Alive and Well
By Giovanni Marchini Camia
The rampant gentrification experienced in Berlin over the last decade has taken a heavy toll on the city’s much-touted cultural diversity. Yet, one area that’s proved remarkably resilient is film—or, more specifically, film-watching. The program offered by the 100 or so cinemas boasts a wealth and range that in Europe is only exceeded by Paris. In terms of character and eccentricity, on the other hand, Berlin’s cinema landscape is second to none.
This is one of the lesser-known facets of the city’s cultural patrimony, doubtless because cinephilia has long lost its hip appeal. Unlike, say, the infamous 36-hour techno parties that draw thousands of tourists into Berlin every weekend, a particularly good art-house cinema will hardly motivate many to purchase a plane ticket. Nevertheless, the German capital’s film culture is a cause for celebration. Compared to the cinema-going experience of most other cities, Berlin’s almost seems to belong to a bygone era. Genuine cinephilia and idealism still reign strong, so that a rare repertory screening or specialized film festival will draw large crowds, while the majority of the manifold independent cinemas treat monetary profit as a concern wholly secondary to the quality of their programming.
The two government-subsidized repertory cinemas, the Arsenal and the Zeughauskino, are veritable cinephile treasure troves. Officially dedicated to the preservation of film culture, they dish out an impressive assortment of film series every month, almost always projected in celluloid. The Arsenal hosts full and nicely varied director retrospectives—Pier Paolo Pasolini, Albert Serra, and Susan Sontag (who was a guest curator at the Arsenal in 1990) were recently featured—as well as themed programs. These range from screenings of films by DEFA, the state-run studio of the GDR, to the regular series curated and hosted by genderqueer performance artist Vaginal Davis, offering an idiosyncratic consideration of the role of music in film through the ages. The Zeughauskino leans more towards early film history, with particular emphasis on Germany (the cinema is inside the German History Museum). Noncommercial and benefiting from ample federal grants, it tends to offer the city’s most erudite programming. For instance, they’re currently screening Werner Hochbaum’s full filmography in 35mm and recently showed a series of “museum films,” i.e. Nazi propaganda films showcasing Berlin’s museums that were screened across Europe but are now as good as forgotten.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the Arsenal and Zeughauskino are cinemas financed by the state, the strength of their programming comes at the price of atmosphere. Both are located in business- and tourist-oriented central neighborhoods where few people live, meaning most come specifically for a film and leave right after. Though their facilities are technologically up to scratch, as communal spaces they are anonymous in the extreme, so that attending a screening feels somewhat utilitarian. To watch films in style, one turns to such venues as the Delphi Filmpalast, Babylon Mitte and the Kino International, all listed buildings with their own historical pedigree. The first two were originally constructed in the 1920s and despite several renovations (in the Delphi’s case a nigh complete reconstruction after World War II) they’ve maintained their original architecture and lavish interiors. The most gorgeous of the three is the Kino International, built in 1963. A short walk from Alexanderplatz, it’s one of the first buildings on Karl-Marx-Allee, a large boulevard that served as an exhibit for the prestige of the GDR. Accordingly, it’s a specimen of Socialist architecture at its finest. The sides of the futuristic building, which consists of a gigantic angular block of white concrete stood up on a smaller base containing the ground floor, are covered in beautiful abstract reliefs portraying everyday life in Socialist Germany. The interior is even more stunning. From the entrance hall’s low ceiling decked out with 100 light bulbs; to the minimalist foyer on the second floor with its sumptuous parquet, 1960s furnishings, floor-to-ceiling windows and crystal chandeliers; to the hallucinatory wall-paneling and wavy ceiling of the screening room, the cinema is quite simply awe-inspiring (as indeed it was intended to be). The Kino International is also distinguished for having held the premiere of Heiner Carow’s Coming Out, the GDR’s first gay-themed film. The fact that the premiere took place on November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell, meant it would also remain the only one. In homage, every Monday night the cinema is lit in red for the screening of a film addressing LGBT issues.
Architecture, history, and special events notwithstanding, Berlin’s more idealist film enthusiasts would argue that the city’s true cinephilic spirit is not represented by cinemas like the aforementioned, all of them being too commercially inclined. Both the Kino International and the Delphi Filmpalast, along with twelve others, belong to the Yorck Group, a Janus-faced entity in the local cinema landscape. On the positive side, since the 1970s, the Yorck Group has purchased run-down historic cinemas across the city, turning them into state-of-the-art venues that exclusively screen non-mainstream films, with foreign titles shown in their original language (still not the standard in Germany as well as most of continental Europe, where dubbing continues to hold baffling sway). The drawback is that as the sole corporation in the independent sector, it’s able to employ monopolist tactics with distributors, while its continued expansion fosters the dominance of a timid definition of art-house cinema—in terms of foreign film, Yorck’s programming doesn’t venture much further than the likes of Paolo Sorrentino or Richard Linklater.
It’s the small neighborhood cinemas, scattered all over and located in the most varied settings, which offer both atmosphere and audacity. Several were born in abandoned buildings squatted by artist collectives, who would organize open film screenings on 16mm projectors. Over time, these screenings grew in popularity and the collectives eventually acquired or rented the premises, establishing legit cinemas. The Regenbogenkino, which has second-hand couches and armchairs in lieu of standard theaters eats, is housed in a former chemical plant and charges a full ticket price of only €5, whereas students and the unemployed pay €4 and €3 respectively. The Filmrauschpalast (literally, “film-delirium palace”) is part of a larger cultural complex set up in a disused factory and is the only cinema in the district of Moabit, one of the city’s last predominantly working-class areas. The screening room is still heated by an old stove that stands near the screen, while the floor and walls retain the dirty tiles from the factory days. All staff are volunteers and with the help of donations they’re able to keep their prices low, while their summer open-air cinema is free (this they manage through borderline-illegal tactics, such as keeping the program secret and “available upon phone request”). These collective-run cinemas screen less commercial art-house titles, genre retrospectives, obscure oddities, left-leaning political documentaries and also often serve as platforms for local filmmakers to screen their work. A cheap and grungy bar is a mainstay of each and with discussions, concerts and other events regularly organized alongside screenings, a cinema outing is rarely limited to watching a film.
The greatest success story amongst Berlin’s grassroots cinema scene is arguably the Tilsiter Lichtspiele, just a short walk from the Kino International. Originally founded in 1908, the tiny cinema is the second oldest in Berlin, but was closed down in 1961 when larger and more prestigious venues opened nearby. After the fall of the Wall, it was squatted by a collective of artists and filmmakers who reopened it for business in 1994, with its quaint wooden-furnished and wallpapered bar maintaining the distinctive GDR look. Then, in 2011, the collective expanded and built an open-air cinema out of a burned-down techno club in a desolate former industrial tract in Friedrichshain, an otherwise popular district just east of the center where rents haven’t ballooned like elsewhere. The fire had collapsed the roof and the cinema was set up within the extant walls, which are still singed black. Appropriately named Pompeji, it screens highlights from the previous year together with older favorites by directors like Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Along with its parent cinema, it also hosts the ongoing series “FILM IN SOUNDS. acoustic cinematic experiments,” where a variety of films, ranging from silent classics to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Alejandro Jodorowksy’s El Topo, are accompanied by live bands playing an eclectic assortment of genres: psychedelic, blues, reggae, minimal techno—anything, really. A year after Pompeji’s opening, the adjacent building was also turned into a cinema, the Zukunft, which has two screening rooms as well as a regularly packed bar that serves the collective’s self-brewed beer, an exhibition space, and a music club in the basement. Finally, the latest expansion saw the original Tilsiter Lichtspiele inaugurate its second screening room on March 1.
These developments refute the scare generated around the start of the global financial crisis, when many interpreted the closing of several cinemas as heralding the imminent demise of the city’s independent cinema sector (even the Tilsiter Lichtspiele was reportedly circling the drain in 2008). In addition to Pompeji and Zukunft, the Italian-slanted Il Kino opened last November; meanwhile, w o l f, a former brothel refurbished into an uber-hip film center with two screens, a third screening room-cum-exhibition and workshop space, a café and facilities for aspiring filmmakers, is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to finance its opening later this year. In retrospect, it seems that a strong identity and ideology are the essential ingredients for attracting audiences and finding support in Berlin. Faced with the general conservatism of Germany’s distributors and the Yorck Group’s strong-arming methods, independent cinemas have had to exercise ingenuity and enterprise to ensure the quality and range of their programs. The fsk Kino, for example, set up its own distribution company, Peripher. They own the distribution rights to smaller films by the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, and Olivier Assayas and to recent festival hits such as Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood and Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat. Peripher’s catalogue is not only screened in the fsk Kino, but also shared out amongst other similarly inclined venues.
Another diversifying strategy is organizing film festivals. There are over 100 festivals yearly, providing a forum for sundry national cinemas and catering to a plethora of niche interests. One particularly notable example is the PornFilmFestival held at the Moviemento, the oldest cinema in Berlin (beating the Tilsiter Lichtspiele by one year) and since the 1970s the locus of the city’s cinephilic counterculture. The festival, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary this October and grows more popular each year, is dedicated to a frank exploration of sexuality through film and by screening principled alternatives to mainstream porn, is intended as an act of reappropriation. The emphasis lies heavily on feminist and LGBT-oriented films depicting unsimulated sex of any and every kind, but the program extends to documentaries, avant-garde, and vintage pornos from the 1960s and 1970s. The latter, projected in 35mm in the Moviemento’s dingy screening rooms, offer an approximation of the experience of watching porn during its much-romanticized pre-video heyday. Though at heart an ideological endeavor, the PornFilmFestival is purposely tongue-in-cheek and the post-screening Q&A’s with directors and performers are both illuminating and hilarious, which is more than can be said for a lot of film festivals.
Case in point: the city’s most illustrious one, the Berlinale. A behemoth with a budget upwards of €20 million, the Berlinale is in many ways at odds with the spirit of Berlin’s independent cinemas. Indeed, every year it comes under heavy criticism, primarily expressed through contempt for the festival’s director, Dieter Kosslick. Clearly more of a savvy businessman than film connoisseur, he’s accused of catering to everyone instead of exercising a discerning curatorial policy, forsaking a distinct artistic profile in favor of ticket sales and media coverage. The criticism is not unfounded. This year’s edition featured such embarrassing commercial bows as the gala screening of Fifty Shades of Grey the day prior to its cinema release, which received by far the most media attention of any film in the festival. The 441 features and shorts on the program were split up into the festival’s usual sections, many of which are difficult to define. The Panorama sidebar is the most flagrant offender, each year presenting an arbitrary hodgepodge of titles whose most unifying characteristic is their general mediocrity. Chances of finding interesting films are greater in Forum, the sidebar officially dedicated to more experimental fare. However, this categorization is as vague as it is elastic, evidenced by the grouping together of films like Alex Ross Perry’s meticulously focused genre exercise Queen of Earth and Kidlat Tahimik’s freewheeling Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, a multi-format, avant-garde historical epic that probes the Philippines’ colonial history. Then there are sidebars with no legitimacy whatsoever, such as Culinary Cinema, whose only criteria is that the entries be related to food, so each can be screened in conjunction with an expensive dinner prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.
Even so, the Berlinale’s critics nevertheless often fail to acknowledge its considerable contributions to film culture and appreciation. During the ten days of the festival, the entire city erupts in a communal celebration of cinema. Almost all public tickets are sold—these amounted to 325,262 last year—and people who usually never venture beyond the multiplex flock to the box offices and queue for hours, buying whatever tickets are still available to be part of the festival experience. Even the most obscure films are screened in theaters filled to capacity and indie filmmakers from across the world get to show their work to audiences larger than they could ever dream of otherwise. The Generation sidebar, seldom talked about in the international press, offers a selection of children- and teen-oriented films at €4 a ticket (the usual price of Berlinale tickets starts at €10). Its program is highly popular and often excellent—this year’s top prize winner from the 66 entries, for example, was Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a refreshingly frank and discerning consideration of a 15-year-old girl’s blossoming sexuality—providing many young viewers with an early and quite exceptional introduction to cinema’s potential. Another sidebar, the Retrospective, plays an analogous role with regards to film history for audiences of all ages. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of color film, its selection comprised a series of renovated Technicolor classics. At the screening of The Wizard of Oz, when the presenter asked the audience how many had never seen the film, over half raised their hand.
This year marked the realization of a long-gestating project: the launch of the first Critics’ Week, following in the footsteps of Cannes, Locarno, and Venice. Every evening for the Berlinale’s first seven days, a team of local film critics screened their own independent program of shorts and features, scheduled according to single-word themes such as Genre, Resistance, or Provocation. The primary intention was to establish a forum for the dialogue and debate largely lacking at the Berlinale and each evening culminated with a moderated panel formed by filmmakers, international critics and film curators whose discussions sometimes lasted as long as the films themselves. Though the Critics’ Week received no support from the Berlinale—on the contrary, the festival actively petitioned cinemas to not let them use their facilities—and didn’t benefit from its enormous marketing resources, it nevertheless managed to secure a great location, the Hackesche Höfe Kino in the center of town, and pulled off a remarkable turnout on a minuscule budget. As such, it represents another chapter in Berlin’s rich and enduring culture of individualist cinephilia.
Photo courtesy Thomas Bruns/Deutsches Historisches Museum