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  • Film for thought: Professor Johannes von Moltke puts a learned lens on Berlin’s film scene


Film for thought: Professor Johannes von Moltke puts a learned lens on Berlin’s film scene

Our film editor sat down with professor and American Academy in Berlin fellow Johannes von Moltke to talk Berlinale favourites and the city's independent streak.

Photo: Annette Hornischer / American Academy in Berlin

Johannes von Moltke is professor of Germanic languages and literatures, and of film, television and media, at the University of Michigan. He edits the book series Screen Cultures: German Film and the Visual and has published numerous articles and books, most recently the English edition of the last letters exchanged by his grandparents, WWII dissidents Helmuth James and Freya von Moltke. This semester he is a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, where he is researching the cultural politics of the New Right.

What is unique to the film culture here in Berlin?

Well, to begin with, there’s the Berlinale. Its audiences are one of the surest indicators of what’s unique about film culture in this city and at this A-list festival. In all the shows I went to – whether in the mornings, during the lunch hour, in the late afternoons or into the night – and no matter whether I found myself at large venues like the Berlinale Palast, at classic but off-the-beaten-path Berlinale locations like the Akademie der Künste in Tiergarten or in the various district cinemas of the ‘Berlinale Goes Kiez’ program, I don’t think I saw more than one or two dozen empty seats overall.

I’ve always enjoyed the sheer breadth of film offerings in this city with its many decentralised cinemas.

There’s just such an enthusiasm for the festival among Berliners and international audiences alike. To me, this didn’t square with the lukewarm reporting I saw in the press about the festival’s administrative worries or its supposed lack of glamour (by which people just tend to mean: Hollywood stars). Of course, that’s just a few days in February. For the rest, I’ve always enjoyed the sheer breadth of film offerings in this city with its many decentralised cinemas. And it’s always been strong in screening films in their original languages and with subtitles.

Can you tell us more about the book series you edit, ‘Screen Cultures: German Film and the Visual’?

The series, which is well into its second decade by now, was designed as an outlet for books – both monographs and anthologies – that focus on German cinema in its broadest sense. We’ve been fortunate to acquire great volumes on topics ranging across the breadth of German and Austrian film history. One of my favourite volumes remains The New History of German Cinema, which offers bite-size glimpses of events that make up the overall history the title promises.

We were particularly excited to publish a spin-off series of about a dozen titles under the ‘German Film Classics’ imprint, which devotes each volume to the close, contextual analysis of one film – ranging from Weimar-era titles right up to recent films like Christian Petzold’s Phoenix or Maren Ade’s comedy Toni Erdmann. They’re designed to be accessible and readable for students and the cinephile public alike, and although it turned out to be a shorter run than we’d initially hoped for, we’re really proud of each of those books.

Are there any film releases in 2024 that you are looking forward to here in Berlin?

By now, a lot of people have seen it, but I’ve not yet gotten around to watching The Zone of Interest – the title of which describes pretty much what the film is for me, as a cinematic reflection on what it means to represent Auschwitz, the Holocaust and the history of National Socialism. It features the fabulous Sandra Hüller, who’s been racking up all the acting prizes out there during this awards season – the film touches multiple overlapping zones of interest for me.

There are also a few films that I got to see at the Berlinale which I hope will also make it to theaters in the near future, including Andreas Dresen’s drama of youthful anti-Nazi resistance, In Liebe, Eure Hilde, or Ruth Beckermann’s school-room documentary Favoriten, definitely one of my festival favourites.

That said, aside from new releases, I always love to see what might be playing again, sometimes after many years or even decades, at venues like the Arsenal, the Zeughauskino at the German Historical Museum or the Filmmuseum Potsdam. In addition to a lively and up-to-date film culture, there’s also so much film history to be had in the Berlin metro area.

One of Von Moltke’s favourite film from the Berlinale: Favoriten D: Ruth Beckermann.

Lastly, where’s your favourite spot to catch a film here in Berlin?

That’s a tough one. Although I don’t particularly like its screening rooms, I have a soft spot for the Moviemento in Kreuzberg, one of the oldest, and longest-running cinemas in Berlin, if not Germany – it opened in 1907! But there are so many great options to choose from: from the luxury seats at Zoo Palast to the “Ostmoderne” of [Kink] International, from the cavernous Odeon with its reliable fare of English-language films to the tiny storefront cinemas that dot the town.

Although Berlin’s got them, my recommendation would always be to shy away from the cineplexes and seek out one of the one- or two-screen theatres where you can support your neighbourhood cultural programming!

  • Register for Johannes von Moltke’s May 7 public lecture here.