Cinema Arsenal

The program of the two Arsenal cinemas forms a continuous link between Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art and the public. It is here that the many of the activities carried out by the different parts of the institute come together, resulting in a monthly program which shows the diversity of international film culture, provides an accompaniment to the dynamic changes seen in cinema and traces the various shifts in the perception of film history. Our program bridges the gap between contemporary filmmaking and film history, connects cinema and communication, and maintains and promotes lively discussion between films, filmmakers, film scholars, curators, artists and, last but not least, audiences.

Starting Out

After six and a half years of holding regular film and discussion events at different locations in Berlin, the Friends of the German Film Archive finally opened their own cinema on January 3rd 1970. The old “Bayreuther Lichtspiele” cinema at Welserstr. 25 made way for the new Arsenal cinema, which was named both after Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1928 Soviet silent film and as an homage to the political and militant connotations of the word arsenal.

The cinema comprised 172 seats, a coal-fired oven (!) and a program that was fundamentally different both in conception and presentation to that of other West German cinemas of the time from the very first day. The Arsenal program took its bearings from the great cinematheques in Paris, Brussels or London whilst also placing a emphasis on a high proportion of contemporary, independent or political films, films made by women, and experimental works. The prototype for a German cinema with an alternative programming agenda was thus born and soon became the model for the repertory and art houses cinemas that sprang up across the country in the years that followed.

A Wide-Ranging Program, New Premises

The first months and years already established the immense breadth of the program, bringing together D.W. Griffith and Andy Warhol, Paul Leni and R.W. Fassbinder, Eisenstein and DEFA, Cinema Novo and 1960s Japanese cinema, as well as avant-garde and documentary works. Core themes began to emerge: political cinema, feminist film, the cinematic avant-garde (an term interpreted very broadly by Arsenal) and an recurring interest both in Eastern European cinema and the various gaps in the cinematic landscape, with films from Latin America, Africa and Asia being shown long before world cinema had become a standard concept. Communication and education activities came to the fore from the mid 1970s, including annual seminar events held at the cinema over several days, including the legendary 1st Seminar for Women’s Film. Over the following years, seminars on such topics as “Avant-garde Film“, “Films as a Reflection of Society”, “A Critique of Political Cinema” or “Atomic Energy in Film” all followed, to name just a few.
In 1978, a small shop was rented out right next to Arsenal, kitted out with a portable 16mm projector and turned into Arsenal 2, which became a regular weekly meeting place for showing experimental and video films with post-film discussions as well as providing space for exhibitions and screenings.

Doing the Groundwork and Tackling Larger Projects

Arsenal became one of the most important cultural addresses in Berlin, with its program receiving attention both nationally and internationally. Drawing on different formats (e.g. the 8mm Film Days), eras (Yiddish Cinema), countries (Uzbekistan, China, Sweden, Japan, Taiwan, Argentina), genres (i.e. the Computer Film Festival in February 1980!), often highly topical political events or dates (Chile), the cinema continued to carry out film cultural work. The large number of retrospectives on different individuals covered broad sections of film history, contemporary cinema, video activism and experimental film. Particular months often ended up creating the most surprising of combinations, such as in May 1987, when a program on Lenfilm Studios ran alongside retrospectives on Billy Wilder, Buster Keaton, Lina Wertmüller and Warren Sonbert.

In addition to such groundwork, Arsenal was also involved in a series of large cross-media cultural programs in Berlin, putting on large-scale film programs that stretched over several months, provoking discussion and setting standards in the process. The following events are worthy of mention in this context, even if they only represent a small proportional of the total number of events held: The Latin American Film Month (May/June 1982), the Canada Film Retrospective (148 Canadian films, January 1983), the 3rd Horizon Festival presenting 90 films from Asian countries (June 1985), Bismarck – Prussia, Germany and Europe (August–November 1990), Jewish Worlds (January–April 1992), Japan and Europe (September–December 1993), Moscow–Berlin / Berlin–Moscow (September–December 1995) or Images of Germany (September 1997–January 1998).

Guests and Partners

Arsenal has been a place for communication, discussion and debate right from the very beginning. Filmmakers, actors, producers, film scholars, curators and artists from across the world have travelled to Arsenal to attend film screenings and to supplement them with discussions or explanations, making connections, establishing contexts and broadening perspectives in the process. These include Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ousmane Sembène, Aki Kaurismäki, Nagisa Oshima, Yvonne Rainer, István Szabó, Michael Snow, Claude Lanzmann, Jim Jarmusch, Ernie Gehr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ken Jacobs, Otar Iosseliani, Susan Sontag, Claire Denis, Béla Tarr, Nanni Moretti, Agnès Varda, Stephen Dwoskin, Chantal Akerman, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, and the Dardenne brothers to name just a few – the presence of each and every one of them at the screenings of their films represent great moments in the history of Arsenal.
Arsenal has received support from a range of different national and international partners without whose help, financial or otherwise, many projects would have been unthinkable. Some of Arsenal’s long term collaborations have included working with the cultural institutes of different countries in Berlin, the DAAD Berlin Artists-in-Residence Program and the Berlin Universities – the Free University, the Technical University, the University of the Arts and the Humboldt University since the start of 90s. Cooperation with lecturers and students at the Berlin universities intensified in the 90s, as the advent of digital media made it all the more necessary to increase awareness of the materiality of film and the role of the cinema screening as an suitable place for reception, whether for students or otherwise. Numerous film programs designed to accompany seminars were held at Arsenal (Fiction/Non-Fiction – Stories and Images between Fiction and Reality; Fascism and Resistance in Italian Film, Autobiographical Film), with attendance at the film historical Magical History Tour series becoming an obligatory part of the courses offered at the Film Studies Department at the Free University.

From Anthology Programs to the Magical History Tour

Right from the outset, Arsenal has been concerned with the question of whether it’s possible to provide a summary of film history in the cinema and how this might be achieved. The first anthology programs in the 1970s were based on the idea of enabling cinema audiences to engage with film history every single evening rather than packaging it in terms of retrospectives of directors, eras or countries presented on a one-off basis. Arsenal thus created its own personal look at international film history, initially consisting of 100 films, later expanded to 150, shown in chronological order. The Magical History Tour developed in the 90s extended this basic idea by incorporating individual thematic emphases from Arsenal’s own collection to increase the number of films shown to 365, which were then repeated on a yearly basis. This ambitious series received its own place in the program following the move to Potsdamer Platz and was then shown for nearly 10 years, starting on November 1st every year. Following the re-launch of the institution, the concept was reworked once again: since 2009, the Magical History tour has done away with idea of a set number of specific films presented chronologically, focusing instead on showing selected classics of film history grouped according to a series of different monthly themes.

The Move to Potsdamer Platz

By the middle of 90s, the Arsenal program had began to reach the limits of capacity provided by the one cinema auditorium available up until then. Numerous retrospectives, geographical, thematic or film historical programs, seminars and discussions, homages, presentations of individual films attended by the filmmakers, and events organized in collaboration with educational establishments, galleries and museums could no longer be presented in a suitable manner, with repeat screenings of films becoming completely impossible. The Arsenal program made increasingly frequent use of the cinema in the Martin Gropius Bau as a result.

The move to Potsdamer Platz brought about obvious improvements in this respect: the increasingly complex Arsenal program was able to develop far better in two cinemas, while the varying demands of different film series could be taken into consideration better with two cinemas of different sizes. The large foyer in front of the entrance to the two cinemas intended to serve as a meeting point and area for socializing both before and after screenings also put an end to the chronic lack of space that had prevailed in the tiny foyer of the old Arsenal cinema for the previous 30 years. Particular emphasis was placed on making sure the two new Arsenal cinemas possessed suitable technical facilities and interior fittings, including professional conference and event equipment and the ability to project all types of video formats.
When the first Arsenal program was held at the new location in June 2000, the program magazine contained the following remarks: ”It goes without saying that we won’t be moving a single inch from the objectives we followed at the old Arsenal for the last 30 years: the logical integration of historical film work and the presentation of all types of modern, contemporary cinema, as well as the cinema of tomorrow“. Kenji Mizoguchi, Woody Allen and Alexander Dovzhenko retrospectives, a series on film and architecture and on overview of the Japanese cinema of 90s formed some of the many highlights of the first years at the new location.
In the following years, the relationship between society, politics and film formed a repeated focus within the program, such as in a series of events entitled “Work in Progress”, which traced how the changing world of work is echoed in cinema or the 98-film “1968//2008” program, whose central interest lay in re-envisioning and reflecting upon on 1968 as a moment in film history. Aside from such thematic concerns, the oeuvre of a whole range of international filmmakers was also presented, with the filmmakers themselves in attendance whenever possible. The retrospectives of Amos Gitai, Jacques Doillon, Ulrike Ottinger, Catherine Breillat, Federico Fellini, Bruce LaBruce, Louis Malle, Asta Nielsen, Guy Maddin, Luchino Visconti, Maurice Pialat, Nina Menkes, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Marguerite Duras are all worthy of mention here, many of which showed their complete works. The geographical programs on the other hand made use of different questions or perspectives in order to present filmmaking from a particular country: American independent film, new cinema from Portugal, debut films from Italy, documentaries from France, or the Taiwanese New Wave. Filmmakers who had attracted attention at international festivals but whose work had remained unseen in German cinemas also found a forum for their work at Arsenal, including Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa, Lav Diaz, Miguel Gomes, Brillante Mendoza and Apichatpong Weerasethakul .

From the Cinema into the Cinema

Experimental works continued to form a central part of the Arsenal program following the move to Potsdamer Platz. A comprehensive series of found-footage films, a series of films by Laurence Weiner, an Expanded Cinema program, the Living Archive series, and a series on Structural Film are just a few examples of this tendency. Collaborations with art institutions, galleries, museums as well as the Berlin Biennale also intensified during this period. A comprehensive retrospective of Canadian artist, filmmaker and musician Michael Snow, which included an exhibition of installation works spread over the entire Filmhaus, was the start of an increasing shift towards showing video art, installations and performance designed for spaces beyond the cinema. In 2005, the Friends set up the Black Box in the Arsenal Cinema foyer for the Forum in order to be able to show video installations more intensively.
The “LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World” festival organized at Arsenal in October 2009 was another highlight, receiving a great deal of national and international attention. The festival involved 50 international artists and scholars taking an in-depth look at pioneer of the American underground and queer icon Jack Smith through a range of performances, films, videos, slide shows, exhibitions, concerts and presentations.


The relaunch of the entire institution in November 2008 also had a major effect on the Arsenal cinema program. A new program structure was introduced to do away with rigid patterns in favor of a more flexible program schedule, a clearer focus was placed on individual monthly topics and renewed efforts were put into the role of communication in presenting retrospectives and film series. These measures were a reaction to the challenges arising from current technical upheavals and changes in the media landscapes. Alongside the daily Magical History Tour film history series, the same mixture that Arsenal has always been known for is still very much in evidence - the historical and the contemporary, the academic and the popular, and all manner of presentations, performances, discourse, and contemplation - albeit in more clearly contoured manner.