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Lost in the celluloid basement

Since 1963, Arsenal has been Berlin’s home for the best independent and experimental cinema – and starting June 4, the anniversary celebrations commence. But why does this 50-year-old theatre, archive and film institution feel under appreciated?

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Photo by Rasa Urnieziute

Since 1963, Arsenal has been Berlin’s home for the best independent and experimental cinema. Ruvi Simmons asks why the brilliant theatre, archive and film institution turning 50 this month is not attracting the love it deserves.

There are two incidents that come to mind when I think of Arsenal. My first visit was in the autumn of 2006, shortly after moving to Berlin, to see The Dreams That Money Can Buy. I had never been to Potsdamer Platz’s Filmhaus im Sony Center, home not only to Arsenal but also to the Deutsche Kinemathek, its film museum and the DFFB film school. In fact, I had never been to Potsdamer Platz. My mental picture of it consisted mainly of a confectionery selection from German Expressionist paintings – elongated, puce-coloured ladies stepping off intersections, overweight scions of the best traditions of German bourgeois life tightening Astrakhan collars around their bulbous necks.

Eventually, I found my way to the basement, and the cinema. But there was a strange invisibility hanging over the entire space…

Twenty-first-century Potsdamer Platz is very far from evoking its legendary past in the core of Berlin’s cultural and visual history. If it expresses anything visionary now, it would be that of generic Euromodernity: glass and steel and blue-chip names on the self-satirising map of modern tourism. The ubiquitous Ritz-Carltons and iMax cinemas, sitting alongside multilingual signposts to historic events that have been thoroughly erased in a wonderland of architectural anonymity. Or, as Deutsche Kinemathek put it rather more charitably, “one of the most remarkable spots in the capital”.

Once I was in the Filmhaus, finding Arsenal proved more difficult than I’d thought. I took the lift up and found myself among blow-dried ladies resembling waxworks of Marlene Dietrich – there was a reception at the film museum. I went back down to the lobby. Eventually, I found my way to the basement, and the cinema. But there was a strange invisibility hanging over the entire space, one that continues to the present and brings into focus the strange life Arsenal, Berlin’s Institute for Film and Video Art, has taken on over its 50-year history.

Founded in 1963 by a collection of West Berlin cinephiles, writers and curators as Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek, it existed in the context of other international film clubs like New York’s Cinema 16 and Cinematheque Francaise. Notable among the founders were film historian Gero Gandert and Ulrich Gregor, father of current artistic director Milena Gregor and still a member of the advisory board. After seven years of screening films around West Berlin, they moved to their first permanent home in 1970: a single-screen, oven-heated cinema in Schöneberg, named Arsenal after the 1929 Soviet war film that premiered there. A year later, the newly dubbed Arsenal society began Forum, their often left-field contribution to the Berlinale festival.

After wrestling with issues of funding from the Berlin Senate and the limitations of their small, rundown cinema, Arsenal moved into its current Sony Centre basement in 2000. As Gregor and her fellow artistic director (and former head of programming) Stefanie Schulte Strathaus explain, there were plans to move to Potsdamer Platz dating back to the 1980s, long before Sony bought the site. They were, in other words, committed to moving into a building that did not yet exist as the city’s plan to create a dedicated centre to film and television merged with its desire to turn Potsdamer Platz into a tourist hub.

And there they have stayed, despite the Berlin Senate’s decision to remove their funding entirely in 2002 – after two precarious years, Arsenal’s future was secured by the federal government’s commission for culture and media (Beauftragter der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien). From then, their path has been guided by the current three-person board of artistic directors.

As much as Schulte Strathaus and Gregor make a compelling case for their present home, citing it as “a white screen” where they can work unfettered by history, both express awareness that their moving to the Sony Center may have been a poisoned chalice. “The building is an issue,” Schulte Strathaus, who has worked at Arsenal for over 20 years, concedes. “It’s not very friendly.”

More than unfriendly, it’s a strange home for an institute devoted to underground and experimental cinema, one that runs programmes devoted to such legendary avant-garde filmmakers as Jack Smith (2009), Ulrike Ottinger (2011) and Andy Warhol (in this February’s brilliant series “Underground, Overseas”) along retrospectives of mainstream directors such as Terence Malick and Martin Scorsese. This as well as collaborations with theatre and art institutions such as HAU and KW and live performance highlights like Genesis P-Orridge, along with housing the avantgarde Forum and Forum Expanded selections at the Berlinale each year.

Most importantly, as Schulte Strathaus and Gregor make clear, there is the 8000-title vault – not an archive of national memory, but of a very special devotion to film. “This archive is different from any other,” states Schulte Strathaus. Indeed, Arsenal’s film works, spanning the institution’s 50-year existence, have been collected in a way that defies categorisation. “It just happened over the decades, by the desire to make film successful and open.” Now, the archive is a micro history of Arsenal itself as well as of political, artistic and theoretical shifts in cinema over the last half century.

Harder to pin down is how this all fits into the current Berlin landscape. While Gregor and Schulte Strathaus talk passionately about institutional openness, of how Arsenal developed from the culture of sharing that existed in 1960s and 1970s West Berlin, you cannot help but feel their focus lies outside the city. “Next to Berlin and Germany, there is also an international level. And that is where we are positioning ourselves,” Ulrich Gregor says, placing emphasis on their work with other institutions and distribution of films from the archive. What they do not explain is why this should be mutually exclusive with a vibrant cinema hub in the institution’s hometown, or why they invest so little time or effort in promoting their work among the people who would actually go to see it – i.e., us Berliners.

The second incident I relate to Arsenal is trivial yet symbolic. I was going with my girlfriend and her seven-year-old sister to watch Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc with piano accompaniment. We – well, mainly the seven-year-old – wanted something to snack on during the film. Because of the incredibly limited selection on offer in Arsenal’s stark foyer, we hurried instead to the adjoining CineStar Original. There’s only a party glass wall in between, through which you can peek at the multiplex’s candy world complete with flashing lights, snack stands reeling of caramelised butter and even a real bar. Then we returned to the sombre basement that is Arsenal – with a soft drink and a bag of popcorn.

This incident sums up Arsenal perfectly. A brilliant film screened in an atmosphere of almost sterile discomfort, visitors drifting around a comfortless foyer more like the hallway of a pharmaceutical firm than a well-loved cinema institution. There is an irony to Arsenal and Cinestar being neighbours, like a family full of rowdy kids living next door to childless, semi-retired teachers. Not to draw a direct comparison with a cultural institute and a gleaming multiplex, but the contrast underlines how little attention Arsenal pays to the actual experience of watching films. And while they can be justifiably proud of their achievements over the past 50 years, the archive and their international reach, until they pay more care to that, they will remain as they are – respected but not loved, a strange object of disaffection in the very place where they should be most cherished.

Originally published in Issue #117, June 2013.