Who Was David Oliver? And The Story of Ibérica Films

David Oliver Portrait
David Oliver in 1927

Who Was David Oliver?

David Oliver was a man for whom the term “movie mogul” might have been created. Distributor, cinema builder and founding director of UFA, by 1920, he had already overseen the production over 200 films including such examples as the 1919 expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In 1934 he vanished without a trace.

Three years ago his briefcase was discovered in a Vancouver basement. The photographs and documents found within could rewrite cinema history.

UFA MAN the documentary recounts his grandson Mark Oliver’s journey to rediscover the lost career of his film pioneer grandfather, a journey that would lead across six countries and deep into the origins of cinema itself.

Nordische Filme Image
The Kinematograph was an early movie business trade paper. Here the cover implies that movie mogul David Oliver now “holds all the cards” in the European film distribution industry.


1880- Born in Galician Poland to a wealthy family of armaments manufacturers, David Oliver began his career as a “film exhibitor” in the city of Bremen in 1905. The industry he entered was barely that, with movie screenings held in tents, storefronts or indeed any kind of makeshift establishment that could charge admission. If the new medium ever hoped to be taken seriously either as an artistic or financial venture, it would require an entirely new forum, one tailored to anticipate the appetites of an increasingly sophisticated audience. Under the influence of film man David Oliver cinema not only became a viable business, it became a theatrical spectacle without precedent.

Not everyone welcomed his successes. Envious competitors made angry accusations…Oliver’s film companies were in fact nothing more than front organizations controlled by foreign capital who only wished
to fleece the German public. 
“We cannot know if in London there is another gentlemen of the Nordisk conglomerate who, like Director Oliver here in Berlin, in tail-coat and white waistcoat tries to make himself popular at all the relevant institution …” 

“The Viennese David Oliver is a Yiddish-speaking foreigner with perhaps only 200 words in his German vocabulary…. He can not even make himself understood at board meetings…”

Created at the instigation of the German government in 1917, the Ufa (Universum Film Amstellung) was a massive consortium responsible for all film production in Germany. David Oliver was selected to be the company’s first director, a position which would have placed him at the level of a Louis B. Mayer or Samuel Goldwyn. David Oliver now becomes one of the most powerful figures in European cinema. ​

Despite this whispering campaign, there could be no denying Oliver’s expertise. In 1917,the government of Germany chose David Oliver to implement the complete consolidation of its entire film industry into a consortium, the massive entity known as UFA. Oliver now held the reins of all movie production in Germany. He stood at the very pinnacle of the film world. Little did he realize then it would open on to an abyss.


1934- After an attempt on his life by nazi assassins who attempted to blow up his car with a hand grenade David Oliver along with thousands of others was cast out of the German film industry. Some, like his former “Caligari” co-producer Erich Pommer made it to Hollywood only to be reduced to painting teacups in order to survive. Others drifted aimlessly across Europe, constantly in search of a country that would grant work permits no matter how temporary.

With no other place to go, exiled film producer David Oliver gambled everything on an audacious scheme: To conquer the Spanish-speaking foreign market with the creation of the Barcelona film company known as “Ibérica”. During its brief lifespan Ibérica provided employment for some of the greatest talents in German and Austrian film. Working under assumed Spanish names, the German-Jewish refugees of Ibérica would go on to produce four feature films. The expertise learned on the backlots of UFA’s Babelsberg Studios informed an entire generation of Spanish cinematographers. It is no exaggeration to say that the exiles of Ibérica are the godparents of modern Spanish cinema.


1936- The ever-increasing chaos wrought by the Spanish Civil War ultimately made future film projects impossible for the emigres of Ibérica Films and they are cast out from Spain.

At the invitation of British film mogul Alexander Korda, Oliver joins Korda’s Denham Studios ostensibly as director of Denham’s state-of-the-art film laboratories. Oliver hires fellow exile, famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius to design the new facilities.They still stand today, one of only four buildings Gropius built in England.

Regarding the business relationship between these two men, it is interesting to note that Oliver and Korda had another, more covert company, The Harefield Trust Investments, Ltd. in which they were respectively, director and president.

According to film historian Rachael Low in The History of British Film“The recent reorganization of Denham Laboratories perhaps can provide clues to the sources of Korda‘s funding right now. The hypothesis can be established, at least provisionally, of a transfer of capital interests in view of the problems Oliver had encountered in Spain…”

Could David Oliver have been responsible for financing the perpetually cash-strapped British film industry?

November, 1947- David Oliver dies in London of a cerebral haemorrhage. In 1953, his naturalization file was sealed by the British government. The official comments read: Sealed until January 1, 2054…Contains sensitive information which would substantially distress or endanger a living person or his or her descendants…

oliver film logo_BEST


David Oliver is one of the unacknowledged pioneers of cinema. It was only after the death of my own father three years ago that these facts came to light from the basement where they had lain for fifty years. He remains a mystery even to us, his own family. The thought continues to haunt us that our assimilation as a family into the Canada of the early 1950’s could only have been bought with the sacrifice of this man’s legacy.

It is my hope that by now sharing the story of his strange life my grandfather, film producer David Oliver may at last be allowed to return from out of exile. 

Written by David Oliver’s Grandson, Mark Oliver.
Produced by David Oliver in 1916 (and presented here by David Oliver’s grandson, Vancouver actor/musician/filmmaker Mark Oliver), on Friday June 5th we will be screening Louis Neher’s surreal Christmas movie Im Reich der Zwerge. This charming piece of fairy-tale surrealism was discovered in the archives of the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. This early Oliver production incorporates every device that would have been at the disposal of the filmmaker of 1916. This screening with feature live musical accompaniment and also include a 10 minute extract from the lost film, Guido, the First or The Deluded Sausage Manufacturer, a 1915 satire about a demented sausage maker who builds a palace to the greater glory of the pig.
Tickets and More Information


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