Movie heaven - minus popcorn

Financial Times

Hugh Williamson celebrates the generous collection of ‘traditional’ film-houses among the city’s 90-odd cinemas.

One of the first things I like to do on moving to a new city is to explore its cinema scene. I like film, both mainstream and off-beat, but my explorer instincts are oriented more towards the cinema buildings than films themselves. 

After 10 years on the road (from Manchester and London to Hong Kong, Manila, Frankfurt and Cologne) and now four years in Berlin, I’ve found my best cinema-city to date. Nowhere else I’ve lived has had such a satisfying range of cinemas – especially the smaller independent filmhouses that in many cities have been killed off by competition from multiscreen complexes, video rental shops and rising DVD sales.

 Berlin’s film industry history, its unique status as a unified-then-divided- then-reunified city, and its position as Germany’s only metropolis, have enabled it to retain many of its cinematic jewels, despite a post- reunification oversupply of auditoria and the recent closure of several independent cinemas. The annual Berlinale film festival, which ends on Sunday, has also generated international attention. 

 Berlinale, Potsdamer Platz, 2018. Pic: HW

Berlinale, Potsdamer Platz, 2018. Pic: HW

My interest dates from my teenage years in Oxford, where, to earn extra cash, I worked in the box office of the Penultimate Picture Palace. This independent one-screen student cinema had real character, compared with the town’s more anonymous mainstream film outlets. It is sometimes difficult to avoid modern pop-and-popcorn multiscreen cinemas (in Berlin they are good for original English language films and new kids’ movies) but I’m still drawn to what the German film board quaintly calls herkömmliche cinemas.

The dictionary translates herkömmliche as “traditional”, or “conventional”, meanings that have particular resonance in a city which retains not just one, but several sets of historic traditions and conventions. Herkömmliche kinos (cinemas) make up over two-thirds of the city’s approximately 90 filmhouses, thereby challenging the formula elsewhere that only city-centre warrens of modern identikit cinemas can survive. Take just two of my favourite kinos, Babylon A&B, and International, which in different ways reflect the traditions of their parts of the city.

Babylon A&B (not to be confused with two other Berlin cinemas called Babylon) is in Kreuzberg, the throbbing, multicultural heart of former west Berlin. Before the Wall fell in 1989, Kreuzberg was not only the home for much of the city’s Turkish community, but also the magnet for political radicals, men avoiding military service and others classed by conservative Germany as social drop-outs. This alternative community fostered an appropriately alternative cinema scene, still largely in existence almost 15 years later.

The Babylon A&B, showing a mix of mainstream and art films (many in English), is tucked away in a rather unwelcoming back street behind an ugly shopping arcade and a traffic intersection. Inside, the two-screen cinema gives off a friendlier, if rather shabby air, with space to stand with a beer in the colourfully decorated foyer. The International, only a few kilometres away, retains the traces of its own, very different, past. This used to be the official venue for film premieres in communist East Germany, and it retains this aura, with glinting chandeliers in the foyer, a majestic 550-seat auditorium and a classical wide screen.  Located on Karl-Marx-Allee, where communist leaders used to salute military parades, this was where last year thousands of Berliners, myself included, watched the cult “Ostalgie” film Goodbye Lenin. Parliamentarians even chose it for their special screening – not least because the cinema itself appears in the movie.

 Cinemas with character also add to quality of life. With a population of 3.5m, Berlin is the only German city that feels like a metropolis, where – as in London – locals do not automatically go to city centre cinemas. Take my district in suburban south-west Berlin. Within a radius from my house of only 10 minutes on public transport there are six cinemas, each with its own distinct character. At one extreme, in the quietest suburb, there’s Bali, showing appropriately exotic films in a village-cinema atmosphere. Then come Capitol and Adria, two small, rather civilised cinemas geared more to Berlin’s middle-aged and elderly suburban dwellers.

Then there’s Titania, an old-style five-screen film palace that was the venue in 1951 of the first Berlinale film festival, and is now great for kids’ birthdays. Finally, nearest the city centre, there are the Cinema am Walther-Schreiber-Platz and Cosima, both with a rougher, inner-city feel. Sylvaine Hänsel, art historian and author of a book on Berlin’s filmhouses says the unusual variety of cinemas has its roots in the 1920s and 1930s, when Berlin’s film industry was booming. “Film at this time was mass entertainment and hundreds of cinemas were built,” she says. In her research she found 1,000 buildings that used to be cinemas – sadly, most are now supermarkets.

Britta Wilkening and Christoph Heckenbücker, young entrepreneurs who last year re-opened “die Kurbel” (the winding handle) a west Berlin cinema dating from the 1930s, say cinema was popular before the Wall fell because other options were limited in isolated west Berlin.

“In summer, for instance, you couldn’t easily go to the countryside (because of the Wall), so you went to the cinema instead,” says Wilkening.In east Berlin most of the dozen “district cinemas” established by the communists remain well preserved, says Georg Kloster, head of the Yorck-Kino group which runs International and several other cinemas now catering to the trendy young people who moved to the east in the 1990s. These make a great place to go after work, and it is good to see the tradition of eclectic cinema-going continuing in Berlin.

Hugh Williamson is an FT correspondent in Berlin