The Arsenal in Berlin

by Ulrich Gregor

At the beginning of January in 1970 the Friends of the German Cinematheque (Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek) opened up the Arsenal Cinema in Welser Strasse in West Berlin—in place of the Bayreuther Lichtspiele, which had specialized in Adele Sandrock films but that was now in dire straits. The Friends of the German Cinematheque, founded in 1963 as a supplement to the German Cinematheque, had two main motivations to establish their own cinema: the increasing frequency of their events, and on the other hand the increasing difficulties in continuing this work where it had so far taken place—in the studio at the Academy of the Arts (Akademie der Künste) and at the Bellevue cinema. While the Studio of the Academy of the Arts in particular did provide near ideal conditions, the rent was too high, and often enough the studio was not available when filmmakers traveling through town suddenly appeared with film rolls under their arms or when screenings were tied to a specific date. So already in 1969 it seemed auspicious (and, with regard to the film holdings available at the various Berlin archives, possible) to open a continuously running cinema under the direction of the Friends of the German Cinematheque. “Arsenal” was chosen due to the variety of possible interpretations of the name, but not least in reference to the Soviet silent film by the same name directed by Alexander Dovzhenko, which the Arsenal screened at its opening and has regularly repeated at the beginning of January).

The founding of the Arsenal initially entailed significant difficulties, because a subsidy from the Berlin Class Lottery (Berliner Klassenlotterie) to purchase the cinema, which had practically already been confirmed, was denied at the last moment. So the necessary amount had to be procured by our own efforts and sometimes in imaginative ways. But we managed, and we also managed to keep the Arsenal financially above water and to protect it from the collapse that some were already suspecting. The fact is that this was possible is mainly due to two circumstances: first, the many years of work by the Friends of the German Cinematheque had already cultivated an audience that now provided a core audience for the new cinema; and second, practically all the staff at the Arsenal went without a salary. Only in this way was it possible to get a cinema—with a demanding and unique programming structure that was devised as an alternative to what was already on offer by the commercial movie theaters—over the critical period of the first year (Kersten 1971).

From the beginning the program at the Arsenal was conceived as a program of great breadth and variety. Each day the Arsenal screened and screens at least three different films (on weekends it comes to five, including a screening for children and a late-night screening at half past midnight). This conception of the program resulted from the goal set by the Friends of the German Cinematheque at its beginning. They were concerned with achieving a specific kind of educational and informational work, by presenting films not as isolated objects, but as part of a context that went well beyond the individual film—whether in connection with a retrospective, a thematically based program, a national cross-section program, or a seminar. According to this conception, films should not be presented as singular “artworks,” but as products of a medium that can be explained through certain factors—through social, political, economic factors, through factors within the artistic tradition or in rejection of artistic tradition. The Arsenal therefore always attempted to place a film in relation to at least one other film or a whole group of films. The ideal case was to develop larger retrospectives and program blocks, such as recently the retrospectives of documentary films and Soviet silent films; such as the program of Cuban and Latin American films, Polish, Soviet, Hungarian, English, Italian, Algerian, and new German films that could be seen in recent months; such as the grouping of films aimed at a political demographic or those under the title Der phantastische Film (eng. The fantastic Film) and Innenwelt als Außenwelt (eng. Inner World as Outer World). The latter was devoted to certain aspects of experimental film. Films in the programming conception of the Arsenal were thus always supposed to be introduced “purposefully,” and this principle is in no way restricted to the political and demographically oriented films.

Another principle of the Arsenal is to confront the old with the new. When the Friends of the German Cinematheque was founded in 1963, they assumed their primary duty to be in relation to film history, although they never saw this duty in a one-sided museum-like sense. Rather, they were much more interested in forging new paths in film history from today’s perspective, in breathing fresh life into the classics of film (as well as forgotten or underestimated works from the past) by interrogating them from today’s point of view or today’s aesthetic sensibilities. This can occur by selecting classic films according to certain angles, but also by systematically contrasting old and new films. This is why the Arsenal always tries to organize the programming in several parallel series, alongside a historical retrospective: for instance, to show a modern program that is chosen according to its own criteria, but that in the ideal case also has some relation to the historical program. This allows for constant interconnections; spectators can make discoveries for themselves. Film history can be received and evaluated according to modern criteria, films of the present can be measured according to the thematic and formal developments that had already been reached by the medium of film in the past. The Friends of the German Cinematheque understand film history as a continuum that reaches into the present. But even the engagement with modern film, with film as a medium of social communication, must be brought into relation (if it is not to deteriorate into blind empiricism) with the awareness of the historical development of the medium of film.

This concept is oriented to that of the best foreign cinematheque-cinemas (Cinémathèque Française in Paris, Cinémathèque Belge in Brussels, National Film Theatre in London), but it attempts to go beyond these models since the Arsenal sees itself as equally committed to contemporary film as to historical.

Through its work the Arsenal seeks to contribute to the dissemination of a new understanding of film whose main traits have already been formulated, but also to the formation of a new audience that no longer views film as a consumer product to fill their leisure time, as a means of aesthetic beautification, distraction, or obfuscation, as a vehicle for “entertainment,” but as a medium of enlightenment, of critique, and of reflection, or of personal expression, of experiment, and of imagination. A program that starts from such an understanding of film in no way needs to be dry or boring, it can be presented as original, varied, pleasurable, and surprising.

To the extent that it has attempted to develop such a program, the Arsenal has understood itself from the very beginning as a deliberate alternative to the existing system of commercial cinemas (including the arthouse cinemas). These cinemas are namely not in any position to truly accommodate the new understanding of film and the new wishes of the audience because they are ultimately obliged to view film primarily as a commodity, because they are fundamentally subject to compulsory amortization of the capital invested in films, building, and equipment.

Generally films are only shown once or twice at the Arsenal. In rare cases, however, films are also given more screenings (at most up to seven in a month when it’s a matter of “establishing” a certain film or filmmaker who otherwise has no chance). For experience has taught us that individual films have to be introduced over and over at intervals to get a certain reputation with the audience (already in 1970 and 1971 the Arsenal repeatedly showed some Stroheim films and Alexander Medvedkin’s classic Happiness, during which we noticed a tendency toward growing audience numbers—as was the case with the English experimental film Mare’s Tail, which no one wanted to hear anything about at first, while now it has “found” its audience.) It has, however, also been one of the Arsenal’s principles to show a film, even with repeat screenings, only once a day, and to hold to the rule of three different films each day.

The work of the Arsenal also seeks to contribute to closer communication between the members and the spectators as well as between filmmakers and spectators, so that the cinema becomes a meeting point and a discussion center. (This is the aim, for instance, of the idea of the “open house,” an evening where anyone can bring and screen his films, or an attempt planned for the future to screen films or film clips “by request” on certain evenings). There are unfortunately some inhospitable structural factors at the Arsenal that get in the way of developing communication. The foyer is too small, other rooms need to be found, which at the moment are not available.

The Arsenal (much like the National Film Theatre in London) is a cinema club that is open to members and their guests. The membership is necessary because it forms the conditions for the official status of Gemeinnützigkeit (comparable to non-profit status) and because many films can only be obtained for a members’ group. Membership at the Arsenal (membership is obtained from the Friends of the German Cinematheque) cost 10.80 DM for a half year, and 5 DM for students and interns. Movie tickets for members cost 2.50 DM per screening, 3.50 for guests. In addition there are day passes and passes for individual series, which offer further discounts.

The members (currently there is a fixed base of around 3,500) receive the Arsenal’s monthly program by post, which contains the program details as well as details on the individual films and programs on the back side. This monthly program is printed in a run of 25,000 on average and placed or hung in many locations throughout the city. The information on the programs is supplemented by sporadically appearing program booklets (series “Kinemathek”) and by mimeographed sheets on individual events. Overall the information on the events can still not yet be considered sufficient. But there is no quick fix for this situation; for in order to produce sufficient information on each individual program a highly qualified person would have to be hired full time exclusively to this end. Aside from the difficulty of finding such a person, the funds for this are currently not available. Nonetheless the information on the films has recently improved. The most important publication to mention here is Das Kino als Ideologiefabrik (eng. The Cinema as an Ideology Factory) by Klaus Kreimeier—texts and images from a television series that was produced for the WDR.

In 1971 more than 80,000 visitors came to the Arsenal (and that with only a ten-month season due to construction—that amounts to an increase of 30% over the previous year).

The Arsenal audience can generally be characterized as a young audience with a preponderance of university students. But there are also many interns and school-age students among them as well. Depending on the nature of the program, there are sometimes quite different groups of visitors coming to the Arsenal, for instance for older or foreign films.

National groups (Italians, Spaniards) come to the Arsenal to see films in their native languages. At this point it can be added that foreign films as a rule are only screened in their original versions at the Arsenal, and when there are no subtitles they are translated into German using a microphone and loudspeaker. Due to a principled aversion to dubbing, which destroys one entire dimension of the film (namely the original soundtrack), German-dubbed versions are only shown in exceptional cases, and only when this is unavoidable.

Advertisement for the Arsenal is currently limited to sending and distributing the monthly program. Occasionally press screenings will be held for new films; the reviews have always had a positive effect on audience numbers. In general the press is happy to support the work of the Arsenal. In addition, however, one of our goals is for the daily program of the Arsenal to appear in the advertising section of the newspaper, which is currently not happening due to the unfulfillable financial demands of the newspapers (by contrast it has long been common practice in Paris that all newspapers publish the daily program of the Cinémathèque Française without charge).

In terms of technology, the Arsenal is equipped for screenings of 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm films. Thanks to a grant from the state of Berlin and the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film it was possible to purchase a 16mm projector and to carry out a general modernization of the technical equipment, especially also the sound equipment. At the moment we are still undergoing difficulties screening 35mm silent films at the correct speed (16 or 18 frames per second) and with the correct aspect ratio as well as screening films with a separate soundtrack. The Arsenal has acquired a mobile 35mm projector from the early days of cinema with adjustable speed. Unfortunately the image it produces is too dark. We are pursuing the option of slowing down the speed of the of the 35mm projector when screening silent films by installing an electronic frequency transformer (a new invention that has recently come on the market and replaces the expensive Rotosyn system). In addition we need to acquire a stationary dubber for all existing formats of Perfo-Sound (so that not only 16mm, but also 35mm can be screened with separate sound).

The Arsenal gets the films for its program from archives, television stations, producers, filmmakers, distribution companies, and cooperatives, with only a very small portion coming from commercial film distribution. These prints usually have to be tracked down with great effort; it is equally difficult—and costly—to obtain screening rights. It is obvious that putting together such a structured program entails much higher organizational expenditures than for a commercial movie theater, which only needs to get the films from distributors. Especially because we are in Berlin, many prints have to be brought in by air. For this reason public funding for the Arsenal is an existential question in the long term. (The legitimacy of support for non-commercial film work by public funds need not be explained any further here). Initially there were great difficulties with the Berlin Senate Office. The grant for the “Arsenal” in the first year was minimal. By now, however, (in part inspired by the founding of the Arsenal) other venues and municipal cinemas with a similar orientation have developed in other parts of West Germany, and have received public recognition and, in some cases, generous support from the municipalities. The situation of the Friends of the German Cinematheque has also improved in this way. For the year 1971 there was a support package of just under DM 30,000. This is still much less than what the work needs (and less than what other municipal cinemas in West Germany have received), but a certain perspective of positive development can be recognized nonetheless.

One of the most important factors supporting the new cinema work is now the International Forum of New Cinema (Internationales Forum des Jungen Films) which was initiated in 1971 in a bid to rescue the Berlin Film Festival. A significant part of the films in the Forum could also be made available afterwards to other venues in West Germany by the Friends of the German Cinematheque, which has also provided new impulses to the work of these institutions.

The future of the Arsenal, like that of other non-commercial “venues” in West Germany, will be reliant on close cooperation with one another. It is absolutely necessary to inform one another about programs and plans (which in part is already happening), but also to become active in procuring prints and screening rights, since prints and rights can usually be obtained more easily with a larger number of interested parties than when only a single, isolated interest appears. There is also no point in waiting until a central German film archive makes enough funding available to prepare distribution prints of all the important film classics (although this would be a goal worth striving for); rather the venues and cinemas of the new type must make efforts, within the range of their possibilities, to create prints of the films necessary for their work and to finance them jointly. The first steps in this direction have already been taken.



Kersten, Heinz. 1971. “Ein Jahr Berliner Arsenal.” Filmkritik 15 (1): 3–6.

Kreimeier, Klaus. 1971. Das Kino als Ideologiefabrik: Leitbilder und Stereotypen in der Geschichte des deutschen Films. Berlin: Kinemathek 45.