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Fine Feathers Make Fine Birds
by Birgit Schrumpf

Hannelore Elsner puts on her “best dress” for the occasion, in the comedy Alles auf Zucker, and I was stunned to see that it is the same frilly black-laced blouse that my prim and proper aunt also keeps for her Sunday outings to church or other important visits. This dress code is one of the important pieces in the puzzle which give the film an “authentic” feeling and make the acting even more believable. Watching Joseph Finnes as Luther, clad in his monk’s cloak of coarsely woven material transports us easily into the Middle Ages. Whereas in Das Leben der anderen (Oscar winner in 2006) it is Sebastian Koch’s worn, unfashionable and cheap “West German” corduroy jacket that helps to reflect his miserable and helpless situation, torn between East (DDR) and West Germany.

I could go on and on with excellent examples. But these few should suffice to illustrate how much a film depends not only on good actors but also on good, carefully researched and appropriate costumes, reflecting the times and social standing of the person wearing the garment.

There are many sources for a film maker to clothe his actors: raid his grandmother’s walk-in closet, beg his sister for her disco outfit, go to town and buy a few suits in the nearest shopping mall, sit down and sew up a few summer dresses himself – or ask a friend to do so. But there is also the more professional way: call Theaterkunst. The name is somewhat deceiving, as the company earns most of its revenue dressing international actors such as Mario Adorf, David Bowie, Isabelle Huppert, Klaus Kinski, Kurt Jürgens, Winona Ryder, Charles Régnier, Romy Schneider, Hanna Schygula and Barbara Sukowa to name but a few.

Parallel to the Filmfest Hamburg the Museum der Arbeit (museum of work) opened its doors to a special exhibition of film costumes. It is also in honour of 100 years of Theaterkunst GmbH, Germany’s largest Kostümhaus (house of theatre costumes and requisites) which supplies TV and film companies as well as theatres on a regular basis. Already during the 1920s the first big productions, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Fred Niblos Ben Hur, sought their expertise. Films of a later date are Gegen die Wand (Head-On) or the children’s film Die rote Zora (The Red Zora) as well as the present mammoth production of Der geheimnisvolle Schatz von Troja (The mysterious Treasures of Troja). One of the original exhibits is Peter Ustinov’s marvellously pompous robe that he wore as Frederic the Wise in the historical film Luther just weeks before his death. Film sequences are screened simultaneously next to the originals and bring the costumes “alive”.

During the 1940s Theaterkunst GmbH had 300 women and men on its pay roll, specialising in various trades, manufacturing hats, swords, robes, metal shields, shoes, high boots and fancy accessories. Nowadays a lot of the actual physical work is outsourced and the staff is occupied with research, designing, drawing, acquisition of materials and organising the large pool of requisites with more than 10 million pieces, all well categorised.

The Museum der Arbeit has carefully chosen 38 original costumes presented on life-size figures, high-lighted by 32 film excerpts, 70 drawings, preliminary first sketches, some 40 assorted dresses on hangers and a sampling of various hats. A glimpse into research material, graphics and many accessories displayed in show cases make this a very well presented and informative exhibition – not only for film freaks.