Sunday 6th October 2013
It has been a long time since I've come across a pub with such an amazing story as this one. Not only a history of the pub and its cinema, but that of Berlin since the Second World War. The story starts innocuously enough with the building of Tilsiter Strasse in 1883. In 1908 a cinema was opened at no. 25a in this street of typical Berlin tenements with flats above, and a few pubs and shops at street level. The cinema was named Tilsiter Lichtspiele, which is a name that doesn't do very well in translation, although the best description of Lichtspiele is "games of light" or "light plays". I suppose the best analogy into English is "flicks"; short for flickers. It is the second oldest cinema in the city.
Before the Second World War it led an uneventful existence, please see the photograph of it in 1938. I was told that this was brought in to the pub by an old lady during the 1990s after the cinema had reopened. Tilsiter Strasse ran slightly uphill from the major thoroughfare of Karl-Marx-Allee. This was rebuilt from the rubble by the communist City Council of this part of Berlin, and it became the main thoroughfare of the eastern part of the city.
This avenue was used for the mass demonstrations, parades, and other nonsense of that type. These were intended to impress the population of the DDR and those in the West, yet it didn't. Until 1949 it was known as Grosser Frankfurter Strasse as it was the main road on the way to Frankfurt (on the Oder). It was then renamed Stalinallee and that lasted until 1961 when it became Karl-Marx-Allee. In communist terms a considerably safer name than that previously given, and that's the way it remains today; Karl Marx lives on!
It continued under private ownership until 1961 when it closed, probably under threat of nationalisation. The building of the infamous Berlin Wall on the night of 13th August that year might also have had its effect. Hereafter the story becomes completely bizarre. A Soviet officer, who was a very keen film fan, took the cinema in its entirety to Sovetsk in Russia. This was the projector, screen, seating and set it up there.
What is so odd and coincidental is that Sovetsk was until 1945 the German city of Tilsit, which once gave its name to the street in Berlin the cinema was on! What chance was there of that happening? The officer's wife was German, which might be a clue, or not? Was she was originally from the old German province of East Prussia where Tilsit / Sovetsk is?
Back in Berlin, the authorities opened a large cinema of over 1000 capacity on Karl-Marx-Allee in 1962, so the Tilsiter Lichtspiele was probably doomed anyway. That became Berlin's first multiplex cinema in 1996. However it closed in 2005. Tilsiter Strasse was renamed Richard-Sorge-Strasse in 1969 after a Soviet spy who worked in the German Embassy in Tokyo. He supplied advanced information to the Soviets of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and also the date of the commencement of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Sadly the information on the latter was ignored.
There was one further twist in this tale as in the early 1990s, the son of the man who moved the cinema to Sovetsk, returned it to East Berlin which was now part of a re-unified Germany. A number of young film-makers who operated an arts club called Kunstgaleere (Art Gallery) took on the task of restoring the cinema to its previous splendour, and it opened in 1994 with its own bar room attached.
The pub is what makes this cinema such a pleasant place to visit and it is exactly what you would expect from its Arts Club pedigree. It has a dark interior with candles on the tables. The bar is located on the left and the entrance to the cinema is hidden behind a drape curtain. What makes it a certain entry in BeerVisits is the bespoke beer. It is a Pils in style and is brewed at the Gastätte W. Prassnik in Prenzlauerberg and is known as Tilsiter Hell Unfiltriert. As its name implies it is unfiltered and I like it a lot.
When I visited you could here the muffled speech from the film showing that evening and I got talking to the barman about the history of the cinema. Well, I was very lucky that evening as the bar was quiet and he grabbed a set of keys off the wall and beckoned me the follow. We went out into the street and he opened a large door which led to a courtyard. We went up some steps and he opened another door and there it was. I was looking at the projection equipment that had travelled across Eastern Europe to Russia and back.
He explained that the film on that night was being shown digitally but the optical equipment is still used fairly often. Back in the bar I thanked him profusely for that insight. I looked around the room and noticed there were some interesting decorations such as several signs from the DDR era including some breweries. There was an old light box that displayed information on each performance at the cinema and whether it was full. I noted that the cost was M1.50 plus a culture supplement of 5pf. In the communist world you had to pay extra for culture! The DDR continued with the Reichsmark as its currency up to its dissolution in 1989. In the entrance there was a vending machine, also from those days, that dispenses crisps, peanuts, etc. It is all very atmospheric.
So, all in all, a little bar that is well worth visiting.
Tilsiter Lichtspiele, Richard-Sorge-Strasse 25a, Berlin-Friedrichshain. Tel: 426 8129
Open: Mon-Wed 17.30-02.00; Thu 16.00-02.00; Fri-Sun 14.30-03.00
The pub is around ten minutes walk from Weberwiese or Frankfurter Tor stations of the U-Bahn line U5. From Weberwiese station emerge from the easterly exit. Walk along the north side of Karl-Marx-Allee towards the two towers at Frankfurter Tor. At the first opportunity turn left through the buildings that line the street. You will find a small open piece of ground with a children's play area. Walk around it, you will then see a church, turn left in front of it, this is Richard-Sorge-Strasse. You will find the cinema on the right side.
An alternative route is to catch tram M10 and alight at the Strassmannstrasse stop. This is in the middle of the road. Walk to the southern end of the stop and turn right to cross the road. This will lead you to Strassmannstrasse itself. Continue along this street and turn left into Richard-Sorge-Strasse, the cinema is on the left. From Frankfurter Tor U-Bahn station, follow the signs out of the station to the tram stop. Catch a northbound tram M10 two stops to Strassmannstrasse, then follow directions above.