From across the Atlantic I observe Berlin through media, watch all of Berlin Alexanderplatz (briefly glance at the book), chew on the names of streets I will soon walk… and I do walk them and the city unfolds itself in many ways, stops being the distant object it was; now, a place of launch pads. My seeking begins with a program of Berlin cinema. This sets off a cartography of sorts, navigation by lighthouse. A film belongs to the dark and can only be fully absorbed in the isolation of and submerged submission to sitting in a black room in front of a large bright screen. And so I search out these dark rooms. It involves a little fieldwork, scrutinizing some pamphlets, saturating my search history with movie theater websites provoking Google’s excited, auto-generated guesses to single letters:
F-ilm in berlin
L-ist of best movie theaters
N-ear me film
A-rt house cinema Berlin
and all through the alphabet it goes. And so my search bar spits out these recipes for a Saturday evening and I go out searching for the state of extremes and of equilibrium, and follow the stories I find because beyond the medium (which I love) I can’t resist a good story.
But it is word-of-mouth that sets me off to stop at number one on my list, Mitte’s Babylon.
Located in Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, The Babylon is a large, good-postured building constructed in 1929 and designed by Hans Poelzig. It bends around a corner and surveys the square in that nice way a sober building does. The Babylon lobby has those red fabric details, elements I’ve come to expect in a proper cinema and as I enter I am reassured by posters of upcoming films, interesting ones, and wondering if Godard’s Breathless is all it’s cracked up to be (it is). Before entering the screening room, I scurry to the bathroom, lose my ticket, and in a maelstrom of confusion and realization, flush it down the toilet. Luckily, the ticket-taker has temporarily left his post and so I slip in unnoticed, hands clean and empty. Had I not been banishing my ticket to the sewers I would have learned about the upcoming festivals being offered at The Babylon: 1960s Italy and Berlin Sci-fi. The theater also offers a wide array of silent films, which, when the cinema first opened in 1929, were the hottest new flicks.
After the first movie I watched at The Babylon, and after every one since then, I sit on the steps of the Volksbühne just across from the cinema and watch the night people go. Bars surround the Platz and there is a safe, hazy and slow distance in observing the light and the movements and dulled sound of beer-conversations. In one corner, two men dance quite impressively to American 80s tunes; in the grass, a man throws a ball to his dog; straight ahead, an unattended 1950s sports car makes me wish I had basic knowledge of carjacking.
After a movie, there is temptation to deflate the state of active awareness the experience develops within us – if the movie is any good. Ideally in a movie theater there is nothing else to notice except the film. The mind therefore becomes optimally shaped to assume the role of the flaneur and so, in turning on your phone or checking your watch, one returns to “reality” in a very abrupt, violent way that really the mind both dislikes and finds temporarily comforting. To sit in a movie theater is to forbid the brain from reverting to the reflex of hyper-saturation, multitasking, of mindlessly flipping between channels of popular consumption. We’ve forgotten how to do one thing at a time, and going to the movies, although an experience of curated stimulation in its very nature, is also a practice in sitting still, in absorbing information wholly, in paying attention. After a movie, sit or walk but keep watching.
Eventually, of course, we turn on our phones. I start by googling if “engulfment” is a word on the tram home after seeing Rocco and his Brothers during another trip to The Babylon; by S+U Pankow I am downloading a pdf of Carl Jung essays. And so of course Jung-on-the-tram starts telling me about film without ever mentioning the movies: our fears never change but rather we come up with more intelligent (and often effective) ways of coping with them. The main fear, taking many beastly forms, being death. I can’t quite convince myself that cinema suspends this fear (I’m not sure anything can) but surely it gives us a safe, similar but distant reality to explore the idea. Maybe we’re numb to death and dying on the screen nowadays. I’d like to think our brain at least considers mortality in those moments, glances over the fact before, as it inevitably does, retreating into the safety of the present and the assurance of existence (the ding of your phone is so comforting, no?). I enjoy imagining the darkness of nonexistence (but it’s not really darkness, it’s “…”) in the moments before the projection begins. We’re all sitting there, present, together, totally in the dark, and (if there are no chatterers) in a rare silence. Two older men talked all throughout Rocco and his Brother. I don’t speak enough (any) German so maybe they were talking to Rocco and his brothers, interacting, which, to me, is somehow less obnoxious.
Now, if you’ve gotten all mixed up on your way to The Babylon at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and find yourself in Kreuzberg, that means you’ve arrived at the Babylon Kreuzberg which shows some popular releases as well as more obscure, independent films. Here, in contrast with the quiet observance of Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, one can ricochet off swarms of saloon-goers and feel that characteristic buzz of Berlin bar culture. It allows for a noisier reflection, thoughts accompanied by clinking and gulping. I sit at a bar after a film and this time I have some paper in my pocket and a pen in my front belt loop; placed there as a reminder to remember something. I jot down some notes in the dim light and lose the paper on the way home. To be totally frank, I can’t remember which film I saw there… I’ve seen so many since my arrival. My memory insists I saw a music documentary (I’m not convinced). I pass a man playing clarinet in the subway on the way home, which is probably where I lose my paper.
The Rollberg Kino is located near Tempelhofer Feld; situated on a discreet little alley on a discreet little side street. There are some picnic tables outside the theater where you can sit and seriously ponder cinema (ponder picnic). I go there to see Apocalypse Now: Final Cut. There’s nothing too remarkable about the kino; small, comfortable screening rooms, shows mostly new releases. I’m alone in the theater (and outright exuberant about it) until a man and a woman enter 10 minutes into the movie, which in Apocalypse Now: Final Cut terms is a heartbeat.
Exiting the theater after 3 hours and 3 minutes of the Vietnam War, I walk through the alley, in the boots a girl once said she’d never wear because they looked too military. The man who entered the movie 10 minutes late begins dropping pistachio shells out of his pockets and onto the ground. Handfuls of the empty shells trail behind him and the woman. I don’t notice the pistachio shells until I step on a cluster and get spooked by the pop. Then I begin making rhythm of these fallen shells because the percussion is actually quite nice and I’ve just been subjected to all the sounds of explosions that I was responsible for in some way and I wanted to claim the genesis of another sound, a sinless sound.
The Lichtblick Kino, a 30-some seat Prenzlauer Berg cinema, shows independent films and many classic old films. There is a screening of Casablanca every Saturday at midnight. The cinema sits right in front of a tram stop.The whole screening room rumbles whenever a tram goes by, which is a disorienting reminder that you’re not in Casablanca but instead sitting in Berlin, neck craned slightly, staring at a flat, vertical surface.
In the 2 AM darkness, a man at the tram stop engages with me.
“What are you studying?”
“I go to a liberal arts school.”
“That means I don’t have to choose yet.”
“What are you interested in?”
“…art history, film, literature, psychology, linguistics, philosophy–”
“Do you know Joseph Beuys?”
“Do you like Joseph Beuys?”
The guy reminds me so much of the coffee-shop man in Rennes who pulled a chair up to me and my friend, a deep gash on his left cheek actively gushing blood, and began fervently preaching about Heart of Darkness, like we just couldn’t make it if we didn’t know. The whole interaction was more awkward than anything else, like when someone has food on their face and you can’t seem to cut in and say, “Um, hey, you got a lil’ somethin’ there.” It’s not a fair comparison because this tram-stop man isn’t bleeding or ranting, but they look similar besides this and I think about it all throughout the interaction. I see the same man two days later on another side of town. There is nothing Casablanca about this and yet Casablanca to me is that conversation, and in a curious way, now, Heart of Darkness and blood.
If you manage to find it, Sputnik Kino is a lovely little kino in Kreuzberg that shows many independent films. Go through the alley, and the next one, once you’ve passed the spooky tree you’re almost there. The lights might be off in the entrance and it’ll feel like you’re invading (play it up). My first Sputnik Kino venture, I scale the five flights of stairs in total darkness because I can’t find the light switch. Totally and irreparably out of breath, I pant my request for one ticket which is met by a “HMPH. Does nobody learn German anymore?” To say I was speaking any human language in that moment would be generous (großherzig).
The kino has small, cozy theaters and a viewing lounge with chairs (die Stühle), and tables (die Tische), and couches (die Sofas) like a coffee shop. Importantly, the kino does not serve popcorn. I really am a lover of popcorn, really, truly, but if you’re going for the purist’s viewing experience, skip it. I am accustomed to the ways of the Cleveland Cinematheque, my beloved hometown theater, which, instead of popcorn, offers its iconic bowl of “please-take-one” butterscotches and other hard candies. Eating weakens the act of watching and if you’re going out to see a film, go and see it.
After the movie the you-should-be-speaking-German guy hopes I know he was kidding and gives me a tour of the cinema. He shows me the theater where the seats are made out of bricks and explains that in the 80s, they didn’t have the resources to build a proper cinema and so they used what was cheap and what was left over. He hopes I’ll come back and I will because I like going to the movies. Going to the movies elevates cinema back to the status of art. This is not to say that every movie watched in a theater is automatically artistically masterful, but rather that watching a movie on Netflix on the 18×28 cm screen is diminishing the viewers participation in the film as a total experience and is inviting the outside world to corrupt and distract them. It is the difference between looking at a Mark Rothko on your smartphone and standing in front of the painting in person in a room he has curated. It is the difference between holding your breath and drowning.
The first evening returning to Pankow from the movies (and every one since) I look to the stars. I walk due North the way back to my dorm. An arm outstretched and bent slightly to obscure the street lights, I identify the angle of the big dipper. Using my West facing dorm as an astrological ruler, I can estimate the hour with surprising accuracy. Although I have a watch, I keep losing it, and my phone is always dead. No matter the time, it’s always nice to stand and look up at the light and feel the darkness close in around the sides of your eyes, really feel the dome. Now the sky smells like rubble, I’m breathing in the remnants of a toppled building. Sometimes I stand there for great lengths, an indefinite number of minutes or moments in the spaceless time of earth’s axial dynamism. The following week I will email a nearby observatory about the Himmelskanone, a telescope built in 1896 and closed to the public. I would very much like to look through this telescope because it’s from the past and points at things I can’t see, reveals all the light projecting in the deepest black. I won’t receive a response and I’ll email again.