Berlin - It's a sad sight to behold. Empty film poster displays. A neon sign that hasn't shone for more than a year. When the Colosseum cinema in Prenzlauer Berg had to close on 14 March 2020, no one in the neighbourhood thought it might be goodbye forever. But the theatre hasn't reopened. Just two months into the corona shutdown, the operator declared insolvency. It was the end of a cinema with a long tradition. And the beginning of a battle for culture, jobs and the question of how much change the city can take.
On a cool afternoon, Michel Rieck and Daniela Baumann stand at the intersection in front of the cinema. Schönhauser Allee is as busy as ever. The two former staff members are forlorn: "Many of us worked here for 20 years and more. The Colosseum is like a second home to them." Some 43 former employees are fighting for their jobs - and a piece of their identity.
Plans to convert the Colosseum into offices
The Colosseum isn't just any old cinema. It's a historical landmark. Movies have been shown here for nearly a century, making it one of the oldest cinemas in Germany. The building dates to 1894. For 30 years it was a garage housing horse-drawn trams, but in 1924 it was converted to a movie house. During the Second World War, it was used as a makeshift military hospital. In 1957, it reopened as a theatre. In East Germany it was the premiere cinema of East Berlin. Oscar-nominated films like Frank Beyer's Naked Among Wolves (1963) premiered here.
After reunification, the trust tasked with selling off East German assets put all cinemas up for sale. West Berlin film mogul Artur Brauner seized the opportunity and kept the cinema until his death in 2019. The last managing director was his son, Berlin realtor Sammy Brauner. But he, like the other Brauner heirs, has no interest in the movie business. For some time now, there have been plans to convert the complex into a "work campus" - without a cinema.
Shortly after the pandemic began, the Brauner heirs declared the Colosseum insolvent. A deliberate ploy?
It was only a matter of time before the first cinema fell victim to the pandemic, said insolvency administrator Sebastian Laboga. Under hygiene regulations and a distance of 1.5m between moviegoers, profitable operation was nearly impossible. Other cinemas, however, reopened in the summer. The final act of the Colosseum's demise followed on 24 August: the Brauner community of heirs had the lease terminated without notice by a lawyer.
Are movie theatres on the brink of extinction?
Corona has been hard for all cinemas. Competition is fierce. In Berlin, large multiplexes like Cinestar in the Sony Center - and the Imax 3D theatre with it - threw in the towel before corona. But it's not the first time that "cinema death" has been on people's tongues. Already with the advent of television, it was thought cinemas' days were numbered.. Then again with DVDs. And streaming. But cinemas are still around.
Last year, there were 1,227 cinema operators in Germany, the same number as in 2019. The number of venues, i.e. individual cinemas, fell by six to 1,730. But how is the industry doing in the second year of the pandemic? We call Bernd Neumann. The former CDU politician has been president of the German Federal Film Board (FFA) since February 2014. Neumann gets straight to the point. "The cinemas are in a dramatically bad situation." Turnover fell by almost 70 per cent in 2020. This year, cinemas have hardly earned a cent.
It's still unclear when they will reopen. At least the corona numbers are falling and the vaccination campaign is picking up speed, so there's some hope on the horizon. The fact that there hasn't been a wave of bankruptcies in the film sector is thanks to the state aid programmes and the suspended obligation to declare insolvency through the end of April. Film promoter Neumann says the cinemas were able to use the time to invest in modern technology and upgrade their equipment. So things could pick up again. Neumann doesn't believe people will have lost their desire to go to the movies after the pandemic. "People are tired of just sitting at home on the sofa," he says.
Hundreds protest for the Colosseum
A lot of Prenzlauer Berg locals care about the cinema. After the Colosseum was shuttered, several hundred people marched through the neighbourhood last summer - demanding the preservation of their cinema. Celebrities like actor Jürgen Vogel voiced their support: "Please do everything you can to keep the Colosseum." Over 10,000 people have signed an online petition to save it.
There was even an exhibition in the nearby Gethsemane Church. Residents could leave messages. Memories they associate with the cinema. Childhood visits, a first kiss. Prenzlauer Berg may have changed rapidly but the cinema was always there. A piece of home. The Colosseum is the only cinema in East Berlin with a theatre that seats more than 500 people.
The issue has long since attracted the attention of politicians. "The Colosseum simply belongs here," Pankow's district mayor Sören Benn (Die Linke) told this newspaper. The neighbourhood doesn't need new offices, he said. Benn wants the cinema to be a public place, a meeting place for all in the district - regardless of origin and social status.
However, local politicians have failed to stipulate the use of the property as a cinema in planning law. According to media reports, the Pankow Bezirksamt expects a possible re-sale to bring in tens of millions of euros. Sammy Brauner told Der Spiegel that the property had urban development potential and that a multiplex cinema had no future at the location.
The year 2021 will also be tough for cinemas. The loss of revenue could be even more severe than in the first year of the pandemic. Industry reps stress that it is not worth reopening if theatres are only 20 per cent full and the sale of popcorn and drinks is prohibited by the mask requirement. Out of an average ticket price of €8, €4 goes to the distributor, says Christine Berg, chair of the board of the cinema association HDF. The industry urgently needs more state support, she told the Berliner Zeitung. And above all, an inkling of when things will pick up again. All five cinema and distribution associations are calling on politicians to reopen on 1 July.
The Senat is looking into it
Whether the Colosseum gets another chance is far from clear. Managing director Sammy Brauner does not want to talk to former staff, but they're refusing to give up hope and are clinging to the idea that a new operator will step in - the state of Berlin. Last autumn, the district of Pankow approached state Economy Minister Ramona Pop (Die Grüne) to discuss preserving the Colosseum as a culture location i.e. buying it. The Berlin government (Senat) signalled support for the idea. But how will the Brauner heirs react? Our enquiry remains unanswered.
"The insolvency has shown how attached the staff are to the cinema," says Michel Rieck. That, at least, is a positive sign. Even if many have already found new jobs. And severance pay wasn't paid. At the Späti across the street, the slogan "Save the Colosseum" still flashes on an LED screen. "It's inconceivable that such a building would become offices," says Rieck. After all, he says, the pandemic had more and more people working from home and it's unlikely that they'll all head back into the office as they did before.
It's time to go now. At the traffic lights, a few metres further on, the two former theatre workers take a last look at the Colosseum before saying goodbye. A man standing next to them says "Too bad", pointing at empty building fading in the dusk. "True," says Daniela Baumann. "But it remains our home." A hint of pride resonates in her voice. And maybe exactly that should give Berlin's cinemas hope: that there are still people who are willing to fight for them.