Travel

Inside East Berlin’s Most Striking and Still-Running Premiere Cinema

Built in the 1960s in former East Berlin, the Kino International bore witness to-and survived-both the division and reunification of Germany.

Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn
Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn
Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn

Blindingly white in the daytime sun and glowing from within at night, Kino International is functionally impossible to miss. Then again, that’s the point. If you’re going to build the crown jewel of East Berlin cinema culture, and moor it to the boulevard where parades celebrating the socialist ideals and military might of the German Democratic Republic are held, and also it’s the middle of the Cold War, you’re probably not going to opt for architectural squeamishness. (You will, however, build a bomb shelter in the basement.) As the sculptor Dietrich Worbs’ succinctly put it in his 2015 history of the building, “Fast jeder Berliner kennt das Kino International an der Karl-Marx-Allee.” Almost every Berliner knows Kino International on Karl-Marx-Allee. No wonder, either.

The unmistakable building built in the early ‘60s consists of two distinct parts: a gray ashlar-clad base, and an enormous cantilevered second floor of light sandstone. Its glazed facade hangs six meters unsupported over the sidewalk. Lodged within the overhang is the wood-paneled Panorama Bar, with an interior view that gives the impression of hovering over the boulevard below. Double doors opposite the windows lead into a single unconventionally square screening room, where the floor slopes at a steep enough angle that it would never pass inspection today. Drop a bottle during a quiet scene at your own peril.

Within the former East Berlin, Kino International is something of a living relic. Built as part of an architectural quarter intended to support the various elements of socialist life, its surrounding ensemble of buildings have fared unanimously worse. The Hotel Berolina, directly behind and frequented by East German high society, was demolished in 1996. Cafe Moskau, just opposite, shut decades ago; while its life-size replica of Sputnik survived multiple renovations, its interior did not. In its heyday it was a popular spot for Russian cuisine, dancing, and high-level dealmaking. It’s now available for event rentals. The hair salon and flower shop to either side of Cafe Moskau are now a bar and an outdoor gear retailer, respectively. Once a bustling cafe (and the subject of a bouncy pop song by Thomas Natschinski & Gruppe, East Berlin’s late ‘60s answer to the early ‘60s Beatles), the Mokka-Milch-Eisbar closed shortly after the fall of the Wall. It was gutted by a fire in 1996. Now it’s empty.

By this metric, it’s no small miracle that the International has survived the last three-odd decades relatively intact. And it’s even more remarkable that Kino International has survived as a cinema. Western capital transformed (or steamrolled, depending on who you ask) the architectural and cultural fabric of the former East Berlin as soon as it became the former East Berlin, and many GDR cinemas didn’t survive reunification – a result of an overeager multiplex building boom. But the International had friends in high places: The day before German reunification was legally enshrined on October 3, 1990, authorities moved to protect it under the GDR Monument Preservation Act of 1975. The Berlinale contracted it to host screenings for the 1990 festival (and every year since). The building was bought by the owners of the Hotel Berolina, who planned to turn it into an event location, but agreed to lease it to local cinema chain Yorck Kinogruppe, which had run several theatres in the former West since the late 1970s. After the Hotel Berolina closed in 1995, Yorck bought the building. It still operates as a premiere cinema and, on occasion, as a filming location. It masqueraded as a Moscow cafe for 2020’s The Queen’s Gambit. On an episode of Netflix’s 2022 post-reunification tragicomedy KLEO, the titular ex-Stasi protagonist is nearly sniped through its massive windows.

Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn
Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn
Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn

The cinema dates to a peculiar moment in Berlin history, and originates in a peculiar figure. It was designed in the late 1950s by Josef Kaiser with his colleague Heinz Aust and their collective. Kaiser was an architect and classically trained opera tenor born in Slovenia when it was still the Habsburg-ruled Duchy of Styria. During the Second World War, he built auxiliary buildings at Blechhammer and was eventually drafted into military service as a naval artilleryman, briefly taken prisoner then released by the British in 1945. Although instrumental in shaping the architectural language of East Berlin, he was no GDR loyalist. He declined to join the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and designed multiple buildings in West Germany prior to the closing of the border. He died shortly after reunification, in October 1991. The International and its surrounding architectural quarter is arguably the cornerstone of his legacy.

Construction on the cinema began in 1960 amidst a moment of profound political and architectural transition. Stalin was seven years dead and buried, and with him, what Kruschev termed the “pomp of Stalinism.” Public opinion toward Stalin’s political and aesthetic legacies, namely the Soviet Classicist style, had begun to sour in and out of East Berlin. The new GDR, it was decided, would no longer be architecturally referential to the 19th century or ideologically beholden to the late Premier. It would instead embrace an internationalist style that projected transparency, modernity, and often came cheaper.

This was no minor shift. Stalinallee, where Kino International was to be built, was the GDR’s grand socialist boulevard and the via triumphalis of the Soviet sector. For its initial development phase, architect Hermann Henselmann built high-minded Soviet Classicist towers and apartments from detailed planning sketches that featured workers’ demonstrations and waving flags-a people-minded alternative to the capitalist city next door. By the time East Berlin authorities requested designs for a grand new cinema and opened the second phase of the boulevard’s development, Henselmann’s buildings were decidedly out of fashion. He lost the cinema gig to Kaiser. And East Berlin authorities subsequently changed the name of Stalinallee to Karl-Marx-Allee in 1963, the same year the cinema opened to the public.

Kino International was emblematic of this internationalist shift. It was designed, built, and deliberately named to project East Berlin as an international city and a beacon of a new, modern, and international socialism. The trouble was that East Berlin was not an international city by the time Kino International opened, having slammed the proverbial door shut by building a very literal wall in August 1961-right in the middle of construction.

Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn
Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn
Photo by Yorck Kinogruppe/Daniel Horn

The Berlin Wall wasn’t visible from the International, but it wasn’t far. Its western boundary was just shy of two miles away as the crow flies; its southern boundary not even a full mile. The fiscal reality of staffing and maintaining the cinema, however, made the windfall certain American and British films could provide a begrudging necessity. East Berliners came to watch Cabaret and Amadeus. The line for tickets to Dirty Dancing stretched to the nearby subway entrance. Staff screened it six times a day just to meet demand-meaning, perhaps, that the jeans that supposedly brought down the Wall were Jennifer Grey’s high-waisted jorts all along.

Prior to that, however, the upper echelons of GDR power were regulars. The International’s inaugural audience on November 15, 1963 was attended by the mayor, the Soviet ambassador, and Walter Ulbricht, the head of SED and, by extension, East Germany. They’d come to see Optimistic Tragedy, Samson Samsonov’s Russian Revolution-set epic about a woman Commissar tasked with organizing a group of anarchists who commandeer a naval vessel. What followed has since passed into Kino International lore. The 70mm print of the German-dubbed film arrived at the last minute, still wet from the lab. Under the eye of several Stasi guards, two projectionists tried in vain to keep it on track. Several malfunctions later, an unamused Ulbricht allegedly huffed, “Und das soll nun die neue Technik sein, ja?” And this is supposed to be the newest technology?

Nevertheless, most people are fans. Ulbricht’s successor, Erich Honecker, visibly enjoyed himself at a 1981 SED-only screening of Waffenbrüderschaft, a documentary film of military exercises among Warsaw Pact countries. The windowless lounge sometimes used as a green room still bears his name, and the sizable seal bearing the GDR national emblem-a compass and hammer encircled by a wreath of rye-hangs behind the lounge bar. It has since been flipped upside down. Nearby rooms once used as a meeting place for state-sponsored youth organizations are now used for storage, as is the basement bomb shelter. But anniversary screenings for Coming Out-the film that screened the 1989 night Berliners headed en masse to the checkpoints to demand freedom of movement-continue, as do literary talks, a weekly LGBTQ screening series called Mongay, and TV and film premieres. Last year, when asked by Time Out which cinema he thought was the coolest in the world, Spencer director Pablo Larraín picked the International. Fast jeder Berliner kennt das Kino International an der Karl-Marx-Allee. For a cinema as tangled up in the specific history of its city as this one, it’s no small thing that quite a few non-Berliners do too.

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Elle Carroll is a contributor to Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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