Thus spake the creator:
—You guys noticed that I used the same song both times, right?
The audience murmurs a collective Mmmm-hm. But me? I’m preoccupied with a groan. A low groan. The same groan, accompanied by flurries of sniggering and muttering in German, that I have been privy to for the entirety of James Benning’s 11 x 14 (1976). I twist in my seat and glance back at two large, well-dressed men in the row behind me. The groaner in question is as bald as a brick. They are holding their coats, evidently on the cusp of exiting the theatre. I wonder why it is they stayed for the Q&A despite their audible disinterest in (and, judging by the regularity of their giddily exchanged remarks, wholesale distaste for) the movie that preceded it. I turn back around, nestle deeper into my seat, and glance at the time readout on my phone. I myself had better leave if I’m to make another engagement. And so, as the two fat men rise and stride out, I scuttle along behind them.
11x14. Photo courtesy of the Austrian Film Museum.
Nothing, of course, comes of this brief encounter. I doubt these fellows even picked up on my consternation. My flustered shushing in the first fifteen minutes of Benning’s sublime film was in vain. Shhhhhhhhh, I implored! Still, the chatter persisted and only my pitiful attempts at silencing them diminished into nothingness. An uncommonly transcendent viewing experience was intermingled with irritation at my immediate neighbors in the theatre: this is the second time in under a year! In both instances, the magnetic emotional power of a movie and its all-enveloping soundtrack have overridden whatever unfortunate vocalizations I have been forced to tolerate in the name of good cinema. Though in the moment I wrestle to quell my vexations, this discomfort and annoyance later miraculously becomes a soothing part of my memory of the episode on both occasions, interwoven with the richness of response that the movies engendered in me. What a crazy thing, to associate that smokestack belching endless plumes of vapor in Benning’s film—a moment so inexplicably captivating and audacious that I think I’ll never forget it—with the titters of a pair of charlatans positioned behind me only by the vagaries of chance? Beside the few people sat nearby, did anybody else in the theatre have a comparable experience? Do they too, in these weeks that have followed, listen intently to “Black Diamond Bay” again and again in order to summon up some aspect of that same bewitching 77 minutes? Were they rocked by the same push-pull between transcendence and exasperation as I was? Why does this edge, this friction of displeasure as it scrapes up against pure bliss, somehow make the whole memory richer?
Film festivals are a curious place to watch movies. Most films at festivals exist to be talked about, to be consumed and processed in review form, sold along the line—that much is obvious. I don’t mean to sound scornful; if I often feel defeated by the strictures of these screening contexts, I admire those who are able to navigate them and emerge unscathed. But that some daily critics do it well does not belie the fact of the thing. Moreover, spending, as I did this year, the bulk of a massive corporate event like the Berlin International Film Festival at the retrospective sidebar only amplifies this sense of uncanniness. There’s a perverse remove that develops as one forgoes the customs of the festival and instead focuses on a program of eighty or ninety year-old German non-classics, surrounded not by friends and colleagues, not by one’s own unacknowledged barometers of taste, but by anonymous citizens of another country, local movie lovers presumably curious about their own cinema history. Tucked away at the retrospective, the signature events of the Berlinale—worth so much as critical currency—pass me by without leaving so much as a trace.
Normally, the sought-after experience in every festival-going cinephile’s mind is when one of these new films shines through the glut and imprints its mark on you, gloms onto your subconscious. These movies are harder to turn into post-screening talking points, harder still to reduce to critical soundbites. However, as I attend more and more festivals, I realize that I am less interested in great movies in a festival context than I am with the handful of experiences I am able to accrue while in town, old or new, retrospective or competition. These moments of clarity can be proscribed or spontaneous. I can manufacture some aspect of my schedule, some downtime, to attend a screening of a never-seen classic in an interesting setting in the hope that it will move me. Otherwise, a perfect confluence of random factors simply ushers this experience into existence.
The French call movie screenings séances. Isn’t that so much more apt and poetic than screening, which sounds as if it should be conducted at a clinic, behind a plastic curtain reeking of detergent? I have always detested mysticism when it comes to cinephilia, though I too have my moments of weakness. There’s nothing more boring than a multiplex; at opportune moments, I lapse and allow myself to be overwhelmed by the mystery of a movie house. For cinephilia is nothing if not the pursuit of dead images and their momentary reanimation. I can’t help myself; for all my futile attempts at suppression, I must admit cine-superstition comes naturally to me. Kino International, an old East German movie palace and my favorite cinema in Berlin, sits out on Karl-Marx-Allee. What better place to summon not just the physical—well, digital—presence of a classic of Soviet cinema but also the fraught, fragmented history that accompanies any full-throated defense of Socialism?
Passing by Schillingstraße, wind lashes the section of my face exposed to the air. I look down at the backs of my sinewy, pinkish hands; I misplaced my gloves a few hours ago and so push my fists deeper into my pockets and press on through the gloom. As I hasten my walk, I see the cinema up ahead in its hunched magnificence, a gaggle of cinephiles smoking in packs outside. Celerity ensures that I overlook the obvious: this stroll, taken so automatically, is unique. Dear reader, I have to confess that I have the vague, altogether embarrassing sensation that I’m interacting with history just by making this brief trek away from the hubbub of Potsdamer Platz, the Berlinale Palast, and the press lounge. (As I said, the festival atmosphere is truly an eccentric one.) The scale as I glance back at the handful of people waiting beneath the glow of traffic lights behind me is shocking; the street, Karl-Marx-Allee (once Stalinallee), was originally intended for parades of military strength and as such it is startlingly wide at close to 300 feet. I approach the Kino International, an imposing building itself, the jewel of the boulevard upon its debut. It is alien and beautiful, like a beast stirring deep in some black grotto. In June 1953, the street that I now trudge down was the site of a long march by organized workers against the government of the GDR, which in turn triggered a nationwide series of labour uprisings. Naturally, the protests ended in a massacre of upwards of 150 people.
The first time I visited the cinema, to see a 70mm print of Eolomea (1972), I took the bus and got a little lost, my eyes glued to the guide on my phone. Looking around at the anonymous roadways and wide, deserted sidewalks, I got the sense that I had stumbled unwittingly into a depopulated part of the city about which no friend had warned me. Subsequently, I realized with considerable embarrassment that you could get to the Kino International via the main station at Alexanderplatz, and the short walk past angular ex-Communist apartment buildings and under the naked branches of trees is ever in the shadow of the awe-inspiring Berliner Fernsehturm. The Kino International itself, one of the original attractions of the great boulevard, was designed and built shortly after the street was renamed in 1963. State authorities were expunging all traces of Stalin’s premiership, his octopus-like grip extending throughout the Socialist world suddenly forced back by official rebuke. The government, shortly after tearing down a famous statue of Joe Stalin on the same street in the shadow of the night of November 13, 1961, sent an official memo declaring it re-Christened Karl-Marx-Allee, and the construction of the Kino International commenced shortly afterward as part of an extended rehabilitation project. Until the collapse of Socialist rule in East Germany in 1989, this was the official cinema of the State, hosting many important premieres, film stars, and dignitaries. The basement of the cinema was a bunker once intended to shield party elites from atomic bombs rained down on East Berlin by the West. It is emblematic of the symmetry and angularity of the best of Communist architecture; a blocky facade juts out over the glass-panelled entrance. To me, standing in the cold and lining it up for a quick photograph, it looks like the equally monumental chin of Kirk Douglas.
The Cranes are Flying (1957), for all its poetry, is almost too colossal, too vast in scale, too much a monument to its own splendor and audaciousness, a little like the cinema I'm watching it in or the boulevard on which the movie-house rests. The film’s virtuosity is well-documented (and a little overrated); Kalatozov works wonders with the silence shared by lovers, the way that intimacy transforms even the drabbest of domestic spaces. Its a bracing experience, despite some reservations. Now I enter the post-screening limbo, where practical thoughts of getting to bed mingle with impressions of the movie and the place. I trudge back out into the cold and take my place among the lone walkers striding back in the direction of Alexanderplatz, the night cold once again. My gambit paid off; another successful interaction with a classic in an appropriately distinctive viewing space. I don’t want to see Lawrence of Arabia on TV. I’ll see it one day, perhaps in a cathedral, perhaps out in a desert somewhere. At Kino International, I can’t help but absorb some of the place’s funky romance. Imagine for a moment that you are a worker sat amidst a bustling crowd of spectators in attendance for a séance of a Soviet import such as this one (forgive the slight anachronism). Taking your seat, you fold your overcoat in your lap. The government Würdenträger are sat a few rows ahead conversing amongst themselves. The crowd around you—perhaps some of whom you know from work—is garrulous. I’m struggling not to indulge, against the reality of press screenings and star-studded premieres sponsored by Nescafé. Perhaps fantasizing at film festivals is my way to seek refuge from the fact that I see criticism itself as an indulgence. A fine one, to be sure. A dreamed path. I suppose that’s how it should be.