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Bringing down der movie haus

Berlin bids auf wiedersehen to its palaces

BERLIN — The once-bustling theater district the Kudamm used to be the cinema mecca of Germany, with a greater concentration of screens than anywhere else in the country.

They were lovingly renovated film temples dating back as far as 1913 that beckoned audiences with glittering lights, giant marquee paintings, stylish revolving doors, red carpets. Their grandeur somehow managed to survive WW II bombings, the Cold War division of the city and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the Kudamm cinemas were no match for the onslaught of the modern-day multiplexes.

Also squeezed by surging rents on the city’s most fashionable shopping avenue and an abrupt shift in preferences for cinemagoers to head east and the new center of Berlin to see films, most of the Kudamm theaters have vanished.

Twenty of the 34 theaters on Kurfurstendamm (or Kudamm as locals call it) have closed in the last five years. They were victims of a dramatic drift of audiences to the palatial new multiplexes at Potsdamer Platz, the shiny new hub of Berlin built up from scratch in the last decade near the former site of the Berlin Wall.

Heiner Kieft, managing director of Germany’s leading Kieft und Kieft chain of theaters, expects a sharp decline in the number of screens in Germany in the years ahead. He predicts that about 1,000 of the country’s 4,800 screens will disappear mainly because of high costs and a deluge of Hollywood product that sometimes, as in the case of “The Hulk,” meets local resistance.

The number of multiplexes in Berlin, meanwhile, jumped from three in 1997 to 13 in 2002, adding almost 20,000 seats to the city’s 62,000 over the last six years. Ticket sales in that span have risen to 12.1 million from 10.1 million.

In Munich, by contrast, there is still the same seven-screen multiplex there was in 1997, and ticket sales have remained flat, totaling about $5.3 million in 2002.

The growth in Berlin has been striking because it has coincided with the disappearance of many smaller houses.

“At the rate things are going, the Kudamm might mutate into a ‘cinema-free zone,’ ” wrote film columnist Andreas Becker in Berlin’s irreverent left-wing daily newspaper Tageszeitung. “There’s been a slow but inexorable death of cinemas in the quarter.”

Famous Kudamm theaters such as the Marmorhaus, Gloria, Filmbuehne Wien, Gloriette, Lupe, Olympia, das Studio and the Astor have all closed in the years after the Berlinale moved to Potsdamer Platz.

Many of the buildings were under monument protection and spared the wrecking ball, yet were nevertheless turned into clothing shops and boutiques.

“It’s been an unmitigated disaster,” fumes Jurgen Friedrich, who operated the now-deceased Gloria, Lupe and Astor.

“Each closing hurt more and more. When people found out the Astor was closing, some actually broke down in tears. ‘No way. The Astor is the only theater I’d ever go to,’ they told me.”

Even though the delightfully renovated and modernized Astor, with 298 seats, was making money in its 68th year, the building’s owner wanted to increase his profits with sharply raised rents and found a new tenant: a clothing boutique.

For his final screenings in December, Friedrich deliberately booked the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail,” about a small bookstore’s poignant struggle against a giant coldhearted book chain.

Several of the closed Kudamm cinemas were part of chains that operate some of the new multiplexes, predominantly in east Berlin.

A Cinemaxx group spokesman says they had been forced to make tough business decisions based on cost efficiency.

“The demise of the Kudamm cinema district is a heavy blow for the western part of the city,” says Bernhard Skrodzki, in charge of economic affairs in Berlin’s Charlottenburg quarter. “The cinemas that we’ve lost were a valuable part of the district.”

The Zoopalast that for decades hosted the Berlin Film Fest in divided Berlin is still alive, but the 70-year-old Kurbel just a few blocks to the west recently announced it would probably have to close its three screens.

“The revenues just don’t cover the costs anymore,” says Wolfgang Hirt, the Kurbel’s managing director, after one recent evening’s picture sold just 32 tickets for its 600 seats on three screens. “It makes me want to cry.”

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