Natalie Holmes declares her love for Berlin’s art-house cinemas…
Still not fully tainted by the sameness that embodies most modern European capitals, Berlin is an anomaly amongst its contemporaries due to its unique and tumultuous history.
Just over 20 years since the wall came down and Germany reunified, the city has, predictably, changed and developed unevenly. Some areas, such as the central tourist and business districts, have caught up quickly and are virtually indistinguishable from their more established foreign and domestic counterparts.
Still, there are areas that development’s claws have not devoured, and yet other places refusing to accept that homogeneity is an inevitable consequence. Of course, Germany’s capital has its fair share of multiplex cinemas, but unlike any other city I’ve lived in or visited, I’ve never actually had to step foot inside one.
Yorck Kinos is a small, independent company that owns a selection of 12 art-house style cinemas across the city. Crucially, given the unfathomably ubiquitous tendency towards dubbing in Germany, some of these cinemas show films in their original language with subtitles (OmU) – luckily for me, because that’s how I met and fell in love with these beautiful buildings.
According to Yorck’s mission statement, the company’s key goal is to bring the best films to the best cinemas in Berlin, something they have strived for since their inception over 30 years ago. Yorck see themselves as a cultural mediator, providing a thoughtfully filtered selection of only the most moving, interesting, entertaining and inspiring films from the annual flood of releases. Recognising that movie-going is an experience that transcends just the film itself, their range of film theatres provides a suitably high quality setting to enjoy the cream of the cinematic crop.
Babylon Kreuzberg – not to be confused with its namesake in Mitte – is located in the heart of the Turkish quarter by Kottbusser Tor. Opened in 1955 as the Helo Filmbuhne, it was later known as the Kent Kino when it screened Turkish films. Today, the cinema houses two small screens, the larger one seating almost 200 and a cute little sibling that seats just 72.
Recently refurbished, the main screen is worth a visit for the decor alone, with a dazzling spiral ceiling lamp throwing flattering light on the otherwise gaudy gold curtains and red seats.
Although none of the original interior remains, an abstract air of authenticity pervades, reinforced by the cinema’s status as an exclusively Originalsprachenfilmtheater (original language cinema).
Three others, the Rollberg, Neues Off and Passage are clustered together in residential Neukölln, in and around the historic village of Rixdorf.
The Rollberg is built on the site of the former Mercedes-Palast cinema, which was designed by architect Fritz Wilms and contained almost 2500 seats – then the largest movie theatre in Berlin. The cinema was restored after the Second World War but, sadly, demolished in 1969 to make way for a supermarket.
The Rollberg opened in 1996 with five screens, each with a different colour scheme, and seating capacity ranging from 150 to 44. Despite this relatively large number of screens and its location at the back of a modern shopping mall, the cinema manages to pull off an easy art-house vibe with little effort.
Indeed, in 2008, the management made a conscious decision to develop a sophisticated and community-led program, which extended from their selection of features to the foyer itself, with impressive results. The atmosphere conveys intimacy, personality and soul, from the old-fashioned popcorn dispensers and high quality refreshments to the informal noticeboards and film posters with hand scrawled schedules, it just feels real.
Back towards Hermannplatz lies the Neues Off, another gem, this time with a survival story to tell. The site was destined for grandeur, having started life as a ballroom, before being converted into a cinema called Rixdorfer Lichtspiele during the twenties. In the sixties and seventies, the theatre operated as a ‘red-light’ cinema and was rescued in 1979 by Yorck from the sad fate of many other classic district cinemas, which were destroyed around that time.
The building’s illustrious history can be seen today outlined in a display in the cinema’s foyer, which is itself a stunning facet. The black and white tiled floor frames a classic counter and leads through a door that could well be an original feature, into the screen room with wood panelling and stylishly fashioned fabric on the walls.
The Passage, further into Neukölln, dates back almost to the turn of the century and features gorgeous architectural quirks, such as the arch windows that now make up part of the main cinema screen room (blacked out, of course).
Playing a more alternative but highly creative and critically acclaimed program (mostly in German these days), the cinema has faced increasing competition from a couple of multiplexes that have sprung up nearby in recent years, but has, happily, stuck to its guns and weathered the storm. A highlight of a trip to the Passage is a visit to the neighbouring Cafe Rix, an institution nearly as old as the building itself among locals.
All of Yorck’s cinemas have a seat pitch that’s more like business class than economy (latecomers can rest easy), yet the prices are incredibly reasonable, ranging from €5.50 on a Monday to €8.50 during the weekend; plus if you grab a loyalty card your tenth visit is free.
The Odeon in Schöneberg is also one to watch, as it were, for some excellent original language art-house releases, and of course the outdoor Sommerkino at Potsdamer Platz is unmissable during the summer months.
A visit to these any of these cinemas leaves me spellbound, and clearly not just because of the film. A large part of the movie-going experience is, of course, the feature itself, and the offerings rarely disappoint. Entranced by the film and captivated by the environment, these lovingly maintained and thoughtfully curated relics of the past allow me to believe – just for a moment – that some things last forever.