The Alhambra in Wedding
Back in 1996, around this time of the year, I started a job training to become a projectionist at the Alhambra Film Theatre in Berlin-Wedding, then a separate borough as Berlin’s administrative reform was still five years away. Wedding remains one of the poorest areas in Berlin with a high unemployment rate and nearly 6 out of ten local residents come from a migrant background. Due to the lower rent compared to other boroughs, more and more students and artists move to Wedding in recent years. The rampant gentrification, however, that often follows on their heels hasn’t really reached Wedding yet and the borough’s original character has mostly been preserved. Wedding is still said to be a place where one can find the Schnauze mit Herz (big mouth and big heart) of Berlin’s working class.
The original Alhambra at the corner of See- and Müllerstraße is long gone, however. Almost a hundred years ago, in 1916, a small shop cinema named Apollo opened at the same location. Five years later, it made way for the magnificent Alhambra picture house with 950 seats. During World War II, the building was almost completely destroyed, but the Alhambra was rebuilt and reopened in 1953. Its new façade, neon-lit by night, was a mixture of light yellow ceramic tiles and black glass. The beautiful stucco in the auditorium was gone, and instead, wooden panels covered the walls, whose earth tone harmonised with the green of the seat upholstery. In 1981, the seat capacity was reduced to 500.
In 1996, my former boss inherited the cinema from his parents and only three years later, he had the traditional building demolished and a multiplex with 7 screens and over 1,700 seats built in its place. It opened in 2002, but only two years later, the cinema went into administration. In 2008, it was sold in a compulsory auction and the cinema is now owned by the Cineplex Group. I never set foot into the new Alhambra and I don’t think I ever will, although it might well be worth it from a technical point of view, because one of the few positive things one could say about the former owner was that he cared about sound quality. Neither my friend Olaf, the Alhambra’s chief projectionist when I started there, nor I have many good things to say about our former boss, and my salary there was not great, to put it mildly. But I am grateful that he hired me.
My years as a projectionist
When I first called about the job, after I had seen a job advertisement in a local newspaper, I was asked three questions. “Did you ever work as a projectionist?” – “No.” – “Did you ever work at a cinema?” – “No.” – “Are you a student?” (Students are cheaper employees, tax-wise.) – “No.” – “Well, come around anyway.” And so I went to the job interview, which was held quite informally at the Alhambra’s lobby. We had a brief chat and then Olaf took me upstairs to the projection room and started to explain me a few things. He told me later that he liked that I immediately began to take notes and that it was one of the reasons why he recommended the owner to give me a shot.
A few weeks later, I ran the first screening on my own, although Olaf was in the auditorium, ready to run upstairs if necessary. I still remember that day, being alone in the projection room, adrenaline pumping, hoping that everything was going to be alright. And thanks to Olaf’s excellent training, it was. As I worked in other cinemas and met other projectionists later on, I realised how lucky I had been to start under his guidance at the Alhambra. No disrespect to others, but Olaf is not only a great projectionist and technician, he is also a great and patient teacher, and towards the end of my training, he prepared me for potential mishaps by creating little problems I had to detect. A few weeks later, he wasn’t around when I created one of those problems myself, using the correct lens but the wrong aperture plate, and as I stared somewhat paralysed at the screen, realising that something was wrong but not what it was, the choleric relic working in the lobby suddenly stood in the projection room, shouting the solution at me. It was one of those moments where you make a mistake that will never happen to you again.
After the Alhambra, I worked at several cinemas in Berlin, Hamburg and London, did a couple of open air events, the fanciest one at the Brandenburg Gate, and from 1999 to 2011, I worked at the International Film Festival Berlin. Being a projectionist was both interesting and sufficient to support myself. While my starting salary back at the Alhambra had been 25 Deutsch Marks per screening, approx. £2.60 | €3.30 | US$4.25 per hour after tax, I earned a decent salary later on, especially in London, where one of my flatmates earned so much less working so much tougher shifts at a well-known coffee shop chain.
Days gone by
It’s 18 years now since I started my training at the old Alhambra and over three years since my last screening in Berlin. Sometimes, I really miss it, though probably not the noise, which you can hear in the video below, taken during my last shift at Soho House in 2008. It’s a strange feeling to have worked in a profession that no longer exists, at least not in the way it used to. It probably was most palpable back in 2012, when I saw a Japanese film projector and a Steenbeck editing table exhibited as museum pieces at Seoul Cinema.
What remains from that time are the memories and the friendships. Olaf and I worked together in three different cinemas. In one of them, he met his girlfriend Anke, and both of them recently visited me in Belfast. Peter and I met at the Moviemento and have remained good friends ever since. Jason and I got to know at the Electric in London, and he later asked me to be his best man when he got married to Mina in South Korea. Oli and I met at Soho House and have kept in touch ever since, occasionally having drinks when we both happen to be in Berlin. And then there are several friends I met at the Berlin Film Festival, especially the two Steffens, whom I also met in England and Thailand respectively.
After Anke and Olaf had left Belfast, Anke wrote to me that during their stay with me, it had felt like back in the cinema days. I agree, and that’s what I miss the most from those days gone by: working at off cinemas in Berlin, when life was comparatively easygoing, going to work meant going to hang out with friends. And so this post blog post is both a homage to the old Alhambra, to Olaf and Anke, and to all the friends I’ve made during those years working as a projectionist. I hope we’ll meet again soon.
In the latter half of 2016, I had the pleasure of being one of the people working behind the scenes at the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast (and sometimes front of house, too). I had initially applied to join as a volunteer but as it so happened, they were looking to add to their projection team at the time and so I gladly revived, albeit temporarily, my previous career as projectionist. Continue reading here.