Berlin.

Anna-Sophie Philippi from Group 3

The student’s journey into the history of Studio Babelsberg was perfectly complemented by a tour through the area. Tobias Hochscherf followed-up the results of the student’s group working on the current working conditions for extras and bit-players in Studio Babelsberg, as his paper deals with the role of actors and bits in contemporary Danish Television. Compared to the German Television market, the Danish scene is much more characterized by personal changes and the rejection of Type- or stereotypical casting. This framework gives pit-players a much greater chance to make it to the upper sphere of the actors’ hierarchy.

For the conclusion of the day, we saw the film Magic Hours (2013, Henning Drechsler), telling the story of 84 year old extra Johanna Penski who started to work as an extra in the propaganda film Kollberg (1945, Veit Harlan).

The Workshop participants in front of the entrance of the Studio Babelsberg; the famous Marlene Dietrich Halle built for the production of Metropolis; the so called “Kleindarstellerhaus”; Tobias Hochscherf

On the basis of the submissions responding to our call for papers we were able to invite three early career researchers: Alexander Karpisek is a PhD Cadidate at the The Braunschweig University of Art. He discussed whether one could argue that the workers leaving the factory in one of the first films produced by the Lumière brothers, can be seen as the first extras existing in film history. Joceline Andersen, is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her  paper  gave us the opportunity to discuss the cameo as a further facet of bit-part players. In contrast to the extras and bit-payers who go most of the time unnoticed by audiences and are meant to support the flow of the scene, the cameo roles are cast either to stand out from the film’s fictional world by potentially destabilizing the fictional flow or they are used as an atmospheric supplement to the main action. Linn Lo?nroth is a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at Stockholm University. She brought with her a case study of “Preston Sturges’ Stock Company of Character Actors” and discussed the possibility of bit-players stepping out of their supporting function by scene stealing acts. The papers were followed by a discussion on the situation of extras in Germany and Luxemburg. Panel members were Dr. Paul Lesch, Karo Schnelle, Lisa Böttcher and Jannis Alexander Kiefer. Paul Lesch provided as input the case of late actor Thierry van Werveke who, although a well known actor in Luxembourg, had to start as a bit-player again when coming to Germany. Due to his “special” acting and outer appearance he was able gain reputation as an actor in Germany too. The case of Thierry roused the question in how far the physical characteristics are of importance to be employed as an extra or bit-player. As casting directors for extras, bit-players and actors Karo Schnelle and Lisa Böttcher appeared convinced that special characteristics are not a must be, but in praxis “special types” are employed more often that “averaged types”. Further more Schnelle and Böttcher gave us an insight into the work of Crowd Marshals. In this context we discussed the question of how far and for what reasons terms associated with the army are used in the context of extras. The young film director Jannis Alexander Kiefer recently finalized a documentary on another facet of the extra: the stand-in. As his protagonist formulated the wish to become an actor, Jannis’s experience inspired us to explore the question of how far people see the work of an extra as a spring board to a career as an actor.

Anna Luise Kiss, Paul Lesch, Karo Schnelle, Jannis Alexander Kiefer and Lisa Böttcher discussing the situation of extras in nowadays Germany and Luxembourg

After a guided tour through the Film Museum Potsdam we saw the documentary Battles of Troy (2005). The Film portrays the experience of Bulgarian extras who went to Malta and Mexico to represent Greek and Trojan solders in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004). We were delighted to be able to discuss the film with it’s director and visual artist Krassimir Terziev, who actually took part in the complete workshop as one of our experts.

After all these inspiring contributions, feedback and insights, my students are looking forward to continuing their work on the research report. The working conditions of extras mirror sociocultural developments, changes in film politics and changes in the production processes as a whole. Extras serve not only as an element helping to stage the background of the scene, but can also play an important role in the authentication strategies of filmmakers. Having a close look at the connections of extras to other people appearing in front of the camera, exposes the differentiation of the actors’ hierarchy, the strategies used by actors to become part of the upper spheres and how institutional change can bring more flexibility around entry into the hierarchy.

Q&A with director Krassimir Terziev

Anna Luise Kiss attended the University of Hagen and received a Bachelor’s degree in cultural studies. For her thesis on the visuality in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) she was awarded a prize for the most outstanding Bachelor thesis. Simultaneously she worked as an actress. She continued her graduate studies at the Film University Babelsberg and graduated in Media Science. With her Master’s thesis on the repetitive use of the last film shots of Hitler in documentary films she won, in 2013, the Brandenburg Young Scientist Award. Since November 2012 she has held a position as a research and teaching assistant in the field of media history at the Film University Babelsberg and has started work on her PhD about “Non-actors in feature films”. In November 2014 she published her first academic anthology on the DEFA director Herrmann Zschoche. Together with the cinematographer Dieter Chill, she presented their research on the still photographer Waltraut Pathenheimer in a book (Ch. Verlag) and an exhibition in the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies in December 2016. In October 2016, Anna Luise Kiss was elected as vice-president for research and transfer at the Film University.

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