A Last Bastion of Movie Magic | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 10.08.2004
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A Last Bastion of Movie Magic

Berlin's movie theaters are closing in rapid succession, taking a small piece of Berlin tradition with them: the endangered art of hand-painted movie posters.


Hand-painted movie ads are a dying art

The recent wave of major Hollywood blockbusters filmed in Berlin has helped the former film capital recover some of its former glory, but unfortunately that success hasn't trickled down to the city's independent cinemas, which have been crushed by soaring rents, weak demand and the onslaught of chain multiplex theaters. It's a fate shared by cinemas across the country.

Filmbühne am Steinplatz, Kino in Berlin

In Berlin alone, six cinemas were forced to shut in 2003, while a total of eleven cinemas have gone dark since 1998, replaced by anonymous multiplexes indistinguishable from others in London, Hong Kong or New Jersey.

As the lights go out in one movie theater after another, Berlin looks set to lose one of its most unique arts. The demise of the independent movie theater also spells the end of the hand painted movie poster. They may not have the polish of the new-era glossy posters, but they have old-fashioned charm in abundance -- and that's what Berlin's celluloid tradition is all about.

Though a number of theaters are still supporting the time-honored tradition of the hand-painted movie poster, the art is clearly in its twilight years.

Fighting for survival

Michael Werner is the purveyor of Berlin's only remaining movie poster painting business. When his father set the company up back in 1945, the competition was stiff. Twenty other painting businesses operated in post-war Berlin, but the company flourished. In its heyday, Werner Werbung employed 20 artists to paint the giant movie posters, which could fill as much as 34 square meters of canvas, for Berlin's cinemas. Today his rivals have all thrown in the towel and Werner has just one remaining employee on his books, artist Götz Valien.

"The real slump began around 1999," Werner told DW-WORLD. "An entire generation of cinemas has been put out of business," he said. "In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, everyone got overly excited and too ambitious. Their market strategy was all wrong," he opined. "They built cinemas that were far too big and there just weren't the audiences for them."

Hardest hit by the new conditions in the reunited city were the theaters in former West Berlin, where Werner's client base has traditionally been located. Rising rents and the sudden competition in the east of the city forced many out of business. With an ever declining core of clients, Werner Werbung, now almost 60 years old, is struggling to stay afloat.

In its glory days of the 1920s, Berlin was home to many of Germany’s first ever movie theatres and boasted the highest density of cinemas in the country. Venues such as the Gloria Palast, the Marmorhaus and the Filmbühne Wien were grand buildings, fitted out by the most sought-after interior designers of their day, with in-house orchestras to accompany the films.

But the city's auspicious beginnings as a movie capital are now a very distant memory. The former Marmorhaus on the landmark Kurfürstendamm avenue now houses the Swedish clothes chain H&M , while the former heart of the Berlin Film Festival, the Zoopalast, is facing likely demolition.

A cultural treasure

And with them, an entire genre of art may soon be lost. Michael Werner says his company is upholding a valuable Berlin tradition, begun in the early 20th century by a host of famous poster artists, including Theo Matejko, Josef Fenneker and Ludwig Kainer. Their designs for movie hoardings advertised films by seminal directors, including Ernst Lubitsch, F.W.Murnau and Max Ophuls, which helped shaped modern cinema as we know it.

Handgemaltes Kinoplakat, Susi und Strolch

Their nostalgic value aside, Werner also points out that his posters are special "because every single one is unique." He said the paintings remain marketable today because of their near perfection. "If anyone but a skilled artist painted these images, they'd end up turning George Clooney into Asterix," he said.

Werner knows his company's days are numbered. But for now, he's digging his heels in. He may not have to go to the office five days a week, but there's still enough work to stay in business.

"I won't shut down until I have to," he said.

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