A handful of films set in Berlin enjoy classic status yet there are countless unknown gems out there which also show the changing face of Germany’s capital and one cinema is starting to gather them all together.
When you think of films set in Berlin, chances are that the tired handful of usual suspects will always spring to mind: Franke Potente haring around the streets of Kreuzberg in "Run, Lola Run," for example, or the occasional glimpse of dreary grey concrete high-rises featured in the Stasi drama "The Lives of Others."
You might also think of Christian Ulmen drinking his days away in the Markthalle bar in Leander Haussmann's comedy-drama, "Herr Lehmann," or perhaps an image of the statue of Lenin being unceremoniously hauled down Karl-Marx-Allee by helicopter in "Goodbye Lenin" is the scene you remember best.
Any others? No, I didn't think so.
It's precisely this continued focus on the same bunch of Berlin-based movies which inspired journalist Jan Gympel to launch the Berlin Film Katalog at the Brotfabrik theater and cinema in Weissensee. The aim is to show a wealth of long-forgotten movies filmed right here in the city and at the same time compile an archive of this material for posterity.
Rediscovering hidden gems
"The selection of Berlin films shown on TV and in the cinema is getting smaller and smaller,” says Gympel over a coffee in the Brotfabrik's bustling café. "The same 15, 20 films are shown over and over: "Himmel über Berlin," "Berlin Alexanderplatz," "Berlin Ecke Schönhauser." It's always the same stuff. But there are countless movies out there, largely unknown or long-forgotten, which also deserve our interest."
The series launched with the West German film, "Endstation Liebe" (Terminus Love), a 1958 drama starring Germany's James Dean, Horst Buchholz. The film has never been commercially released and it's so rare today that Gympel had to project a rather degraded, 20-year-old VHS copy of the film.
"'Endstation Liebe' is a good example. It features Horst Buchholz, one of our most famous actors, and it was directed by Georg Tressler; he was hardly an unknown," says Gympel. "But today the film is almost forgotten. How can it be that a movie like that has never had a commercial release? We want to try to prove that these actors and directors made movies that are maybe less well known but are just as good as their most famous works."
After launching with a West German film, the obvious choice for the second installment of the Berlin Film Katalog was to skip over the border and present an East German one. The film chosen was the 1967 musical "Hochzeitsnacht am Regen," or Wedding Night in the Rain.
"That's also very obscure," says Gympel, "And at the time, quite avant-garde in the way it was shot."
After dramas from both East and West German film history, tonight's screening was the 1982 documentary "Gedächtnis" (Memory). The crackly, black-and-white film sees celebrated German actors Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander become documentary interviewers as they spend time with fellow performers Bernhard Minetti, a distinguished stage performer, and Curt Bois, who can arguably lay claim to the longest acting career on record, having appeared on stage and in films over an 80-year period.
Berlin, the star
While the reminiscences of the two protagonists are interesting enough, I get the feeling that the real star of the show is Berlin itself.
"I remember visiting the city in the early 80s," says one elderly female viewer at the end of the screening. "It looked just like that. It was lovely to see it again."
And indeed I felt myself occasionally nodding off during the lengthy interview excerpts only to spring back to life whenever Ganz and Sander took their camera outside and offered the occasional glimpse of a ruined, Cold War Berlin.
The film offered only the occasional tantalizing glimpse. The now über-chic Savigny Platz in Charlottenburg can be seen from a passing train and looks rundown and depressing; a high shot of the only surviving section of the façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, behind it only scrubland and rubble; a shot up the lengthy avenue Strasse des 17. Juni capped at one end by the Wall, topped with a tangle of barbed wire.
Shot in winter, a thick mist hangs in the air, the actors' breaths are visible at all times, Ganz and Sander are wrapped up in thick winter coats, muffled with scarves and keeping the cold out with Fedora hats. They seem to epitomize the Cold War era stereotype in the city: cold, bleak and populated by with shifty, raincoat-wearing spies.
The first and only Stasi film
The series continued with the 1960 East German propaganda film "Septemberliebe" (September Love). Filmed before the Berlin Wall was constructed, it blows the idea out of the water that one of the first films to concentrate on the work of East Germany's secret police force, the Stasi, was 2006's "The Lives of Others." This was one of the first, and subsequently one of the only films produced in the communist East which attempted to justify the existence of the Stasi.
As the screenings continue and the database builds, members of the public can also suggest overlooked films on the Brotfabrik's website. It's all designed to present a fuller picture of Berlin's cinema output and complete the archive, says Jan Gympel.
"We want people to realize there is so much more out there than is usually shown," he says.
But I can't quite kick the feeling that, like me and the lady I spoke to at the cinema, the stories and the messages of these films might well be overlooked in favor of getting the chance to see snapshots of the city we all love so much.
But then who am I to criticize? I spent half of "Gedächtnis" asleep.