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Goodbye, Negativeland

Prenzlauer Berg's Negativeland was a video rental shop unlike any other, offering up a film archive with a huge collection of rarities that would excite any film buff. Pay it a last visit before it closes on Feb 15.

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Photo by Erica Löfman

Negativeland in Prenzlauer Berg was not just any video rental shop. It was a one-of-a-kind cultural institution, a dying Berlin breed. And it was a “film archive”, as the sign claimed: 8000 VHS tapes and 10,000 DVDs, from Eastern Bloc rarities (East German DEFA and Soviet Mosfilm classics) to Italian Neorealism, from Japanimation to French 1970-80s comedies.

It was a rare pleasure for any cinephile to browse through the back room, which contained the works of 300 of the world’s best directors sorted by name – from Almodovar to Żuławski through the likes of Kurosawa and Scorsese, alongside lesser-known native greats such as cult underground filmmaker Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik) and the prolific Sebald-esque documentary poet Volker Koepp.

You would find no nonsense here: no candy, no ice cream, no soda, just films and conversation. Chatting away with the staff about cinema and life was always fun, be it with wry-humoured owner Jörg Ganzer (who’d gladly share his encyclopaedic knowledge of the house catalogue), or the regular temps, like the late eccentric, chain-smoking film critic and subversive art-porn filmmaker Carl Andersen.

The first video store in East Berlin, Negativeland was founded by Ganzer and ex-partner Thomas Hartmann in 1990 – that crazy final year of the GDR after the Wall had fallen but before actual reunification of East and West – in a small space on gloomy Mühsamstraße, Friedrichshain. In 1996 the shop moved to Helmholzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg, well before that neighbourhood’s gentrifying baby boom. A decade or so later it was pushed out by renovations and a fancy cookbook shop and deli to nearby Danziger Straße.

And now, after 25 years in business, it’s all over thanks to dwindling numbers of customers visiting the cinephile stronghold made obsolete by changing demographics, online streaming and, well, lack of interest. “It was about time,” said a deadpan Ganzer shortly before the store’s closure. “Lately I’ve been pretty much just sitting here twiddling my thumbs.” He’s not one to feel sorry for himself.

But what’s to become of the treasures in this trove? He says he’s found a taker for the entire VHS collection, but he will be holding on to the DVDs as he figures out what to do with his life. “I’ll have to get a job first.” We wish him the best of luck.

In the meantime, Negativeland will be sorely missed by locals who can remember those pre-gentry salad days when Prenzlauer Berg was populated by broke students, punks and Ossis – and Negativeland was a natural fit in the Kiez-scape. By die-hard cinephiles who’ll miss Berlin’s last true, uncompromising indie video store with a punk attitude. And by this journalist, who’s wondering just where on Earth one’s supposed to find a Carl Andersen film now.

Negativeland, Danziger Str. 41, † Feb 15, 2015

Originally published in issue #135, February 2015