Kino International: Combining tradition with an extraordinary atmosphere

Hand illustrated film posters, champagne-colored sequins, imposing crystal chandeliers and a panoramic foyer – the GDR’s functionaries certainly put everything they had into the Kino International. Situated halfway along Karl-Marx-Allee, between Alexanderplatz and Strausberger Platz, Kino International was the GDR’s premier cinema and one of its architectural highlights. With its light and spacious architecture, this freestanding, three-storey reinforced concrete building is a stylistic departure from the area’s prevailing Stalinist architecture. Josef Kaiser designed the building that has become a testament to modernist architecture and is now a designated monument. Sensitive renovation of the cinema means that today’s filmgoers can experience the atmosphere of a bygone era.

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image courtesy of Daniel Horn / Yorck Kinogruppe

On the subject of history: Kino International got off to a mixed start. Everybody who was anybody, including the Mayor Friedrich Ebert, the Soviet Ambassador Pjotr Abrassimov, and the State and Party leader Walter Ulbricht and his wife Lotte, attended the cinema’s opening night on 15 November 1963. The 17.5-meter wide giant screen stood ready to be graced by the Soviet epic “Optimistic Tragedy”. But the copy of the film had been produced at the very last minute and was still too wet and too heavy for the projection equipment. Or the film had not been transported or stored correctly and was too brittle and cracked – here the legends differ. For whatever reason, the film ripped twice in the first act, and there were more technical mishaps to come. “And this is the latest technology?” is what the first man of the GDR is supposed to have muttered in disbelief, just loudly and clearly enough to be understood by those around him.

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image courtesy of Daniel Horn / Yorck Kinogruppe

But what was born in catastrophe soon took its place in history. The cinema offered cinematic gems such as “Spur der Steine” (“Trace of Stones”) with Manfred Krug and Liza Minnelli dancing her way through “Cabaret”, Fellini’s “Ginger and Fred” and the (instantly) censored “Die Kommisarin”. Konrad Wolf’s “Solo Sunny” had the cinema’s most successful run, drawing 100,000 viewers – a film still regarded as a classic today. The last ever film premiere in the GDR took place on the day the Berlin Wall fell: Heiner Carow’s “Coming Out” challenged its audience with the subject of homosexuality just as the country’s borders were opening to the West. But the Kino International was more than just a cinema. As well as housing a library and the Oktoberklub’s offices there was a stately lounge in the building’s basement, a place for state functionaries to socialize before and after film premieres. Even in the period immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall the cinema’s top floor hosted Klub International, a venue for official events as well as legendary performances by musicians such as Feeling B and Bayon.

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image courtesy of froodmat / photocase.de

A large number of filmmakers still choose the cinema to host their premieres because of its unique atmosphere. In February 1990, the Berlinale – Berlin’s International Film Festival – nominated Kino International as one of its select cinemas. It is definitely worth experiencing a film from the comfort of one of the cinema’s plush blue chairs, if only to soak up the cinema’s rich tradition and unique atmosphere.

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