Cinema Culture in 1920s Berlin

August 20, 2015 – 08:20 pm

Even though I have been studying German silent cinema for more than four decades, I had not previously heard of the name Hanns Brodnitz, at least not until my recent trip to Berlin, when my long time colleague at the Deutsche Kinemathek, Gero Gandert, gave me a remarkable book by him [1]. Brodnitz’ Kino intim (unfortunately only in German) was supposed to have been published in April 1933, authored by one of Berlin’s most highly regarded exhibitors, the former Director of the independently operated Mozartsaal am Nollendorfplatz (1923-25, 1930-31), the giant Capitol and Marmorhaus cinemas (1925-28), and finally, the head of all the UFA’s first run cinemas (1928-30), among others. The book never appeared, due to the Jewish boycott by the Nazis, with Brodnitz losing his job the same fateful month; the former boy wonder now unemployable at the age of 32. For the next 11 years, Brodnitz lived more or less underground, but was finally caught and sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered on October 1, 1944. Amazingly, the page proofs for his book survived and were rediscovered in 1990, leading to their printing 72 years after their original publication date.

Brodnitz presents an insider’s view like no other of the Berlin film exhibition market in the 1920s, describing both incredible successes that no one wanted to show (People on Sunday, 1930) and total flops (Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow, 1925). Berlin audiences were apparently ready to riot any time a film didn’t meet their expectations. The most famous event of that kind was the opening of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which Brodnitz personally organized after no one else in Berlin was willing to take the film. The film received rave reviews from critics and the public at its premiere, but Nazi Storm Troopers put an end to any further screenings, in the process destroying the exhibitor’s career. But it is the tidbits that are most fascinating, e.g. the role of scalpers. Brodnitz notes that he always knew when a film was going to be a hit or a miss, based on the activity of the scalpers, who always had a pulse on the moods of Berlin audiences and would accordingly buy or avoid buying advance tickets for a particular show. Like the beggars in The Threepenny Opera (1931) or the small time criminals in (1931), the scalpers had their own union, employing women and children as their runners to sell tickets at “sold out” events. Who would have guessed?


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