The German language lost one of its best ambassadors when Bruno Ganz died earlier this year. The Swiss actor was a mainstay on both stage and screen, with more than a hundred credits to his name. To Americans, he is best known for his haunting portrayal of Adolf Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall (Der Untergang), and equally known for that performance’s subsequent proliferation as a YouTube meme.
But it was his performance in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) that defines the actor in my imagination. Wings of Desire is a hard film to describe succinctly. Ganz plays Damiel, an angel who observes and sometimes comforts the citizens of Berlin. He then falls in love with a mortal trapeze artist and begins to consider giving up his ethereal existence in favor of a mortal one. But the film is much more than that. It’s a meditation on life and death.
It’s a brilliant film, and one of the few that could be considered perfect. It could also be considered the last in a line of films stretching back twenty years, known as the German New Cinema. Following in the footsteps of the French New Wave, German New Cinema saw the emergence of experimental and daring directors creating films with low budgets for art-house audiences that ensured commercial failure and critical acclaim.
The movement is a gold mine of auteur filmmaking, including films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre; Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum and literally anything by Margarethe von Trotta. These films were creatively daring and experimental, usually infused with an introspection not found in the work of their French and Italian counterparts.
But none of the New German filmmakers struck as personal a chord for me as did Wenders. Alice in the City and Kings of the Road remain personal favourites and sources of inspiration. Wings of Desire and its portrayal of late-80s Berlin in alternating black-and-white and color sparked an interest in the city that would lead to Berlin vacations and eventually calling the city my home.
This fairly long and informative preamble is leading somewhere relevant, film photographers. And we just got there.
Lomography recently announced a new black-and-white film called Berlin Kino, a film that they said is inspired by the New German Cinema. Given my enthusiasm (cited above) I was more than eager to try it out.
What is Berlin Kino?
Wether it’s been by re-releasing 19th century lenses, creating new instant cameras or recycling old Russian glass, Lomography has firmly established Vienna as the center of lo-fi, unconventional photography. Part of that empire is a menagerie of experimental film stocks featuring weird color shifts, extreme contrast, and plenty of unpredictability. While their more traditional film stocks (especially the Color 800) can be budget-friendly alternatives to budget-oriented photographers, Lomo’s biggest splashes seem to come from their more adventurous endeavors.
Lomography often surprises us with releases of new limited-edition film stocks with interesting backstories. In 2017 they released Color Negative F²/400, which was aged like wine in oak casks for seven years. It’s debatable just how much this would have affected the film, but it remains the film I’m most disappointed about not being able to shoot (it sold out very quickly).
In Fall 2018 Lomography announced their newest film with a unique backstory – Berlin Kino 400. According to the company, Berlin Kino was extorted from a roll of cinema film produced by a “legendary German company” that has been in operation since the early 20th century.
Berlin Kino’s native sensitivity of ISO 400 places it in the medium speed community with the likes of Kodak’s Tri-X and T-Max, Ilford HP5, and others. The film most apt for comparison is the cinema-derived Eastman Double X, with which it shares a general personality. Since Berlin Kino is panchromatic and sensitive to every color visible to the human eye, the film is especially suited to the creative use of color filters. As far as technical specs go, that’s about as much as Lomography gives regarding this new film.
As they have in the past with films like F²/400, Lomography tries to create a romanticism behind Berlin Kino by not saying explicitly where it came from. But it’s not hard to guess. Lomography says that the film comes from the stock of a film producer still in business since the 1910s. To the best of my knowledge, ORWO (Original Wolfen) is the only producer of cinematic film in Germany that has been in constant operation since the early 20th century. It’s doubtful that ORWO was the source of the film for the movies of the German New Cinema since it was a state-owned property of East Germany. But it would have been available at the time.
How does Berlin Kino perform?
I shot my five rolls of Berlin Kino during a week in January with my Nikon F4, and 24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 AF-D lenses. I also frequently used a Nikon A12 orange filter. Processing and scanning was done by Mein Film Lab here in Germany.
I shot all five rolls at box speed. Lomography claims that Berlin Kino has a wide exposure latitude and can be comfortably pushed up to ISO 3200. I’ll have to take them at their word, because when it comes to my black-and-white rolls, I’m strictly a box speed man.
Already one of the biggest European cities by population, Berlin is even bigger when measured geographically. To equal its geographic size you would have to combine the cities of Prague, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Zurich and Lisbon. Its biggest lake, Müggelsee, is larger than the entire city-state of Monaco. The German Hauptstadt is made up of twelve boroughs, ninety-six neighborhoods, four airports (two functional, one historical, and one theoretical), two rivers, dozens of lakes and no shortage of forests. It takes an hour and a half by train to travel from Frohnau in the northwest to Schmokwitz in the southeast.
So yeah, Berlin’s a big place.
In my unbridled ambition, I sought to capture the entirety of Berlin with the five rolls of Berlin Kino I’d received. I fell so far short of accomplishing that goal that I hesitate to even call my five rolls an impression of the city. Not only did I not have enough film, but I was also fighting frigid sub-zero high temperatures. In the winter, Russian wind blows west and chills Berlin – a frightening yearly reminder of the two nations’ complicated 20th century history.
With friends from the U.S. visiting, I instead captured the places we went. There were the usual suspects like the Brandenburg Gate, the glass-domed Reichstag, flavors from the former East German world like the grand boulevard Karl Marx Allee, the Olympiastadion, and an original piece of the Berlin Wall.
Having shot and processed all five of my rolls at the same time, I was certifiably anxious when I put them in the mail. Not only was I completely unfamiliar with the film, but I had a lot of time and effort (re: walking) invested in their success.
When I got an email with a link to my scans, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and feeling. Not only was the film exceeding my expectations with every shot, but the results were even better than I could have hoped. I think the phrase “over the moon” was used earnestly for the first time in my life.
Full disclosure; I’m unapologetic in my love of Berlin. There’s no better city anywhere, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Because of that, I’m going to be susceptible to the marketing of companies using the city to make a buck, or Euro. The excitement that led to me preorder the film wasn’t because of a love for new films, but rather the love of a film with the words “BerlIn” and “Kino” on a box with a drawing of the skyline and a photo of the U-Bahn. Throw in a few allusions to my favorite films and watch how fast I can open my wallet.
And that’s why I haven’t written a review of it until now, nearly six months later. It seemed that a reaction as strong as mine needed to air out for a while. If I felt the same in a few months, then the feelings would be legitimate.
Now that I’m a few months detached, I can confirm my initial findings. I really like this film. For one, it really does translate a particular kind of cinematic feel into still form. New German films were experimental, often sloppy and quite far from perfection. Such is the case here. Berlin Kino seems to adequately tackle most photographic situations. Low contrast scenes highlight the film’s cornucopia of greys while a scene with more contrast will punch up the blacks for a gritty look. My orange filter increased the contrast as well, going a little too far for my taste in bright light.
Berlin Kino’s tonal range its biggest strength, which makes sense for a cinematic film. I shot it in bright mid-day light, overcast and at night, as well as in the rain, direct sun and a snowstorm. Everything translated well. Not only was the film forgivable, it also seems to scan well.
For more information on developing and printing, consult Lomography’s Berlin Kino Cookbook.
Lomography released Berlin Kino 400 more as an invitation to experimentation than as a competitor to the old classics of the black-and-white scene. Their use of the New German filmmakers in marketing is proof of that. They will also soon be releasing a “Potsdam Kino” companion film rated at ISO 100, which I’ve had the pleasure of testing.
It feels like wasted effort trying to break the film down in a language it’s not meant to speak. Its native tongue is the freewheeling, shoot and hope for the best mentality of its company. In that vein, I found the film highly successful. I had set out with the film to capture a snapshot of a city and think I succeeded in doing so. It’s flexible, capable in a wide range of environments and its marketing actually follows through on delivering a timeless, cinematic look (I even cropped a few of my images into a 16:9 ratio). I don’t feel any closer to the giants of German cinema, but it was neat to use similar tools for a few days.
Berlin native Marlene Dietrich once said she always kept a suitcase in Berlin. I think I’ll always try to keep a roll of Berlin Kino here as well.
[Update – this article originally stated that Berlin Kino is a one-time release as we’ve seen in other films. This is not true. As per our Lomography rep – “the Berlin and Potsdam Kino films are not really limited. They’re here to stay. We are working on continuously producing both of them and will do our best never to run out of it in our stock.”]