Cinema in Berlin between the Lockdowns
by Phil Butland
On 2nd November, all cinemas in Germany were closed. If this were part of a more generalized lockdown, this might make sense. As schools and workplaces stay open, it’s a slap in the face, not just to people who need some diversion in these difficult times, but to everyone who works in small cinemas who make a precarious living at the best of times.
Following the first Lockdown, the open air film season started at the end of June, and “normal” Berlin cinemas reopened on July 4th, Independence Day. In this time, I have felt much more unsafe using public transport to and from the films than in the cinema itself. Social distancing has been observed impeccably, and as far as I know there have been no cases of COVID-19 being spread in cinemas.
The last four months have been a remarkable experience. I have a yearly cinema pass which enables me to see individual films for free, and in this time I have seen over 100 films. This is not just because I needed some cultural outlet – the range of films on offer has been greater than I have ever experienced.
There has been much muttering in the film industry, whatever that is, that the postponing of the release of the new James Bond film was a disaster for cinema. In my experience, it has been quite the opposite. Not that I wouldn’t have gone to the Bond film, or any of the other franchise films that have been postponed, although they wouldn’t have been at the top of my list.
But that’s not the main point. Whenever a Big Film is released, it runs for several months, and takes up many screens. This means that fewer screens are available to show other, more interesting, films. In the past four months, the absence of blockbusters means that we have had more choice in what we see than I ever remember.
At the beginning of each year, we have the Berlinale, the Berlin film festival, where tickets go on sale at 10am and are sold out at 10.05. Many of the films shown find it difficult to get to the cinemas, and if they do are shown in one screen for a week. This summer has been full of films which played the Berlinale and other film festivals. I’ve not loved all of them, but the quality has been generally great.
Between the first and second lockdown, I have only seen one film that I have truly hated – Sofia Coppola’s self-indulgent On the Rocks. And believe me, I am very capable of hating films so it’s way below my usual average. But there has been a wealth of marvellous films on show.
To just touch the surface, we’ve seen the fascinating stories of Harriet Tubman and Jean Seberg, there’s been Burhan Qurbani’’s reimagining of Berlin Alexanderplatz from the PoV of a refugee, Cocoon, the superb story of lesbian first love, the bizarre Advantages of Travelling by Train, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the essential story of a young woman getting an abortion. There’s been fascinating documentaries about Dr Ruth and Greta Thunberg, and Horror Noire, a superb dissection of black horror films. I could go on.
But it's not just new films. The extra space has allowed cinemas to show retrospectives of Federico Fellini on the 100th anniversary of his birth. I didn’t come out of the films desperate to see more, but I am really happy that I had the experience of seeing them in real cinemas. And I’ve been able to revisit old films (or in some cases, see for the first time films that I missed when they came out) – Jaws, Exorcist III, The Shining.
So, I will be missing my cinema visits, more so than if the main attraction would be more Bond. But I hope that cinemas have learned that there is an audience for films which are not just the old bashy-crashy stuff. It’s been a great four months. I hope we have more soon.