Christian Petzold on discovering The Deer Hunter one wintry night in Berlin

For our #MyDreamPalace celebration of cinemas, the director Christian Petzold recalls the trip to Berlin cinema Neues Off when Michael Cimino’s anti-war film taught him to love cinema.

Berlin’s Neues Off kinoIllustration by Lucinda Rogers

It was the first winter after I moved to Berlin. I was living in a very small flat with no central heating, except for an oven that you really had to fire up. I was pretty lonely back then, but being lonely is a good state of mind for going to the cinema. It was December 1981 and there was a thin layer of snow coating everything outside. It was very silent because there were hardly any cars driving in the streets, so I picked up a newspaper and looked for a movie I might want to watch. I found The Deer Hunter.

It was a movie I had not yet seen. The 1979 Berlinale was broken because of The Deer Hunter. There was a big political strike and the Russians and East Germans pulled their movies because they said that the anti-imperialist Vietcong never tortured people. I was a very young communist who agreed with this opinion of the GDR [German Democratic Republic] and the Soviet Russians. Being a leftist I was slightly afraid of going, but I looked up where it was being screened, which was in the Neues Off in Berlin Kreuzberg at the Hermannstrasse.

Neues Off Cinema, Berlin

Later on I found out that the building used to be a cabaret theatre, and then a strip club, and finally a cinema for sex movies, and it was located right across the street from a graveyard. In front of the cinema there’s just the pavement, nothing more. It’s located in a residential street and you can even miss the entrance because it’s inside a normal building. So if you’re passing by with your car, when people come out of the cinema it looks like the house is burning and the people have come out of their house to wait for the firemen.

It’s like slipping through a side door and entering into a different kind of reality. It’s very small, but when you’re inside it’s really, really big. It’s like being in The Wizard of Oz. You go through a black-and-white Berlin city and you open a door and are somewhere over the rainbow, or somewhere in the sex cinema.

On that snowy night I only had to walk for 15 minutes: it was very close to my home. There were not more than six or seven lonely people. I was sitting there like I was in an Edward Hopper picture, smoking cigarettes alone with a beer in my hand. I saw the three-hour movie by Michael Cimino. The Deer Hunter is an exceptional film, which really confused me and frightened me. I still think it is the best anti-war movie ever made, because it shows the fact that a war tears open wounds that will never heal again. It’s also influenced by neorealism.

I didn’t see that movie again for 25 years. I needed that night of loneliness and that surreal snowy night in Berlin to find an entrance to another kind of cinema – and to be surprised by something new. So it was a really great experience, and a very important one as well, because I think that was the night I learned to love cinema. Now I’m living not far from the place I lived 35 to 40 years ago. The last movie I saw at Neues Off was Parasite [2019]. Whenever I go there I always have this Deer Hunter feeling.

Christian Petzold was talking to Sophie Monks Kaufman.