THE LIGHT IN THE DARK: THE LICHTBURG CINEMA

The Lichtburg Cinema in Berlin-Gesundbrunnen in 1930 (image PD)

What looks like a symbol of cinematic call to arms was one of the nearly 400 Berlin cinemas on the city’s 1929 map. What made this one quite exceptional was the opulence and at the same time the austerity of its design.

The opulence of illumination was quite typical of that time and not only in Germany’s capital but Berlin clearly excelled: Europe-correspondent for the “New York Times”, Mildred Adams, described Berlin as “the best lighted city on Earth”. Fifteen vertical opal glass windows were screens for altogether 1,000 light bulbs which turned the cylindrical section of the building into a bright, almost floating structure. The ship searchlights on its top, where the glass roof terrace offered a wonderful view of the city, both during the day and at night, created a lighthouse effect that made the place stand out on yet another level.

The Lichtburg and the entrance to the U-Bahn station Gesundbrunnen (right) in 1935. Image via Heimatsmuseum Wedding.

Here in Gesundbrunnen – a very much working-class district – the “Lichtburg’s” architect, Rudolf Fränkel, created one of Berlin’s new Kinopaläste (literally “Cinema Palaces”), buildings which next to the screening rooms also housed restaurants, cafes, dance rooms and bowling alleys. They were real entertainment hubs, offering what we could call “a full experience” or “all-inclusive offer”: a film screening followed (or preceded) by a nice meal and/or a drink and a dance to round the evening off.

Fränkel’s design for both the cinema and the residential estate it complemented, Gartenstadt Atlantic (a fantastic instance of Berlin’s social housing projects of the 1920s, built between Behmstraße and Bellermannstraße), counts as one of the best examples of a movement in German architecture known as Neues Bauen (New Objectivity). Or rather would count, if the “Lichtburg” had not been demolished in 1970.

The Lichtburg as the Corso Cinema in the 1948 (photo by Abraham Pisarek via Deutsche Fotothek)

This listed-heritage building, which partly survived the Second World War and continued to serve as a cinema (the name was changed to the “Corso”), was only partly a victim of the Berlin Wall. Having lost most of its audience who crossed over for screenings from the neighbouring East Berlin, it closed down in 1962 and was later converted into West Berlin’s Senate Reserve site (until 1990 food and other other necessities, like toilet paper, were duly stored in West Berlin in case of another Berlin Blockade from the East). The old “Lichtburg” became home to tonnes of grains and thousands of tins.

Unfortunately, by 1970 its second Nemesis arrived – something that came to be known as Bauwirtschaftsfunktionalismus. Crudely speaking, it stands for the typical – not only in Germany – 1960s drive to demolish the old and replace it with the new because it is easier and cheaper and perhaps even more fun to build from the scratch (not to mention the construction boom and some seriously sunny days not only for the construction industry that followed). It is still quite incomprehensible why and how a listed-heritage building of this value could be torn down like this (one of many in both East and West Berlin) – a loss particularly painful today, when the city is trying to re-direct the (hopefully soon returning) crowds of tourists away from its centre.

The demolition of the “Lichtburg” in 1970. (Image via an excellent Berlin heritage maintenance organisation and tour service Berliner Unterwelten – who, by the way, have been badly hit by the consequences of the pandemic and rely on donations to survive the lockdown – details on their page).

For there is no way that anyone visiting Berlin would have missed the guiding lights this magnificent old building would have sent from afar. As it is, what remains are a sculpture commemorating the cinema (in Behmstraße 9), a plaque honouring both the architect, Rudolf Fränkel, and the cinema’s owner, publisher Karl Wolffsohn, and a shadow of the temple of light.