The Germans are not just awesome at making cars, sneakers, beer, and being on time, but also at making films. I’m talking about really haunting, powerful pieces that speak to the times, and stay with you long after. The influence of German cinema — not just visually, but technically — is so widespread, it surprises me how little people know about it. Would there be a C3PO without Fritz Lang’s “Machine Man” realized in his over-the-top science-fiction saga Metropolis, or Dracula without the original model of a pasty blood-sucking vampire found in F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror? Definitely not.
Berlin was home to the first public film screening in Europe in November of 1895 at the Variete Wintergarten. The city today has almost 100 cinemas, ranging in style from multiplexes to art-house to the ever-popular open-air cinema, which Berliners love after the incredibly long and dark winters.
Because of its long-standing cinematic tradition, Berlin is the host to one of the world’s leading film and media events: The Berlinale. After getting my foot in the door and writing blog posts here and there for different creative platforms in the city, I hit the jackpot when I applied for accreditation to the 63rd Berlinale as a Berlin correspondent — and got it. I picked up my press pass in the infamous Potsdamer Platz, already decked out in red carpet, and steeled myself for an event involving almost 1,000 screenings and almost 4,000 journalists from over 80 countries, crammed into cinemas spread out across the city starting at 9 in the morning and going well into the night.
The second I placed that pass around my neck I felt like I was granted a backstage pass to life. If I wanted something, I could get it. My press kit was equipped with a swag bag and pages upon pages listing screenings, world-premieres, press conferences, award ceremonies. I suddenly felt a pain in my chest and got a little dizzy. How was I going to handle this? Knowing me, there was the very real possibility that I would just end up not going to anything and instead stay at home drinking beer and stressing out about doing my taxes in Germany.
But luckily this year the Berlinale introduced the “Berlinale Goes Kiez” program, which basically means, “Berlinale goes to your ’hood.” The Berlinale chose eight different cinemas across the city to be official venues for the festival. This provided me the perfect excuse to dedicate these 10 days to seeing a ton of movies, and exploring different movie theaters all around the city.
In the dynamic and ever-changing city of Berlin, where it seems anything is possible, going to the movies can take you back to a time where the German soul was explored in film. Going to the movies was more than popcorn and an extra-large soda; the venue was just as important as the film being showed.
Typically associated with Las Vegas-style variety shows, the Friedrichstadt Palast is indeed one of Berlin’s oldest and most luxurious theaters. Back in the day, before showgirls became the featured entertainment, this theater showcased the uncanny angles of the sick and twisted world of Dr. Caligari projected on its enormous screen.
In many ways this theater embodies the spirit of “the show must go on.” Originally realized as a market hall, then a circus, the majestic structure took hard hit after hard hit. Its roles over the years included food depot during the German-Prussian War, and a horse-training facility until all the horses were taken away to be a part of the imperial cavalry at the beginning of World War I.
Over the years its name has been changed and its interior redesigned countless times. The cinema has been bombed, considered “degenerate art” and, in between, abandoned for long periods of time, leaving the almost 2,000 seats empty for years.
The Friedrichstadt Palast is now — again — truly a palace, with a blood-red carpet that swallows you up upon entering. The cinema almost resembles a wedding cake, ornamented with teardrop chandeliers along the top of the ceiling and low-lit lilac lights illuminating the ornate details found in every corner of the building.
The Stummfilmkino Delphi opened in 1929 in Northern Weißensee, a section of East Berlin. The first time I visited this area, I literally hadn’t seen the sun in two months and everything had assumed a permanent shade of gray, so I didn’t get the best first impression.
Yet, Northern Weißensee was once known as “Little Hollywood,” and was sprinkled with cinemas and production companies. The Delphi was once a portal into the dark landscape of expressionist German silent films. This arrestingly beautiful cinema is rather unassuming from the outside, and was closed to the public after World War II.
Yet, the resurgence of young creatives has, once again, brought these charmingly classic venues back to life. If it isn’t open-air dance parties in the former Templehof airport, then it’s rediscovered silent film screenings at the Delphi.
The Berlin Film Society (BFS) chooses their venues very carefully, always finding the perfect film to complement the spaces they use. For the Berlinale they had an exclusive screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss in an abandoned opera and theater prop factory, which spoke to the film’s exploration of loss and abandonment through the aging and forgotten actress, Veronika Voss. Last weekend the BFS chose the Delphi for their screening of Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. This particular film explores the erotic and dangerous side of femininity and modernity, and features the sultry, smokey presence of Marlene Dietrich.
Sure, you can watch The Blue Angel on your laptop, but that certainly isn’t the experience it was meant to be. There is something magical about sitting amongst the silk curtains draped across the stage, and having the triple-tiered dome above perfectly frame Dietrich’s seductive performance. Instead of theater seats, you sit at tables, allowing you to feel as if you are in the venue alongside all the school boys cheering her on.
Like the others, the Berliner Festspiele has undergone major transformations. Before the name change, it was known as “Theater der Berliner Volksbühne,” which is quite a mouthful.
Designed by Berlin architect Fritz Bornemann, the Festspiele is set in a garden opening up into the district of Charlottenburg. It is a perfect example of post-war architecture which some see as an aesthetic disaster, and others as an important architectural landmark in this city that lost as much as a third of its buildings during the war.
As for me, I have warm feelings towards the Festspiele, which was decorated with lights and, of course, the red carpet during the festival. At first when I arrived and saw the simple design, I thought, “What a terrible spot to show a film,” but I had a change of heart as I settled in to the mustard yellow seats in front of a relatively small stage. Compared to some of the city’s film palaces, the Festspiele offers a more intimate experience.
Director Niko Von Glasgow celebrated his world premiere of Mein Weg nach Olympia at the Festspiele. I highly recommend the film; watch for its official release in May of this year.
Berlin makes great use of its cinemas all year ’round, with festivals representing films ranging from international awards-contenders, to the fun and raunchy Berlin Porn Festival, to, of course, the classics. Best of all, you don’t need to sneak in your beer, since it is sold in virtually every cinema.