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Save Berlin: Palaces of broken dreams

Dan Borden asks: What happened to the cinemas of Weimar Berlin?

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Photo by Kai Wegner (CC-BY-2.0)

Dan Borden asks: What happened to the cinemas of Weimar Berlin?

On December 5, 1930, movie fans filled a Berlin cinema for a 7pm show. Fifteen minutes in, rowdy viewers stood and chanted political slogans. Stink bombs were set off. Finally, hundreds of white mice were sent scurrying across the theatre floor, causing the audience to race for the exits.

The event was Berlin’s first public screening of All Quiet on the Western Front. The protesters were Nazi thugs led by Joseph Goebbels. To protest the film’s anti-war message, Goebbels insisted, “Horseplay is necessary.” As the propaganda expert knew, movies can be much more than entertainment. After his Western Front mischief sparked a week of street battles between Nazis and their enemies, even Weimar escapism wasn’t fun anymore.

By 1930, Berlin was covered with hundreds of cinemas that dominated its main streets and squares.

To honour the 100th anniversary of the Weimar Republic’s founding (or as a tie-in to head juror Tom Tykwer’s series Babylon Berlin), this year’s Berlinale Retrospective spotlights German films from the era. But Weimar Berlin wasn’t just shaped by the movies – it was shaped by movie theatres, too. By 1930, the city was covered with hundreds of cinemas that dominated its main streets and squares. A handful, like Mitte’s 1929 Babylon Kino, survived the ravages of World War II and still function today. Here are five Weimar-era cinemas that weren’t so lucky.


That frightened 1930 Western Front audience spilled out of the landmark Mozartsaal Kino in Schöneberg’s Neues Schauspielhaus, the grand edifice that still dominates Nollendorfplatz under the label Goya. Earlier cinemas had been converted storefronts, cramped and tunnel-like. The 1905 Mozartsaal was a former concert hall whose sumptuous interior set a new standard for cinema design. But the theatre’s post-WWII life was rather sordid. At various points, it served as a porn theatre and a location for the Kit Kat fetish club. Its finest hour came in the 1980s as the club Metropol, a proto-Berghain where DJs pioneered the thump-thump techno sound. Oddly renamed in 2005 after Spanish painter Francisco Goya, it was a high-end event venue until 2014, when its owners filed for bankruptcy. What’s next? Nobody knows.


Ku’damm’s heyday as Berlin’s movie mecca begins and ends with the Union Palast. This 1913 neo-classical film temple was among the city’s first purpose-built cinemas. Forty years later, it was still breaking new ground, boasting Berlin’s first Cinemascope screen. It hosted Berlinale screenings until 2000 when the festival moved to Potsdamer Platz, forcing the Union to shut its doors. They reopened in 2013… as Berlin’s first Apple Store.


The 1913 Marmorhaus Kino, named for its white marble façade on Breitscheidplatz, hosted the 1919 premiere of Robert Wiene’s expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. It survived as a premiere cinema until 2001 when it was sadly shuttered and gutted to make room for fashion chain Zara.


With its 24-metre neon-lit tower on Steglitz’s Schloßstraße, the 1928 Titania Palast (photo) was meant to grab attention. In the 1950s, Titania’s massive 1920-seat auditorium served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s main concert venue, but it was hollowed out in 1995 and converted into today’s seven-screen multiplex.


Architect Erich Mendelsohn, famed for Potsdam’s Einstein Tower, pitched his streamlined plan for his 1928 Universum Cinema proclaiming, “No baroque palaces for Buster Keaton!” Film company UFA copied the design for later cinemas, though not for ideological reasons – it just cost less. Since the 1980s, this Ku’damm landmark has been the home of the cutting-edge Schaubühne theatre company. The death knell for many of Berlin’s historic cinemas came when planners shaped the 21st-century Potsdamer Platz as the city’s filmgoing epicentre. With its move to those shiny new multiplexes in 2000, the Berlinale, now paying tribute to Weimar-era films, played its role in killing off the theatres where those films first came to life.