German Kodak film (Pic: Joerg Kowalski)
B/W Negative Film 135-36 (40 ASA/expired February 1953) produced not by Kodak but by their confiscated factory in East-Berlin (Pic: Joerg Kowalski)

By Joerg Kowalski

George Eastman was born on 12 July 1854 in Waterville, NY. At the age of 26, while still working as a bank clerk, he developed in his mother’s kitchen a coating machine for photographic dry plates and, together with businessman Henry Strong, founded his first company in 1881, the Eastman Dry Plate Company in Rochester, NY. The great success of their new dry plate led to the founding of the Eastman Kodak Company in 1888.

Kodak first came to Europe in 1885 when founder George Eastman opened his London office in London’s Soho Square to co-sell his photographic products with those of other American manufacturers. In 1891, Kodak set up a photographic film and paper printing facility in Harrow, UK northwest of London. It was the first Kodak factory outside America.

In 1896, the “Eastman Kodak GmbH” was founded in Berlin as the first branch in Germany.

In order to promote their European expansion, the English Eastman Kodak Ltd, together with the gelatine producer Stoess & Co GmbH from Heidelberg, Germany formed in 1921 the first German/American joint venture after the First World War. This joint venture was named Chemische Werke Odin GmbH and located in Eberbach, Germany. Here, Kodak manufactured emulsion gelatin for coating its photographic materials.

Berlin Kodak shop in 2012 (Pic: Unknown)
Kodak’s office, shop and distribution center in the corner of Friedrichstrasse / Unter den Linden in Berlin, Germany 1912. Until 1910 the block housed the famous Cafe Bauer with the first electric lighting in Berlin

Almost at the same time as Eastman Kodak GmbH was founded in Germany, the chemist Max Fremery and the engineer Johann Urban invented a process for the production of rayon in 1897. Two years later, they founded the Vereinigte Glanzstoff-Fabriken AG in the western city of Aachen. In the following years the company became the world market leader in the manufacture of synthetic fibers and their raw materials. After a decision by the company management to expand the product range in the direction of carrier materials (acetate film) for cinematographic films and coating, the Glanzfilm AG was founded in 1922 in Köpenick, Germany near Berlin.

Read more: How Chernobyl’s radiation destroyed an entire factory’s production run of X-ray film

In 1923 the production of B/W cine film began. At that time, a number of large German cinema films were copied onto positive films produced by the Glanzfilm AG and brought to the cinemas. But the company found it hard to make a profit.

Just four years after the founding of Glanzfilm, the English Kodak Ltd acquired the factory and company in 1927. The new name became Kodak AG, Filmfabrik Köpenick.

Kodak factory on River Spree (Pic: Unknown)
The Kodak factory on the banks of the river Spree in southeast Berlin, opposite the old town of Köpenick in the 30s of the previous century

The company expanded its product range significantly and produced all common photographic B/W films and X-ray films as well as chemical materials for their processing.

In 1932 Kodak AG, Berlin, acquired the Nagel-Werke. The Nagel-Werke, founded in 1908 by August Nagel and his friend Carl Drexler, was an important German manufacturer of cameras such as the famous Contessa. Kodak now had production facilities for cameras and photographic films in Germany. In 1934, Kodak launched the famous 35mm Retina camera made in Germany.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933 and Adolf Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor in Germany, the climate  became increasingly difficult for foreign producers and their products. In order not to lose market share, Kodak served the new nationalist, racial movement as early as 1934 with an advertising campaign: “German the camera – German the film”.

Against burgeoning anti-American resentment, Kodak added patriotic references, with advertising statements saying “for 1,500 national comrades work and bread” and manufacturing only with “best local (= German) raw materials”. On June 13, 1935, Kodak AG presented the Kodak Color process, which had previously been kept strictly secret, in its factory in Köpenick, which was being worked on in competition with Agfa.

In 1940, the German Kodak AG even switched their Stuttgart camera factory Nagel to armaments production for the German Wehrmacht.

Nazi-era Kodak poster
This Nazi-era Kodak poster reinforced the idea the film was made locally

All these attempts by Kodak AG to survive in Hitler’s Germany failed, with the confiscation of all Kodak plants in Germany. These were placed under compulsory administration by the Nazi Reich Ministry of Economics (defined as enemy assets).

Towards the end of World War II, the Berlin plant was badly damaged by bombs in 1943, but not completely destroyed.

In 1945 after the end of the war, the Soviet Army confiscated the Kodak factory in Berlin, which was now in the Soviet sector of the divided city of Berlin. The Soviet occupiers dismantled large parts of the plant and brought a quarter of the machines and devices to the Soviet Union as reparations. Just one year later, the factory was restored to the point where it was now possible to produce black and white photo paper.

In 1949 the German Democratic Republic was founded and Germany was divided into East and West. Kodak relocated its headquarters to the West in Stuttgart and had to give up its Berlin-Köpenick plant, as it was now inaccessible in the newly founded German Democratic Republic (GDR). The government of the GDR declared the Kodak AG in Berlin-Köpenick a state-owned company. The production facilities were restored to the point where they could produce black and white films and X-ray films. Even the brand name “Kodak” was still used.

This led to the curiosity of two identical Kodak branded films from different manufacturers that existed in parallel. Kodak no longer had any influence on the production, quality, marketing and distribution of the films made in the GDR. As a cigar smoker, I only know a similar scenario with Cuban cigars. After Fidel Castro came to power, the owners of the Cuban tobacco plantations fled to Florida in nearby America. Here they built up new livelihoods and manufactured their old brands again, mostly with tobacco products from the Dominican Republic. Since then, there have also been two identical brand appearances from different manufacturers. One in the Republic of Cuba and on in the United States.

It was not until 1956 that the Kodak Filmfabrik Köpenick was renamed VEB Fotochemische Werke.

Dekopan film (Pic: Joerg Kowalski)
The DEKOPAN-branded film was made by the factory after World War II (Pic: Joerg Kowalski)

Köpenick (FCW), that the Kodak brand name disappeared in the GDR. VEB is the abbreviation for “Volkseigener Betrieb” = “state-owned company”. B/W films, X-ray films, photo paper and also chemicals were produced. The films were given names such as DEKOPAN. The first four letters are reminiscent of the old brand name Kodak. Deko stands for DEutsche KOdak = German Kodak.

In 1970 VEB FOTOCHEMISCHE WERKE BERLIN was incorporated into the ORWO photochemical state-combine (formerly AGFA) in Bitterfeld-Wolfen and the production of photographic films in Berlin was discontinued. To this end, the production of technical and medical X-ray films is being relocated from Bitterfeld-Wolfen to Berlin.

In 1990, the year of German reunification and thus the end of the GDR, also ushered in the slow death of film production in Berlin. The former Kodak AG and later VEB Chemische Werke was converted into a limited liability company (Fotochemische Werke GmbH) and continued to produce X-ray films. The owner of the new GmbH was the German Treuhand, an authority that administered and sold the former states property or transferred it back to the formerly expropriated owners.

In 1992 the Berlin plant of the German Kodak AG in Stuttgart was also transferred back. Kodak integrated the factory and production into its healthcare division and has been producing X-ray films under the “X-Ray Retina” brand in Berlin since 1994.

In 2007 Kodak sold the healthcare division to the Canadian investment company Onex Corporation. This completely stopped production in 2010 and thus sealed the end of German Kodak history. A residential complex is currently being built on the site, partly using the factory from the 1920s. The former plant is now a listed building.

Stephen Dowling
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Iamkosmonaut
1 month ago

Nice piece – if you want to see what the factory looks like from the inside check out this article https://digitalcosmonaut.com/2013/veb-fotochemische-werke-berlin/

Jay
Jay
1 month ago

Wonderful article. I shot many rolls of Orwo film in the late Sixties when I was in Bolivia. I loved the look — and it was cheap! Nice to learn a little of the history.

Luigi Gesi
1 month ago

great job !