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Berlin Cinemas


The development of the cinema in Berlin since 1900

My final year thesis for a degree in History of Art at the University of East Anglia. Things have changed since 1975 and I'm slowly updating it to include views of the cinemas in 2020.

© Tim Bentinck June 1975

"Also kein Rokokoschloss für Buster Keaton, keine Stücktorten für Potemkin und Scapa Flow. Aber keine Angst auch! Keine trockene Sachlichkeit, keine Raumangst. Lebensmüder Gehirnakrobaten- Phantasie! Phantasies aber kein Tollhaus - Beberrscht durch Raum, Farbe und Licht".(1)

Space, colour and light to provide a fantasy for anyone was the aim of the cinema; to show pictures of things far outside the experience of its audiences. Because of this mysterious function which extended the knowledge and imagination of those who entered, the building of cinemas became a form of architecture approached with totally different attitudes than to any other building. It was new, and represented a new age - it was an entertainment machine, there were no actors, no musicians, no acrobats - it was as new as Le Corbusier's 'machine à habiter'. It was also governed by very different building considerations:

"Cinema building can never be the work of one person. It must be the work of a group inspired by the idea of producing a theatre that is at once efficient in operation and appealing in appearance. This can be done without pandering to mass vulgarity. Experience has taught me that such a group must be comprised of the architect, the interior decorator, the electrical engineer and the owner, who must because of his practical knowledge of theatre management, guide the experts in producing the theatre which his public will appreciate and which can be efficiently and economically run".(2)

It was in Germany that truly functional cinema architecture emerged. This was largely due to certain planning requirements based on distinctive national conventions common to all entertainment buildings in the country. Chief of these was the desire to extend cinema design along the lines of the numerous small opera houses that existed in most German towns of any size. A characteristic of these buildings was the use of wide gangways encircling the auditorium for promenading, and the provision of large-scale cloakrooms but few foyer spaces. This meant architecturally that the auditorium could be a separate entity which could be designed and shaped independently of the rest of the building. The German ‘kino’ gradually assumed a distinctive form and an aesthetic quality of its own.

In October 1915, there were in Berlin 168 cinemas of various different sorts. This made life very difficult for everyone. Cinema audiences in those days were fairly limited, and the large number of cinemas kept the audience in each very small, keeping the budgets of the cinema management equally low. The films being shown were "Rührungs - oder Aufregungs Pantomime" - short, silent, simple adventure stories filmed at very low cost. However ever since the first days of the travelling bioscope and its fairground - like fantastic tents, the sentiment had been expressed that the cinema building should evoke the ‘cultural’ aspect of the film being shown inside.


The development of the cinema up until this tine had been very much regulated by police regulations and by the layout of the converted Berlin shops - which were very deep and very narrow, and which formed the majority of the small cinemas along the Ku-damm. The distinctive features of these cinemas was a profusion of advertising - posters stuck on placards on the shop's open space on the pavement, and all across the front of the building, and each cinema had a distinctive trade-mark or name. In front of the cash desk, there was nearly always a small foyer. Fig.1 shows a simple shop cinema designed by Karchow in 1904 - the auditorium extends as near the street as possible to get the maximum fresh air and even in this early example there is already a cloakroom, an addition which is very German, and never left out of any German House of Entertainment, unlike in England where the cloakroom has today become virtually non-existent.


Fig. 2. shows an ingenious design by Georg Levy which solves the Problem of an auditorium which is too long for the size of screen: the screen was hung in the middle of the auditorium - the expensive seats being between the entrance and the screen where the audience could view the image in the normal way - the cheaper seats being behind the screen where a fainter, reverse image could be seen. Another invention was to project the image round a corner with a mirror - this for a problematical L-shaped shop on the corner of Friedrichs- and Zimmerstrasse.

It was soon noticed that the people who came to the films were the 'better circle' of people - prices were beyond the realms of the poorer section of the community, and the cinema proprietor realized that to entice his rich clientele away from his many competitors, his cinema had to be as luxurious and rich as it could be. Up until this time no architect had expressly designed a cinema 'per se', they were all converted shops or private houses.

The first chain of cinemas was started by the 'Union Theater Gesellschaft' (U.T.), and it was this company which was responsible for the sudden surge in cinema building that occurred from now on.


Union Theater

The first cinema built in Berlin solely for that purpose was the Union Theater, Unter den Linden, 2, build by Paul Negendank (Fig. 3). It was a tube-like room with 550 seats. Artistically it was nothing to get very excited about, although a profusion of white, gold and red gave it a 'festliche Stimmung'. Another feature was bright lighting in the foyer and a small fountain. Technically, also, the architect had not escaped from the restrictions of shop-conversions, - the seats were still on a level floor, the hall was long, thin and high, the sight angles appalling. The façade too was very ordinary - conforming to the general architectural street style of the time and in no way standing out.

Berlin cinemas needed a distinctive architectural style, and the man called upon to do this was not a proper architect, but a poster painter - Lucian Bernard. The poster-painter has the best idea of what effect a painting, façade or whatever has on the casual eye of the passing public - he knows what will catch and lure them inside. The whole attitude towards the design of a cinema front is therefore totally different to other kinds of architecture. According to the Berliners of the time it had to reflect the cultural aspect of the material inside, hence had to conform to old established architectural traditions - it could not at this stage break totally with tradition as it was later to do - yet at the same time it had to be a commercially orientated showpiece that would startle the eye of a passing public.


Prinzess Theater

Bernard's first cinema was the Prinzess Theater, Kantstrasse, built in 1911 (fig. 4). Yet another converted shop, the space of the auditorium was still too high and too long, being the height of two full storeys (the upper storey contained 40 boxes and the ground floor 560 seats), and the width of only one shop. As a painter he was more concerned with light and shade than with architectural space.

There is no extant description or illustration of the façade, but it was apparently a very popular cinema, so Bernard's advertising must have done some good.

The interior was quite well designed (aesthetically, not technically - the word 'sight-lines' doesn't seem to have been in the vocabulary at this time and a man in the back row must have had the greatest difficulty seeing the tiny flickering picture 40 yards away), the walls and ceiling were painted black, the architectural details picked out in stone-grey, and to give contrast parts of the walls were hung with poppy-red wall paper. The main effect was with the lights which lined the walls about 12 feet above the ground - yellow/red on top, white underneath.

It doesn't sound stunning, but contemporary descriptions show a far greater interest in the interior decoration of cinemas than any other part of the building. Although as is already shown with the Prinzess Theater, lighting played an important part in cinema design, a part that was to be used most effectively in Germany, not only inside but as an important part of the external architecture, it is an extraordinary feature of cinema design throughout the world that so much attention has always been paid to the adornment of an interior which for 95% of the audience's time will remain in total darkness. Two incredible examples are the 'fabulous and foolish' Fox cinema in San Francisco - a gigantic full baroque edifice built in 1929, and the Granada, Tooting which can still be seen today with its porticos almost worthy of a Gothic cathedral.

For the moment, anyway, it was enough that the cinemas in Berlin attracted an audience and to do that they needed only to be eye catching, 'warm und feierlich' and relatively comfortable.

Comfort was a particularly important factor, especially with the cinema proprietors’ aspirations towards a "high class" clientele.

More and more effort was spent in impressing the audience with comfort and elegance and providing the pictures worthy of better-class audiences. Red plush and mauve, ferns in brass pots and plenty of electric light were guarantee to give that 'air of cosy refinement' which was usefully sought by a trade anxious to disdain its low birth. The foyer must have bevelled mirrors if it was to acquire the prized 'bon ton' which would make it a really "high-class rendezvous"(3).


The first mention of any exterior lighting on a specific cinema in Berlin is the Biophon Theater, Potsdamer Strasse 58 (fig. 5), This was built from an old office building not a shop, so that an auditorium of more proportionate dimensions was produced, and the tube-like converted shops were almost dead.


The U.T. Lichtspiel Theater on the Alexander Platz (Figs. 6 & 7) was enormous in comparison to its predecessors. It was created out of extensive and drastic rebuilding of the Alexander Platz Hotel by architects Schley and Röthling and was completed early in 1914. It had 1,055 seats and the effect of the interior was impressive, although the architecture was relatively simple - this was achieved by rich painting at very little cost with the maximum effect.


This step towards monumentality went one step further with Albert Pröhlich's enormous Mozartsaal on the Nollendorf Platz (Figs. 8 - 11). It was originally built as a concert hall but in 1906 it opened as the "First Huge Cinema for a Select Public"(4). As an example of cinema design it is not very good since it was not intended as such, but the fact that it was well known and much visited, obviously made it influential on future cinema design.

The extraordinary height of the building, about 16 metres - and therefore the height of the screen above the floor - meant that no tier-ing of seats was necessary since one could see over the heads of those in front. It also meant that people in the cheap front row got Planetarium type neck-ache!

The insertion of a huge semi-circular window down the side and a similar arch at the rear, combined with the rich neo-classical ornament, the enormous proscenium arch containing the screen which looks like some grand gateway, combined with this enormous height which is disproportionate to the width of the room, gave the impression more of a church or cathedral than of a cinema. Contemporaries however did not think so - the insertion of the windows and arch was 'liberal and festive', and the enormous screen necessary for such a building (6x4 metres) was "blazing proof of the completeness of everything technical in film science"(4).

The orchestra was separated from the audience by a low wall since no pit was possible because of the foyer below. The room held 924 people.

The great success of the Mozartsaal meant more daring and extravagant buildings would follow, and now that the films too were of good enough quality to compete with the theatre, the buildings to show them had to attempt to match up to the respectability and rich extravagance of the old German theatre. The type of films being shown at this time were usually short vignettes, comic or tragic, but fairly simple mime backed by an orchestra. This was in the days before the feature film, and an average of fourteen ‘scenes’ would be shown twice nightly.



But the theatre was still winning and the majority of cinemas were still converted from other uses, and only under exceptional circumstances would a new cinema be built from scratch. All the buildings dealt with so far were destroyed during the last war. The earliest cinema still in existence is luckily one of the most outstanding and one of the first to be built from scratch. It is the Marmorhaus built in 1912 by Hugo Pal (Figs. 12-23).

It is situated at the top of the Kurfürstendam, opposite the Gedächniskirche. This is obviously a very expensive site, and in order to increase profits a shop was built in on the left side on the ground floor, with 1st and 2nd storeys, where it remains today. The whole building in fact remains astonishingly complete considering its location in the very centre of Berlin, and that almost every building around it was bombed flat, the fact that its exterior is free of all shrapnel holes, and the interior remains virtually unchanged in its decor since it was built, is a very great stroke of luck.

Even before it was opened, the place had become something of a sensation - the whole façade was fronted with marble, the three tall, thin windows on each side looked more like architectural motifs, and the façade has a dominating, austere and very distinctive style. The flat, central pier juts out and leads up to two storeys of small windows above it.

The façade was even more distinguished at night by electric lighting, and the interior continued this ultra-modern attitude. The entrance hall was in rich woodwork with a richly ornamented ''Deckenkassette' and all the furniture was of the most modern style.

"The auditorium is like a film-set - like a fantastic East Asian tent lit by enormous japanned cloth lamp-shades in magic yellow and twilight red"(4).

It was so admired that it was used as a background for models in fashion papers. The auditorium today has lost some of its former glory. Architecturally it remains intact, the tiny boxes remain for two remain, with comfortable armchairs and curtains in case one’s companion proves more interesting than the film.

“The decorative motifs, although much changed to personal taste, come from Eastern Asia. The Indian figures made of silver situated to the side of the red-lead frame of the screen are in the same mood as the design on the curtain, influenced by Chinese ornaments. It is both daring and futuristic. The tone of the room suggests some bizarre Bernhard-ish artistic principle of negation of space. The walls are of deep violet with areas of black. The deep, dark-grey roof and the bright streaks on the curtains of the boxes give tone, but no clearly defined special borders - the ornamental ring of lighting in old silver seems to float unassisted in the air, and one's whole attention is therefore concentrated on the sharply defined red-lead framing of the curtain and the rich decoration thereupon”(4).


All that is now gone - the proscenium arch is plain, the curtain - the usual flowing electric side-to-side job - and the interior lighting is mostly concealed but with art -nouveau bakelite sea shells lining the side walls at head-height. The auditorium is fairly small - 576 seats in the stalls, but the cinema contains one of the first balconies on record, which held another 250, making a total of 626 seats in a fairly small area but which today retains a warm and cosy intimate atmosphere with deep red velvet walls absolutely in keeping with the antique atmosphere of the building.

The advent of the balcony was very important, for it is much easier on the eyes to look down on a picture than to strain one's neck upwards at an often distorting angle. It also brought the cinema one step closer to the theatre, stemming possibly from the very strong pre-war class-conciousness that enabled the nobility to rise above the masses below, in comparative peace and comfort. The box was the ultimate class distinction. Schliepmann said of it: "The hunt for novelty is a distinctive feature of this century, therefore original or extra-ordinary work must be treasured as a document of the times. No-one can say today if it will remain a single capriccio, over which time will gently flow by, or whether it will be the Bacillus for a new epoch of style in Berlin"(4).




Schliepmann's words are almost prophetic, since it remains the best example of the cinemas of this time, and although its style was not copied, it remains a perfect example of the beginning of a new tradition of architecture. The Bavariahaus, Taubenstrasse is a direct descendant of the Marmorhaus. (Fig. 24).



The Wittelsbach cinema built one year later in Wilmersdorf, Berliner Str. 166 (Figs. 25-27) was certainly inspired by the Marmorhaus and the architect, George Pinette claimed that it even ''outdid the former in modernity, although photographic evidence does not substantiate this opinion. The main problem, as with many other cinemas, seems to have been money. Unlike the Marmorhaus, the 'Wittelsbach-kino' was built in a fairly poor area and bearing in mind that his entrance fee could not be so high for fear of losing his precious custom, the owner cut down on building costs as much as possible. The whole building consequently fails since it aspires to the richness of the Marmorhaus without the finance to back it.

The façade is the best example of this aspiration, unlike the tall Marmorhaus, this is a one storey pavillion (to contain the large foyer and cloakroom) and wide but very squat. It too is flanked by shops built into each side. However the façade is plain and drab, the dome is unexciting, the entrance a simple square between two rectangular pillars, and there seems to have been little or no exterior lighting. The auditorium held 596 people, 86 of them on a small distant balcony. The proportions of the auditorium are still terrible, Pinette does not seem to have learned from the example set in the Marmorhaus. An attempt is made by colour to reflect the modernity of the cinema - blacks, greens and violets - again it only goes half way due to a lack of funds. It's destruction in 1944 was therefore no great artistic loss.


Union Palast
The only other cinema of this time to have survived the devastation of the war is the Union-Palast Theater, also on the Kurfürstendamm (Figs. 29 - 36). It was designed by E. Simon in 1912 and externally it is a neo-classical monstrosity. It has an ill- proportioned entablature which sits uncomfortably on four columns set into the façade. On the ground floor was a large café in the style of the hundreds of similar ones that run the length of the Ku-damm.

The design of the interior is architecturally very simple, simply a box within a box, but the style is self-confessedly eclectic. A small modern entrance foyer in cadin tiles remains almost unspoiled today. On the wide staircase leading up to the main foyer and cloakrooms there is a charming relic of pre-war days which was shown to me with great pride by a decrepit doorman. Two large ash trays on the wall with 12 wide ridges for holding cigars - against each ridge a number to remind the owner which cigar is his. This is also a reflection on the gratifying law about smoking, which is “Polizeilich verboten” in all German cinemas (Fig. 59).

Between the auditorium and the front of the building is a long narrow entrance hallway which was richly decorated in the Empire style and at one time had furniture to match. Schliepmann complains that at the time of his visit this room had been painted tango - the ‘new’ colour - but fortunately it is back to its original white and pale blue.

The auditorium itself has now been modernised. Originally an enormous rigidly defined proscenium arch dominated a large un-tiered ground area, with a small balcony at the very back. Nothing new - in exactly the same tradition as the earlier box-within-a-box examples. The heavy panelling in dark oak which was meant to create an expensive, traditionally German impressive atmosphere, combines with the enormous spaces to make the whole cold, austere and intimidating. Today, these mistakes learned, the screen has been brought forward, the balcony extended, and the ground-floor has been tiered.


In 1911 the newly formed UFA company built or converted four cinemas. Three of these were theatres that had come on hard times; the Apollo Theater, the Friedrick-Wilhelmstädischen, and the Gross-Berlin Theater. The Gross-Berlin, originally part of the great Exhibitionshalle am Zoo became the Palast Theater am Zoo (Figs. 40-42).

This was later destroyed and replaced by Poelzig's Capitol am Zoo, which in turn was bombed during the war. the site is now occupied by Berlin's newest cinema, the Palast am Zoo. Both cinemas will be looked at later. It was converted by Arthur Bibenfeld and. was at one point f the largest cinema in Berlin with a capacity of 1,740 people.


Cines am Nollendorfplatz

The UFA's great achievement, however, was the Cines-Kino on the Nollendoreplatz. (Figs. 43-51) Historically, it is the most important cinema in Berlin. It was free-standing, and almost a sculpture in itself. Built in the centre of the Nollendoreplatz surrounded at a distance by a church, a theatre, a block of flats and the S-Bahn, it was an architectural feature to be viewed from all sides, not just the façade. Designed by Oskar Kaufmann, it opened in 1911. More like a temple than a cinema, it presented windowless walls on three street frontages, broken up by plain pilasters separating large statues by Franz Metzner (perhaps Germany’s foremost architectural sculptor of the day) which stood just below the cornice. This was broken up on the main façade by an ornamental entrance loggia. This single storey half-domed entrance was surmounted by a Buddha-like statue, and recessed into the concave front wall. Around the façade of this loggia was a frieze of painted glass, executed by Paul Gerhard. Heinersdorf from a design by August Unger.


The plan of the building was completely symmetrical. Inside the auditorium the fan-shaped seating arrangement on a sloping floor is used for the first time; at last designers had realized the need for careful placing of seats - slowly more and more people are involved in the planning. Another extremely interesting feature was the use of a prominent public staircase from the lower stalls to the front of the balcony; the line of the staircase rising out of the base of the auditorium was then continuing across the balcony as a solid handrail. This unusual design idea gave a unity to the auditorium that is often lost when the balcony is rigidly segregated from the stalls. The semicircular line of boxes at the rear of the balcony is broken by another domed loggia of three boxes echoing that of the entrance.

It is a great shame that this cinema was destroyed during the war. In the centre of Nollendorfplatz today is a large car-park, and one can see how well the proportions of the Cines must have fitted in.


When I was doing my research in 1975, the impressive Metropol on one side of the Nollendorf square was operating as a sex cinema. It was impossible to get any information about it from the manager. He flatly refused to allow me to take photos of the interior, possibly fearing I night smuggle myself away to take a quick snap of "Busty Brenda”, the film then showing in what had become a very expensive sex-cinema. Deciding, with true art-historian's zeal to get my photo at any length, I paid the £l0, sat through the film in the front row, and at a rather inopportune moment in Busty Brenda's act, let off a flash at the astonished audience and shot out of the Emergency Exit. Needless to say the exposure was wrong and I have no photographic evidence to prove it!

It was called the Eros Cine-Center, but was built as a theatre and concert hall in 1905/06 by the architects Boswau & Knauer. The author and theater director Herman Haller ran it as the "Theater am Nollendorfplatz" from 1914 to 1923. In 1927 Erwin Piscator re-opened it as the Piscator Stage. After the war it housed a cinema and disco, again called "Metropol", before in 2005 it was converted into a posh dining and dancing club called "Goya". Due to lack of visitors, the club went bankrupt in March 2006 and it is now rented out by a consulting firm.
All I discovered in 1975 from my clandestine detective work was that it had a lot of Art Deco design inside on the staircase-rails, mirrors and light fittings. The friezes on the outside (Fig. 53) were perhaps intended to echo the former glory of the UFA Pavillion. This building, "in bestem Sinne modernen Geschmack durchgearbeitet"(4) set a standard that was not to be equalled until long after the Great War.

Immediately after the First World War the German film industry was re-organized to cope with the demand for new films and cinemas. After an initial period of frustration, shortages and delays in the building industry, new cinemas were erected that left the embryonic ideas of the pre-war period far behind.

The UFA company went through a hard time after the war due mostly to inflation but in 1924 they commissioned Fits Wilms to design a number of their cinemas. Wilms's work has a characteristic simplicity, and in this he owes a lot to Oskar Kaufmann, but there was a distinct difference in the appearance of buildings in the post-war period because of a new design consideration. This was the desire, only tentatively tried out on the Marmorhaus, to advertise the building's interior by the use of glass areas in the façade and by external light sources. It was an obvious consideration, but one which the Germans were the first to exploit, that the movies were a night-time entertainment, and the new cinema architects made their structures 'night-buildings' with neutral façades and illuminated lettering as an important part of the design.

In his book "Modern Theatres and Cinemas", P. Norton Shand sums up the aims of the German architects by claiming that their fame rested on a masterly economy of material which obtains the greatest possible effect with a minimum of detail, and on the fact that the cinema façade should be little more than an unobstrusive neutral background for neon-lighting. "They argue that the cinema depends wholly, in a technical sense, on the contrast between darkness and light; and that it has no concern with daylight effects. The cinema sleeps by day as other buildings do by night" (6).



Between 1924 and 1928, Wilms designed four cinemas, the best known of which was the Piccadilly, Berlin Charlottenburg. (Figs. 54-57). The Piccadilly took into consideration this new factor of night architecture - with large yet simple rectangular screen-shaped windows that could be lit up externally. However, unlike many later examples of neon-lit cinemas, especially in Britain, which sacrificed architectural distinction for the sake of producing an artifical lighting effect, the Piccadilly retained a traditional dignity in its façade, and its ground plan also was extremely well thought out. Wilms wanted his cinema to stand out from the rows of tall blocks of flats on each side of the cinema site, but he had to do this while conforming to building regulations which forbade him to advance any part of the facade onto the pavement. This he did by making a semi-classical façade - the main central bloc reminiscent of a Roman triumphal arch.

At each side a 4 m. wide wall up to the height of the string course was recessed and abutted by a large pillar. Thus the central bloc is made to stand out by recessing the sides, and separating the building from its dominant neighbours.

Inside, the auditorium was oval in design, with 1200 seats. There was no balcony but a steeply sloping stand behind the row of boxes at the back of the stalls.

The large number of safety exits made for fast exits, and an interesting feature was the incorporation of a box above the main stalls entrances at each side. The use of flat pilasters along the side walls is a feature of the old cinemas which has not yet died out, but their classical rigidity clashes with the sweeping modem lines of the roof and the geometrical intimacy of the designs to each side of the screen.

Other designs by Wilms during this period were the 'Schwarzer Adler' - an enormous black building with illuminated tower, a forerunner of the famous Leicester Square, Odeon. Unfortunately it was never built.

Mercedes Palast.jpg
Mercedes Palast Poster.jpg

In 1924 he built the Mercedes-Palast, Utrechter Str. On my penultimate day in Berlin, I was told that this building was extant, and, clutching my photocopy of the original building from Wilms' book 'Lichtspieltheaterbauten', sure enough in the back-streets of a dingy suburb, there was the 'Mercedes-Palast', now an enormous garage for Mercedes lorries with the façades all bricked in (Fig.59 & 60)

It was a very cold, cubic building, built on a comer like the later Titania- Palast. It's entrance block was similar to the Piccadilly in its 'triumphal arch' appearance. Although being on a corner, two façades were presented, the columns in between were free-standing and very tall. The only decorative feature was a sort of castellation (again reflecting that of the Piccadilly) around the top of the comer block, although inside, in true twenties style, large fountains on each side of the screen sprinkled quietly throughout the show.

Wilms's fourth cinema, also called the Mercedes-Palast, this one in Neuköln, was similar in style to the other. Classically inspired, cold, stark, relying on its night decorations for its attraction, I include it in order to quote some amazing German grammar - Wilms himself about this cinema:

"Das originellste und neueste ist die hier zum erstenmal in kuppelform, den ganzen Raum als Illusionshimmel, in azurblauem Ton gehaltene, überspannende Recke" (7)

Cinema design was fast becoming a more and more respected form of architecture. The cinema demanded the most avant-garde designs because it was in a way a symbol of the modern world.



Max Taut made a design for a Kino Palast in 1920 which unfortunately remained a paper project (Fig. 61) like Kaufmann's UFA-Pavillon. The fact that this building was to be free-standing caused the architect to consider the external form of the building to produce a unified and consistent design. The result is a good example of the modern functional cinema with advertising entrance and glazed surrounding spaces clearly expressed.


Rudof Frankel's Lichtburg of 1924 was the first to break with the straight lines which had hitherto been the bane of anyone striving for a break in tradition. The name probably derives from the Expressionists, the external architecture clearly influenced by Mendelsohn. (Figs. 62 to 72.) The vertical windows on the sweeping horse-shoe shaped front stood in sharp contrast to the horizontal lines of the adjoining flats - later to become a standard feature of Harry Weedon's Odeons. This is amply demonstrated by the photograph of the Lichtburg at night where the vertical windows are brightly illuminated, combined with a lighthouse beam on top of the building symbolising the warmth and comfort inside where the large ground area allowed for spacious rooms and long, sweeping lines. The fact that it integrates the very latest discoveries in accoustics gives it a style all its own - it would look modern even today.

One of the greatest problems in its design was the requirement that it should fulfil the needs both of a cinema and a variety hall - since it was to be used in both roles. This was a problem of acoustics and it was solved by extensive use of wall-coverings, inlay work, floor-covering, but mostly by the singular shape of the ceiling; for besides being a very original-looking set of light-louvres, it also prevents echo by breaking up and re-directing the sound - like Wilms' Piccadilly there is no gallery. This was in order to give the audience 'a more open-air feeling' and the resultant wedge-like auditorium is very similar to that of the Palast am Zoo of 1970. The large spaces between the entrance and the auditorium are divided up into foyer and cloakrooms; it is worth noting the layout of the cloakroom itself - it acts as a barrier between the incoming and outgoing public - to avoid collisions.


Capitol am Zoo
In 1924 Hans Poelzig received his first major building commission in Berlin. The directive was to build a row of shops along the Budapester Str. on the edge of the Zoological Garden. His solution, confronted with tall, drab, ugly buildings on the other side of the road, was to design a one-storey complex that spread out horizontally, 'as unpretentious as it was to be distinguished'. The design was rejected, having come under strong attack from his neighbours on the Zoo, the state surveyor of works, and the requirements of the building academy. But Poelzig did not abandon this idea of a long low building and the final outcome, which incorporated his famous Capitol am Zoo cinema, became for Poelzig and his successors an extremely important work (Figs.73-77).

Illuminated advertising, and its incorporation into the building was researched very thoroughly and used to emphasise the long, low lines of the building. The name of the cinema also flashed in four different colours but throughout Poelzig was restricted by planning laws and requirements which left him with very little leeway or freedom. The difficulty with the foyer was that about a quarter of the façade width on each side was part of the shopping complex (Fig. 73) leaving room for only a small entrance foyer, ticket office and cloakroom. This meant that four spiral staircases had to be squeezed in at each corner of the auditorium. With so little to play with, Poelzig makes the utmost use of these as a design feature, and the bold curves are today a well known example of Poelzig's expressionist designs.

Wolfgang Pehnt says "In the Capitol cinema in Berlin there was still a hint of that enigmatic, demon-peopled world which the expressionist film had conjured up - in the odd curve of the staircase, in their intersections with the tunnel-vaulted passages, and also in the tent-like, fluted ceiling of reinforced plaster"(9)

Theodor Heuss, Poelzig's biographer, speaks of the "interessante, gewendelte Form und Konstruktion dieser Treppen... Diesen schwierigen Punkt gleichsam herauszumodellieren und so aus der Raumnot eine Tugend zu machen."(8)

The building became, in its inner layout, a complete victory over the painful conditions imposed upon it. The auditorium, too, is extremely impressive; the plaster lines emanating from the central lighting complex like sun-rays continue down the sloping ceiling and down the walls to the ground. The screen arch also echoed this sun-ray motif. This uniformity is echoed in the colour scheme - various shades of olive throughout the building. The stalls held 757 people, and the huge circles another 405. With another 110 people in boxes, the capacity totalled 1,284. On each side of the stage were a number of original prism-lamps which gave "variable lighting effects".

The vertical motifs on the wall facilitated disguising the organ pipes - also to each side of the screen. Like the Lichtburg, the cinema was to serve two functions - the walls and ceiling were not only aesthetically pleasing, they also effectively cut out any echo. The screen could be sunk into a cellar, the loud-speakers could be lifted up, and the entire orchestra pit for 50 musicians could also be sunk into the floor. The only design fault seems to have been in the positioning of front rows of the stalls, they gave a very awkward viewing angle

Heuss says "Mit dem innenraum des Capitols ist die Architekturfrage des Film-hauses wohl zum erstenmal ernsthaft angefasst und zu einer Lösung geführt worden, die im dekorativen wie in der Anlag der Sitzplatze auf die Erinnerung des Schauspiel- theaters verzichtete"(8)


In contract to the Expressionism of Poelzig's building, Friedrich Lipp's Atrium in Berlin Wilmersdorf is of a totally different style (Figs 78-83). Paul Zucker says "In its pseudo-modern construction it is bound all too strongly to the years of inflation and already (i.e. by 1931) it has been completely overhauled" (10) There is little in this building to show any progress since the pre-war days. As an example of a pre-war cinema, it would certainly be considered modern and well designed, but the advent of the Capitol and Lichtburg had called for something new. The Atrium is a massive block of semi-classical stonework - a very heavy German building.

Its ground plan was already governed by town-planning requirements. It stood on a very busy road junction, and it had to leave a wide pavement (100 sq. m) for the free passage of pedestrians encountering an out-coming audience - a consideration found elsewhere only on the Kurfürstendamm, where the pavements are anyway very wide.

The façade itself was a shallow curve with a wide box-office hall with seven columns jutting out in the centre. The façade above consisted of french windows opening onto a terrace (the roof of the box-office hall), separated by wide pilasters, and crowned by different works of statuary. This mixture of monumental, heavy stone blocks and repeated statuary is reminiscent of Kauffman's Cines, although the Atrium contains all of its bad points, and only a few of its good ones. Zucher argues that the advantage of this facade is that it is impossible to affix enormous advertising placards, though I can hardly see what would have stopped anyone from doing so if they had wished. A new innovation here, however, was glass-fronted boxes on the pillars of the box-office hall, containing stills of the film showing inside - they were apparently just as successful as the "screaming cinema advertisements so often seen elsewhere" (10). The largest advertising feature was the cinema's name written in large neon letters on the top of the cinema.

The ground plan is dependent on the site and is completely axi-symmetrical, but even when faced with the perfect plan, cinema-wise the architect still refuses to heed recent innovations and discoveries, and insists on creating an almost rectangular seating arrangement with no consideration for the man at each end of the front row. Sure, he achieved a very pleasant modern 'Wandel-Halle', but at the expense of what could have been a very successful cinema.- although the acoustics were said to be very good due to the large dome in the ceiling. The hall held 2,025 people - 850 stalls, 12 boxes with 75 seats, 1,000 in the circle and 20 boxes with 100 seats.

The interior design is quite interesting as a period piece. Typical of German decorative arts of the time, the walls and the roof were in golden and bronze colours, contrasted with greens and reds. The dome was in silver and aluminium. The walls, too were covered with huge embossed metal plaques which “remain in my memory more as a mother-of-pearl iridescent splendour than any particular shade or colour"(10). The designs on the wall are sharply defined semi-circles with step motifs and ideas recalling industrial, rather than artistic shapes. It has the same feel as English Art Deco, but with different motifs.


Titania Palast

We now come to what was, in my opinion, one of the most exciting cinemas ever built. The Titania-Palast, Berlin Steglitz, built in 1927 by Schöffler, Schlönbach and Jacobi (Figs. 84-96). It was an enormous building - so much so that in 1975 it held a carpet shop, a supermarket, a shoe shop, an electricity showroom, a timber store and workshop, a ballet school and still leaves room for a small cinema, then disused. It is a terrible shame that having survived the destruction of the war, its panelled interior should have been so mercilessly gutted due to the post-war slump in revenue from entertainment. The Titania-Palast takes up the example set by the Lichtburg and goes even further. It is in this building that the word "night-architecture" is most fully exploited

For the first time the lighting is not something stuck on later as an afterthought, but is itself an element of the building. Three different means of lighting were used - indirect lighting to illuminate the cornices, neon lights for the name of the cinema and the letters advertising the film being shown, and opaque glass strips for the 27 divisions of the light tower and the other elements attached to the architecture, and finally the windows, lit from within.

The building itself is divided into three main sections. Positioned on a corner, it imitates the Mercedes-Palast with its large square corner block flanked by long wings with plain arches on each side. This time though, the corner block was set into the building and the 24 foot light tower and the extended porch below break up the otherwise austere lines of the building.

Fortunately I found a colour postcard of it (Fig. 86) which shows how different it must have looked in relation to its pre-war neighbours - Travertin polish, basalt lava as a base, opaque glass strips and bronze - it was as exciting during the daytime as it was at night.

Above the main entrance, the lower foyer and the second hall for the box-office there is a cafe and a small bar. This bar is now that of the dance school, and the cafe is the dance floor itself. The surrounding corridors were very wide and also allowed for large cloakroom space. The stalls had 15 emergency exits, all very large - (the stairs at the back still remain) and held 1,418 people, 40 in boxes, the circle held 506.

The auditorium couldn't have been more different from the exterior. The hall is fitted with a very complex play of curves and imposing parabolic and even more complicated arches. The stage frame, the ceiling, the walls and the circle are made up of enormous sweeping curves and arches, there is barely a straight line to be seen anywhere. The dome on the ceiling is very interesting - made of opaque glass, it was 27m long and filled with lights, it also served as an acoustic baffle.

A comment about the problems of acoustics at this time - the Titania-Palast was again to be used both as cinema and concert hall. It was this that saved it from complete destruction which was the fate of many cinemas not designed to fulfil the two functions. The advent of the talkies around 1927 immediately rendered many of the old cinemas virtually obsolete. The sound was bad enough as it was.

"In some cinemas audiences were fortunate if they caught one word in three, for generally the early talkies were played far too loud. The effects of this, plus side wall echoes and 'standing' waves, made a visit to the cinema an uncomfortable experience. The break through came with the invention of the multi-cellular high frequency horn loudspeakers in about 1950. It was possible with this new sound reproducing method to focus and unify the sound and beam it to various parts of the auditorium.

"The talkies created an immediate demand for a new type of auditorium: an acoustic box, muffled to keep the sound in and protected to stop noise penetrating from outside. It proved to be the most fundamental change in cinema design since the industry began."(5)


The arches over the screen served a double purpose since they contained the organ pipes - used in turn as a decorative motif. The stage below was 9.5 m. deep, which could carry a 70 piece orchestra. The colouring of the interior is very important, since the large flat areas would have brought out any colour to the full. The screen curtain was in "king's blue" - tonally contrasting with the rest of the auditorium which was in different shades of ochre and red. The ceiling was in bronze with shades of red and brown, the dome silver, whence different lighting effects in four colours were possible. The walls were partly painted, partly covered in velvet, the chairs were wine-red - elsewhere doors etc. were of mahogany often with gold inlay. The effect was "von grosser Wirkung auf das grosse Publikum"(10).

The cinema was probably divided into two at some stage, as so many of our own large country-town cinemas have been. Today the upper one only remains - the screen was at the front of the main block of seats in the circle, Even this has now been abandoned - it is used today as a store-room for film and theatre props. When I visited it, it was being used as a photographic studio for dirty magazines - a nude woman being whipped by a medic in a large cage! - chacun à son gout!
You can see what it looks like today here.


Mozartsaal rebuilt
An immediate result of the Titania's design was the rebuilding of the old Mozartsaal of 1906. Here the long arms of the circle with the entrance, too, with its large areas of opaque back-lit glass, the large porch, and the rounded-off pillars are all very reminiscent. The extraordinary arrangement of the three separate galleries must, however, have made seeing and hearing an even greater labour of love than in the original building.

P. Norton Shand says this about German cinemas:
"The general level of German cinemas is the highest in the world... and German architects have thought out the cinema as a new and untraditional type of building instead of tinkering with adaptations of the traditional form of the theatre, or aping the barbarous and suffocating magnificence of London, New York, and Chicago 'Palaces'"(6)

Universum interior.jpg


Eric Mendelsohn's Universum stands at the peak of this development (Figs. 102-104c). There is no record of cinemas built since 1931 and destroyed during the war, but regardless of what followed, the Universum in every way represents why German cinema building at that time was so renowned.

Denis Sharp calls it "a machine for viewing"(5); Arnold Whittick says it is the first cinema which really "shows the complete organic unity of the whole"(11). Mendelsohn himself says, "[it] is planned, for the first time, as a true cinema building. All lines and masses converge, as with a camera, towards the focus of the screen to which the whole audience is looking. Outside - and inside"(12).

I think it is in this aspect; the fact that the functional requirement of the building is expressed and catered for not only inside the auditorium, but also outside, so that the exterior could almost be the interior turned inside out, like a glove - I think it is this that makes it stand out from all the others.

The Universum's horseshoe-shaped auditorium was hereafter adapted by the UFA in all their cinemas - it is the logical cinema plan, allowing no sharp angles to distort the picture, and the whole area being consciously horizontal - a low ceiling, a low gallery that sweeps round each side to the screen and no central gangway to break up the great expanse of seats, the horizontal lighting motifs on each side of the screen, and the wide lighting strips on the ceiling, all lead one's eyes toward the object of the audience's interest, the screen. As Whittick says;

"All lines and masses should converge towards the stage or screen to conform to the direction in which the whole audience is looking. Vertical forms, like columns, are contrary to purpose, whereas horizontal lines or masses moving towards the stage are definitely expressive of purpose." (11)

At the sane time this concentration on the screen is repeated on the exterior. It looks wrong today - again taken over by shops and warehousemen, it was damaged during the war and rebuilt, although the façade remains the sane. In I960 it was operating as two review theatres, both of which are closed today and plans are going through to convert it into a "Bier-Palast" the same fate as has already overcome the other end of the WOGA development next door. The fact that it no longer operates as a cinema puts it completely out of place. It is a cinema, it looks like a cinema and the fact that it is no longer a cinema kills it - it no longer works. In my opinion that is the proof of a totally functional building - one whose only possible function is that for which it was built.

Mendelsohn in one of his letters tells of his ideas for the interior decoration:

"I have just come from the first lighting rehearsal at the cinema. The ceiling light is splendid, and I think we shall get the red mahogany, with pastel shades of blue and yellow for the wall behind the circle, thus having the austere and tender together. Everything there is making a great impression in spite of the scarcity of materials and the simple colouring" (l2)

Perhaps the "scarcity of materials and simple colouring" were a good thing - magnificent though they were, the 'atmospheric interiors' of many early, and not so early British and American cinemas, depicting anything from 'Die Wieskirche' to the set of 'West Side Story', had nothing whatever to do with looking at films, they were a distraction, a side show; and the fact that they often remained lit up throughout the show is even more ridiculous.

Denis Sharp's comment that the Universum was a "machine for viewing" (5) which leads back to my earlier comparison with Corbusier's "machine à habiter" (the long row of windows is also very Corbusian) really sums up the development of the cinema till this time, the Universum represents the start of the modem cinema tradition.

What has happened to that tradition? It has turned full circle, learned all its lessons, and because of a television oriented society returned to the shops whence it was born. With the vast reconstruction programme after the war it was possible to build many new cinemas, and in 1954 West Berlin alone claimed to have over 250 theatres in use, many of which had been completely rebuilt or renewed.

Today there are only 68 cinemas operating in Berlin, 19 of them on or around the ‘Ku-damm’. I visited all these 19, (in the time available the district ones were too numerous and spread out to be able to cover) and only two of them are large, free standing buildings, the American MGM cinema and the Zoo Palast. The rest are built into the building complexes and office blocks. The ‘Smoky’ forms part of the basement of a brand new multi-storey shopping centre, with a bowling alley and swimming pool on top. The machinery is run by a computer which changes the film, switches the lights on and off, runs the ads etc. The machinery can all be viewed behind glass from the entranceway. Same with the Gloria and Gloriette - they are part of another huge department store.

The cinema has become accepted as part of a way of life, no longer anything to get excited about; but there is no longer any need to build super-cinemas for 5,000 people - they won't come. The small viewing-room size auditorium with deep pile carpets, rich comfortable seats and an intimate quiet atmosphere (like the Cine-Centre in London.) is nowadays preferred to the bustle, noise and physical danger of 5,000 people trying to get out of a cinema. The television can also provide this atmosphere very well, so today's cinemas have to be perfect.


Zoo Palast

The Zoo Palast on the site of Poelzig's Capitol complex was built in 1955/7 by Schwebes and Schlossberger. (Fig. 108) The two cinemas in one, “Zoo Palast” and "Atelier am Zoo" were intended as a substitute for the Capitol and the old "UFA - Palast am Zoo". They hold 1,200 and 550 people respectively and make the best use of the available space. The line dividing the two auditoria can be seen in Fig. 112, and the acoustics and sight-lines are extremely good. Unfortunately my photos of the interior didn't come out.

Externally too the building is effective. Today’s night architecture has none of the subtlety of its predecessors, the Zoo Palast is advertised by an enormous hoarding on the plain white façade, illuminating the poster of the particular film for miles around - the fact that it stands alone and with a large open space in front of it aids this impression.

Paul Bode, in his book "Kinos", cites a number of German cinemas since the last war that exemplify contemporary German practice. The Alhambra, Mannheim, part of a larger development that includes shops and offices, has seats for 1,000 people, and an auditorium that is entirely plain, illuminated by complete walls of light and unrelieved except for the undulating line of the balcony front. Dieter Oestilin's smaller underground film studio at Hanover, with 700 seats, is another commendable example of post-war German cinema design. It is a single-floor stadium-type building entirely decorated with vertical slots that enclose the auditorium, and with a projection box cantilevered over the rear seats. In this example two other interesting features are incorporated; the ground floor extends out under the auditorium walls into spacious promenades, end the high hinged screen box is automatically opened at the start of a performance.

The development of the cinema in Berlin is a very homogeneous one in that the stages of new ideas seems to stem from Berlin itself, or at least Germany - very few outside influences are noticeable, but its cinemas were eagerly and jealously watched by its neighbours, admired for their technical advancement, style uncluttered by tradition, and functionality.

Filmspiel, Theater der Bewegung!
Bewegung ist Leben
Wirkliches Leben ist echt, einfach und wahr.
deshalb keine Pose, keine Rührmätzchen.
Im Film nicht, nicht auf der Leinwand, nicht im Bau.
Zeigt, was drin steht. was drin ist...
... Universum, - die ganze Welt ! - (1)


(1) Eric Mendelsohn - "Zur Eröffnung des Kinos 'Universum'" 1931 Bauwelt 1961.
(2) Sidney L. Bernstein, Chairman of Bernstein Cinemas Ltd. - Architectural Journal Nov 7 1935.
(3) Rachel Low - "The History of the British Film"
(4) Schliepmann - "Lichtspiel-Theater in Gross Berlin" 1914
(5) Dennis Sharp - "The Picture Palace" 1969.
(6) P. Morton Shand - "Modem Theatres and Cinemas" London 1951
(7) Fritz Wilms - "Lichtspieltheaterbauten"
(8) Theodor Heuss - "Hans Poelzig"
(9) Wolfgang Pehnt - "Expressionist Architecture" 1975
(10) Paul Zucker - "Lichtspielhauser und Tonfilmtheater" 1927
(11) Arnold Whittick - "Eric Mendelsohn" 1964
(12) Eric Mendelsohn "Letters of an architect"

Other Bibliography

Konrad Lange - "Das Kino in Gegenwart u. Zukünft"
Hans Poelzig - "Gesamte Schriften und Werke"
Eric Mendelsohn - "Gesamte Schaffen"
Fritz Wilms - "Neue Berliner Lichtspiel Theater"
Paul Zucker - "Theater und Lichtspiel Häuse” 1926
0. Bie - "Der Architekt Oskar Kaufmann"

Created on June 12th 1975

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