William Thirteen pays tribute to one of Berlin’s oldest and best-loved cinemas…
When the Kino Babylon opened its doors in Spring of 1929 Berliners couldn’t complain of a shortage of cinemas. If anything, there was a surplus.
The Reichs-Kino-Addressbuch of that year gave the official count as 378, and there were already film palaces at Alexanderplatz and Rosenthaler Tor, as well as innumerable “flea cinemas” in nearby Münzstrasse. But by a fortuitous coincidence of urban planning and cultural transformation the Babylon was completed just before the curtain fell on the Berlin’s cinema construction bubble.
The Scheunenviertel, as the area was originally known, was established in 1672 for the storage of dry goods in wooden barns (Scheune) outside the city walls, thereby reducing the danger of fire in the old city. In following decades it became home to Jewish immigrants and other newcomers seeking their fortunes in Prussia’s capital, and by the end of the 19th century the area had grown into an overcrowded and unhealthy slum.
Initial renewal efforts culminated in the clearance of “Babelsberger Platz” in 1908 and the construction of the Volksbühne in 1914, but the First World War put a halt to further development. By 1920 the area’s tenements housed a dangerous mix of poverty and political radicalism and, confronted with a restive population in what was now essentially Berlin’s own ghetto, city planners drafted an ambitious proposal: a library, school and modern housing development along with a mix of commercial and entertainment establishments, among which would be a state of the art cinema on the now renamed “Bülowplatz”.
In keeping with the project’s high profile the developers turned to one of Berlin’s most renowned architects, Hans Poelzig. A Berliner by birth, Poelzig taught at the city’s Technical University and was head of the Architecture Department at the Prussian Academy of Art. He was also deeply involved with the cinema.
Not only did he build both the city’s Kino Capitol and its famously expressionistic Grosses Schauspielhaus, but along with his wife he designed sets for stage and film, including the medieval ghetto of Paul Wegener’s legendary “The Golem: How He Came Into the World.”
While his grand plans for Bülowplatz were only partially completed, Poelzig is responsible for the Babylon’s strong lines and smooth facades, which even after eighty years feel restrained and modern.
But it wasn’t only the architecture of “Babylon-Kino-Variete” which was cutting-edge. In addition to enjoying the fine dining of its modern Automatenrestaurant, filmgoers were entertained by Germany’s largest Kinoorchesterorgel. The Philips-Kino-Orgel accompanied the cinema’s still silent films with musical compositions as well as produced sound effects such as hoofbeats, sirens, car horns and telephone bells. In addition, it backed up with Berlin’s Weimar-era jazz bands & orchestras with its simulated trumpets, clarinets and saxophones.
The glittering evenings came to an end, however, and darkness descended over the Babylon as the Nazis took over. Bülowplatz was now Horst-Wessel-Platz, Poelzig was driven out of his academic positions due to his Jewish background, and Reichspropaganda Minister Goebbels declared the saxophone to be a “symbol of Negroid lewdness”.
Adding injury to insult, in November of ’43 Allied bombs burned out the Volksbühne, the fires spreading to the Babylon and surrounding apartment houses. Miraculously, however, the Philips-Kino-Orgel survived the war and in May of 1945, a scant two weeks after the Nazi’s capitulation, the Babylon threw open its doors once more, screening a Russian adaptation of Jules Verne’s “The Children of Captain Grant” to a grateful, if exhausted, public.
During the decades of division the Babylon served as one of East Berlin’s leading cinemas, initially hosting monthly premieres of DEFA’s productions until it was finally overtaken by newer and larger venues such as the Kino International and the Colosseum.
The early years of reunification presented their own hazards when, in 1990, a carbon monoxide leak caused by a faulty heating unit forced the cinemas closure, and, in 1993, a war damaged support beam in the ceiling of the main hall threatened to collapse. It was feared that the Babylon might have reached its final reel.
Thankfully, due to the efforts of fans and its place in Berlin’s history, funds were made available for the necessary renovations and in 2001 the Babylon reopened. In the main hall the number of seats had been reduced, from the original 1299 only 447 remained, but the screen had been enlarged and, in May of that year, the newly restored Philips-Kino-Orgel once again thrilled audiences, accompanying the screening of Wegener’s “Golem” as it had seventy years earlier.
The Kino Babylon has since reclaimed its leading position among Berlin’s independent cinemas, taking part in dozens of film festivals, screening domestic and international films and and hosting special events throughout the year. In 1929 the Reichsfilmblatt was dazzled by what it called a “cinematic jewel box”.
While today waiters in red and gold jackets and ushers in powder blue uniforms no longer bustle between rows of emerald green seats, the Babylon still retains something of that former glamor and the flickering dreams of a long lost Berlin still play across its silver screen.