Interview with Prof. Dr. Susanne Stürmer

President of the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, Germany. Interview by Prof. Dr. Lena Gieseke, Professor of Visual Media Technologies / Technical Direction, Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, 14.4.2021.


Prof. Dr. Susanne Stürmer, President of the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, Germany discusses the importance of the film university being connected to both the industry and society and the need for art universities to become increasingly open and inclusive and a relevant place for new ideas in the future. Connected to this Prof. Dr. Stürmer discusses topics such as thinking art universities of the future more horizontally, in transdisciplinary processes and the need to address discrimination and inequality.



Please introduce yourself briefly and describe your profession.

Since 2013 I’m the president of the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF in Potsdam, Germany. Before that, I was working in the film industry as CEO of a film production company here in Babelsberg. I’m an economist by training.

How do you understand the role of the Film University as an institution of higher arts education? What are the Film University’s main activities, but also what are its responsibilities?

Our main purpose is to educate and enable students in filmmaking. We do that for several different professions within the filmmaking process. We prepare our students to become part of the film industry but also we want them to give creative impulses into the industry. Moreover, the Film University has the status of a public university since 2014. This means that we are also focusing on research and research-related courses, qualifying students and young researchers for a research career, to put it very general.

Are the education in filmmaking and the research programs at the Film University two separate activities or do they interact?

We are aiming for connecting the core of our university, meaning filmmaking with research topics, as much as possible. For example, we introduce research-related questions and approaches into various study courses. In particular, in the master courses, we implement this idea as so-called research-based teaching (“forschende Lehre”). We already have many successful examples and are currently working on intensifying these activities. One meaningful example is our award from the Institute of Artistic Research. This price recognizes artistic student projects, which interwoven with their artistic work also explore research questions.

Also, at the Filmuniversity, there are many professors, which pursue various research projects and they integrate their research into their courses. Furthermore, it is important to point out that most of our research activities deal with film-related topics. All in all, whatever we do in research has almost always a connection to our filmic work.

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Do you see the roles of filmmaking and research change somehow in the near future at the Film University?

Filmmaking will always remain the beating heart of our university. If we don’t love films and if we don’t know how to make films, there’s nothing we can do research about. At the Film University, with film and research, the one feeds the other.

You mentioned that you also see it as one of the Film University’s responsibilities to give impulses and novel thought into the industry. Can you say a little bit more about cooperations with external players and how the Film University is working together with the industry?

There are, again, various approaches and examples on how we are working together with the industry. For making sure that our students get a smooth entry into the film industry, we have a very practically oriented study curriculum regarding those skills. Many of our professors work in the film industry next to their appointment at the Film University. They have excellent connections to companies, film teams, and actual projects. Some of the professors take students on board on their film teams either already during the students’ studies or directly afterward. These people-based connections are very strong and we have been living them for a long time.

Film projects are often co-productions with broadcasters in the industry. We get money for the production from broadcasters and develop then a film together. The film then goes to their respective broadcasting platforms or on their video-on-demand channels.

We also cooperate with industry experts for creating course programs. For example, there is a yearly Winter Class in serial writing and producing, which is taught entirely by experts from the film industry.

We are also actively supporting start-ups. Many of our students found their own companies after completing their degrees. At the Film University, we have a Start-up Center that is dedicated to consulting students that want to found their own company. The Start-up Center advises on questions such as “What could a possible topic be?” and “How could a business plan look like?”. We also set up an accelerator together with the University of Potsdam and the Hasso Plattner Institute, which are the two other universities here in Babelsberg. The accelerator gives funding and training to students or alumni and with that enables them to pursue their various start-up ideas.

You see, there are many, many different activities where we work together with the different industries.

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Are there also some problematic aspects you see in these cooperations with the industry?

Of course, certain activities can always be improved in the details. What I have learned in the last years is that the internal workings of universities and the industry are quite different, for example in regards to production speeds or project expectations. Here, we can work on firstly communicating and then also matching the different expectations. It is my goal to make these cooperations as fruitful as possible for everybody involved.

I also perceive a certain hesitation on the side of the Film University staff regarding working with the industry. Staff members do question whether we want to have such close links to the industry or not. The university is responsible for providing artistic freedom, and the question is whether we endanger the room for artistic freedom if we work too closely together with the industry. These are very serious questions that we have to deal with and ideally overcome. However, I’m optimistic that there’s enough room and options for fruitful collaborations. To me, the question is not whether we collaborate or not, but how can we improve the quality of such collaborations.

Let’s talk briefly about the role and impact of art in general. How would you summarize intuitively your understanding of the impact of art and artist in our society and/or economy? Where would you say is art and artist most impactful?

There are many different aspects. One aspect is that the arts and the creative industries are important economic industries. There is a significant economic impact and that impact is very vital and fast-growing.

But also, there is of course the impact of the arts on society. I see the understanding of what this impact constitutes recently changing. I think people see the arts as more and more relevant the longer our lives are dominated by the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had many discussions about the role of the arts in society. Is the time we spend in cinemas or art galleries just entertainment, just leisure time? I think there is an increased understanding now that, these activities are an important part of our daily life and many people do need these activities. Art is not facultative and can not be skipped and it is not superfluous. Art consumption is important for our society.

Furthermore, I see the importance of the arts also rising when it comes to the discussion of complex societal issues and to formulating future visions. Similarly, art becomes more and more relevant for transporting scientific positions. Art can have a substantial impact with formulating complex positions, opening doors to new thinking, and connecting people with different points of view on the same topic. The arts are a great catalyst for forming discussions in society.

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Picking up on future visions, what do you think are the most influential trends and developments currently in society, economy, and art? Starting with society, which trends and development do you currently perceive?

Such a broad question can only be answered quite superfluously. Digitalization comes to mind. Also an increasing gap between poverty and wealth in societies. Migration is a relevant topic. Overall, there are many potential splits in what society keeps together. The societal glue is decreasing because of the very different lives people live in one and the same country.

Similarly, in economics, the divide, and the increasing speed of the upward and downward trends in economic developments, increase the risk for severe economic crises.

In the arts, it might be a trend that the arts are becoming more and more an integral part of society. With that also artists’ feeling of responsibility for their societal impact is increasing. In the arts, digitalization is equally of great relevance and the question of what digitalization means for the arts. The prominent appearance of the arts in virtual spaces is a direct consequence of the pandemic.

All in all, these are some major trends, I am seeing.

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How do you imagine the Film University to change and evolve concerning the mentioned trends?

At our university, I see that aspects of digitalization are continuously evolving and of great importance on many levels. One example is the technical environment in which we have invested enormously. How and where people work is changing and requires more and more a fully digital infrastructure.

Regarding the societal impact of the arts, at least in Germany, what we call “Transfer” or “Third Mission” is increasingly important. “Transfer” describes activities with which the university transfers its research, topics, thoughts, content, products, etc. to the economy but also into society. That is a tremendously relevant task and purpose of our university. We have a transfer office dedicated to these activities and many of our teachers and staff are directly involved in projects that transfer something into society and the economy.

On an organizational or administrative level, where do you see the greatest challenges for the Film University right now? Do some structures need changing in terms of how the university works as a whole?

Yes, I think so. One aspect, which does not only apply to us, but many areas, companies, and institutions is that we are working too much in silos, quite detached and too separated. Our silos are mainly the different study programs that focus on the different topics, skillsets, and professions. We have to become more fluent in between these silos. This doesn’t mean that we should completely abolish the silos. I shouldn’t even call it silos, the term only illustrates what I’m meaning. Here, we need to increase our horizontal structures. As of now, we are very vertically organized. This organizational structure doesn’t only hold for study programs, but also for our general organization, for our administrations, and the organization of our technical environment. We must think more horizontally, more connected, more as a whole. We need to think in processes, collaborations, and interdisciplinary terms. I see daily, how important this topic is.

Without going too much into study program-specific details, is there anything you would recommend to change in the Film University’s curricula? or something where you feel like it’s continuously either going wrong or just not state of the art anymore? And you said interdisciplinarity?

Yes, this relates to my previous answer. We also just discussed it in a session with all professors at our university. In our curricula, we need more developed activities and timeframes where e.g. the different bachelor programs, work together. These activities must be better defined and organized. Currently, these activities still involve usually quite a bit of muddling. And then unclear situations, and also expectations, can cause many frictions.

I think in our master programs we have made great improvements. For example, as I have described it before, with integrating research-based studies and with involving our master students in research projects. The research activities are more horizontally and more connected.

Do you think the Film University, or maybe even institutes of higher arts education in general, educate and offer skills for graduates that go beyond their specific artistic practice? Skill sets that can be relevant to businesses or for employability in a broader sense?

Yes, absolutely. We educate greatly creative, flexible, communicative, and well-rounded personalities. We have high expectations for everybody who joins us and we put much effort into selecting the best of the best. “Best” refers with us to a broad array of skills. Examples for such skills, I have already mentioned, like creativeness, communicative skills, teamwork skills, imagination, braveness – you name it!

Is the topic of ecological sustainability a factor for the Film University? And if yes, how so?

We are working on this topic in different areas. One area is that we reflect on ourselves as an institution and the need to make all our administrative processes sustainable and green. We are quite good with that, but we are not there yet. This includes many different processes like printing and energy saving.

Also, there is our filmmaking and every process within filmmaking. We are actively investigating how we can sustainably create good quality.

Lastly, there is ecological sustainability as a topic for our research and art. For example, our professor Angelica Böhm investigates in her project Camilla Plastic Ocean Plan with artistic means the big ecological questions of the world.

On an institutional level do you deal with the topic of racism and diversity?

Regarding diversity, we do a lot but can even do better. Until now, at the Film University, diversity was mainly related to male-female issues. Even there we could do better. In terms of student genders, we have fairly even numbers. However, that is also only half of the truth as there are some study programs where we have low numbers of females and there we have to improve. Also, when it comes to professors and the classical career hierarchy, we are not good enough, though improving.

Looking more broadly at diversity, such as cultural backgrounds and different levels of society, we often don’t even have any numbers. It is my perception that we need to further analyze these categories and we need to understand better what we are aiming for. Then we can work on getting there.

We have been working on the topic of racism, or putting it more general discrimination for quite some time now at the Film University. For example, so far we have conducted and evaluated two surveys about discrimintation at our university and the results are not satisfying. We do have issues of discrimination and are actively working on creating a better environment. In particular, we have committed to the activity Respect 21 and with that, we are saying that this is an important topic for us, we are dealing with it. But of course, there is still so much more to be done.

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Now, I would like to make a big jump, namely the jump to imagining the Film University in 25 years. What are your utopias or maybe dystopias for the year 2045?

As a utopia, the term openness comes immediately to my mind. I imagine a place, a physical space, but also a virtual one, where people and ideas can come together, connect, exchange, and collaborate. To me, open-mindedness is a focal point for change. But also imagination, joy, and creativity. In my mind, the Film University will embody aspects and bring them into society and industry. I imagine that in the year 2045 whenever somebody thinks about changes, ideas, images, visions they immediately think of the Film University.

As a final question, is there anything you want to add, which we haven’t asked, but what you consider to be relevant to the topics we have discussed?

To me, institutes of higher arts education must have a clearer and more pronounced understanding of their role. And therefore I very much appreciate the FAST45 project because it can help to develop that. To me the self-understanding of art schools – and I know quite a few, both in Germany as well as internationally – should be more outspoken. Art schools should actively take a stand and be proactive. I perceive many art institutions as somewhat detached and closed. The important demand for artistic freedom is too often executed as not wanting to be involved with the industry and society. But I don’t see artistic freedom and being open and connected as contradictions. The self-understanding of the art institution needs to be clearer in that respect. So what do we want, what is our purpose? Also, what is our responsibility? We do not only have a responsibility for teaching our students at university, but we also have overall responsibility for what they do after they leave the university. We do have a responsibility for contributing to the development of our society and the economy overall. So that is one aspect I would like to add.


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