Cinemas have reopened, but they still face many challenges. For our upcoming Special Solidarity print issue, out this weekend, we spoke with two of the scene’s leading women, arthouse producer Irene von Alberti and Lichtblick programmer Elisa Rosi, about how they navigated the lockdown.
von Alberti: March 14 was a funny day. It was a Saturday and I had invitations for three parties. Two weeks before it was the Berlinale, we had two films in it, had parties every day, we were exhausted and I said, “I want to stay home for a couple of weeks”. So I had to decide where to go, and I was really pissed and said, “oh, I won’t go to any parties”. In the end I went to one. Everybody said, this is the last party we’ll ever have, it’s Corona, and I said, “oh thank God”. I was so relieved.
Rosi: Because I have my family and friends in Italy, I was aware and affected from the middle of February already. During the Berlinale, it was this weird feeling of living a parallel reality – I was busy with the festival and receiving these crazy messages from friends announcing that overnight they weren’t able to leave the house anymore, and I thought “that’s crazy!”. The news wasn’t really so clear about what was happening there at the time, and I just worried about my parents – they’re in their seventies – but they were fine because Umbria coped relatively well with the pandemic.
So, in the end, it wasn’t until we got the official shutdown here in Berlin, that Corona entered my life for good. And I saw it coming. Many other Länder did their lockdown before us, and some Berlin cinemas wanted to shut before March 14. I was like, “I don’t know”, because Lichtblick’s a particular place, a familiar place, everybody coming to Lichtblick belongs to a certain community, they’re from the neighbourhood, or they are regulars. I didn’t think Lichtblick moviegoers were spreading viruses, or that it was a risky place. I thought that with our 32 seats we had almost everything under control. So, I waited for the signs from above, until then, we could make sure that people who come to the cinema feel safe.
von Alberti: For a long time I was just confused, I didn’t take it seriously, but I got scared the day they said they were giving financial help to the self-employed. And I said, “Okay, this is serious”.
Rosi: Yes, I was surprised it was so fast but thought maybe they just want to shut us up, calm us down! March 14 – it wasa Saturday evening and we were supposed to have Emily Atef for a special 35mmscreening of her first feature film, Molly’s Way. When the Senat ordered the shutdown with immediate effect, we called the director right away, but she was already on her way and wanted to go through with it. We thought it would be fine to let people who had already bought tickets in, we’d take the numbers and data of everybody with their consent. I knew 10 of the 20 people, so we told her, “Okay, you do your talk on your own if you feel comfortable without moderation, then we’ll say goodbye and close the cinema”. So we closed.
I was hoping we would only have to close until after Easter. We used the time to clean, to repair stuff, everything we never had time to do when the cinema was open. Four weeks became six, eight, and then… you know. Now we’re at a point where some local governments reopen everything as quickly and abruptly as they ordered the lockdown, without thinking we need time to reorganise. Because the whole industry was frozen we have to think “What am I going to show and how?”, because distributors also had to cancel or postpone films, with effects we cannot foresee.
von Alberti: True. In a way, we were very lucky, we’d just finished the two (Berlinale) films and we only had to do some paperwork for them; Schlingensief – A Voice That Shook The Silence, a documentary about Christoph Schlingensief, and The Last City by Heinz Emigholz. Distribution was very sad for us, we had to postpone the Schlingensief release date. We now have the open air pre-release on July 10, then the general release on August 20. We were thinking about the online option, but we need the attention of a cinema release. After the very good feelings from the sold out Berlinale screenings…
Rosi: It’s what I regret most about this. We were supposed to screen the film too. We’ve been celebrating Christoph Schlingensief’s work for five years now, in collaboration with Filmgalerie 451, and I saw how audience attention grew towards this theatre and film artist. During the Berlinale my heart opened – finally all these people were queuing for the film. I was planning to give it a very long run until his birthday in October at least. Now, I don’t know, I’m afraid because people forget so quickly, everybody’s overwhelmed with so much content.
I’d started working on a script, way before Corona, and it was a gender comedy about a deadly virus that only kills men. They get sick, aroused, hairy like big apes, then violent, attacking women.
von Alberti: I hope it has an impact on some young filmmakers or artists to get enough courage to act like him – his reputation was that he was always very courageous, daring, put everything into it. Sometimes even young artists are very into security thinking. They need to get out of their comfort zone, but don’t want to be too edgy because maybe the commissioning editor of ZDF won’t like them. They don’t take risks, don’t want to cut their career: with every project, Christof put his career in danger.
What was strange about this whole time is how I’d started working on a script, way before Corona, and it was a gender comedy about a deadly virus that only kills men. They get sick, aroused, hairy like big apes, then violent, attacking women. It’s lethal after four or five weeks, this virus of patriarchy. It’s based on a novel by French writer Robert Merle, director Monika Treut wanted to make it in the 1990s, but we couldn’t finance it, so I asked her if I could take it up again. At the end, men are saved, but the women write a new constitution, get rid of capitalism, have a new economy, live together. A splendid utopia! I think COVID-19 has to have an impact in that direction, it really has to. We have problems and have to think about what to change, also the climate problem is still there. We need pressure from outside, either viruses or bankruptcies of banks…
Rosi: One takeaway I have from this moment is that there should be a shift in priorities; even if the German economy has always lived on the shoulders of the car industry, it doesn’t have to be like that forever. There are other industries – I mean, how much art do we consume within our four walls, how many films have you watched! So it’s our industry now that’s not relevant? In a way it keeps people alive. But when we can open again, we’ll have only 10 seats out of 32.
von Alberti: You can make it for two months maybe, then you’re bankrupt.
Rosi: Well, we got the so-called Soforthilfe and help from the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. We got money just for applying for this year’s programming prize, then we won top prize, which was doubled this year. Now we’re waiting for the prize from the culture minister, and on top we got more Soforthilfe from them. It’s a bit to get started but of course we’re losing money. This is the only financing that cinemas got. Thanks to this we survive, but we don’t exactly thrive.
People coming to the cinema, Lichtblick in particular, is always a kind of small event, it’s about the film but also about being together. You can’t be together if you have to be distanced, and you can’t invite people for a discussion – it’s always beautiful when you have the crowded small cinema, and we had very lively discussions with the filmmakers – for now, this is off the table. Tickets will be limited and people have to book in advance.
Sometimes even young artists are very into security thinking. They need to get out of their comfort zone, but don’t want to be too edgy because maybe the commissioning editor of ZDF won’t like them.
von Alberti: For the documentary festival in Munich, they sold more tickets than ever before. People who’d never normally go to Munich to see those films had a chance to see a very well curated film programme that they couldn’t see on TV or at the cinema, in an ‘at home’ festival for documentaries. You don’t have to cancel all the physical festivals, but you can make a mix or think of the future…
Rosi: The difference between a festival and a streaming service is that the festival is online and offline, and that it is curated. And so are the independent cinemas, so it’s not that it substitutes in this way.
von Alberti: It’s like the MUBI platform, which really leads into the future, and similar with indie cinemas. If we have more cinemas like Lichtblick, with a programme, that’s the only thing that can keep your audience. They trust you and your programme – if you say this film is important, we’re inviting the director, then I’d come blind, I’d just trust it. This is the future.
Rosi: Everyone’s been watching so much Amazon Prime and Netflix. That’s fine, but those companies should start paying taxes, give back and really keep this industry going. We can’t say it’s not part of it, but I don’t want – as with TV – that they start regulating what’s going on in cinemas, or what’s going to be produced. It’s very difficult to produce in Germany if you don’t have the support of a channel.
von Alberti: I hope that will change, but there’s always two sides. There are YouTube channels, some people making very political films. What I’ve always wanted to change, is that we don’t make films for the system, but despite the system. As a friend of mine, Tatjana Turanskyj, puts it, “Mama’s Kino ist tot” (Mama’s cinema is dead), because waiting for big mama to spread some funding makes the films worse. A lot of filmmakers don’t write from the heart, they just write so they can fit in, to sell themselves, to please, to be known. It leads to nothing. You serve the market. The thing is, don’t let yourself become blocked. Every young filmmaker can make films without money, so many do – like Tom Lass – first films don’t have to cost the world.
A lot of filmmakers don’t write from the heart, they just write so they can fit in, to sell themselves, to please, to be known. It leads to nothing.
Rosi: I think there’s been a lack of communication between the generations. My generation – those in their thirties, forties – is a bit spoiled. We got comfortable because it’s not that bad anymore. On March 8 I always think about this, what I’ve done, about my privilege. Being born when I was born, I can enjoy the freedom and the range of possibilities that I have because of what my mothers, my sisters, fought for. When I talk to elderly women, I always say “Tell me about it, tell me how you see it, I didn’t live it, I don’t see my rights threatened, but you’ve experienced it”. I think there’s been a lack of communication between generations.
von Alberti: Yeah, there’s still a lack of parity though. We have equal rights but it’s not equality, not in payment, there’s still a lot to do and that’s what quotas are for. Women are maybe not so demanding. From my side, maybe I could be more aggressive or demand more money. It’s not because I don’t have this or that right but it’s… invisible. I don’t think many female directors can get a multi-million-euro budget with their names.
Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s in our heads that women never have a big budget, so why should I have one? It’s like you’re in this box, you can’t get out, it’s very difficult. As a production company we were hardcore arthouse, making very low budget films. It was such a struggle to get a big budget with (director and writer) Robert Schwentke, the WWII movie, which cost the company six million. They said, “Eh, they do arts, eight million is crazy, they’ll burn it, they don’t need this money”. It was really a big thing to get out of that box.
Rosi: Yeah, when you see Der Hauptmann (The Captain), you see it’s a bigger production because it looks so good. You have to acknowledge that if you have more money, films often look better. You can see that production budget was well spent, it’s an amazing film. That set a good precedent. How do you see the future now, do you think you’re going to be badly impacted?
von Alberti: Through Corona, not so much. One thing was cancelled so we lost some money, but it’s not severe. I’m thinking positively, but the danger is that people stay home and watch shit Netflix and stuff.
Rosi: It’s a challenge to get them out, but it’s always like that, it’s just Corona made us conscious of it. It’s not only the €7 you pay, people’s time and will to go has to pay off, so you have to offer something.
von Alberti: We produce a kind of mental food.
Rosi: Yeah, and you never know you really need it until you watch it, until you get it. I didn’t know I needed a film about PhD students asking random people about philosophy, like in your film Der lange Sommer der Theorie, but it was really good food for thought. You could tell from the Q&A sessions after the screenings. This is what I miss the most… Somehow I wish every day of my life could be an adventure. You have your routine, just getting the day and the work done, then something happens and you’re surprised and you say to yourself, “Wow, I never expected to experience this”. I think this Corona experience is one of those cases.
von Alberti: I was just thinking about how fast everything changes. We have a garden and there’s so many foxes this year, and hedgehogs, and birds, and no more planes – we live close to Tegel – so if this takes much longer, like years, then nature will come back and take us with it… maybe it becomes another world, and oh, that would be adventurous.