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Amsterdam’s Flagship Theater Tuschinski Celebrates Royal Decree

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This year’s IDFA makes a rousing return to in-person projections, following an online-only version in 2020 that fell at the mid-point of the nearly 18 months that saw Dutch screens go dark.

As it plays out in 15 venues in Amsterdam, including prestigious halls like the Eye Film Museum and the generally live-performance oriented Royal Theater Carré, and another 40 satellite spots across the country, the 2021 doc fest has reserved most of its marquee events – like live concerts, orchestral accompaniments, and a daily screening made available to online viewers all across the country – to a 750-seat Old World film palace recently heralded as the most beautiful cinema in the world: the Pathé Tuschinski.

Or, to be more precise, the one-time Pathé Tuschinski. As of its centenary birthday celebration this past October, the august venue has been newly renamed the Royal Theater Tuschinski – becoming the first and only cinema to receive such an honor. Though for all the building’s dazzle and heft, it derives much of its mythic status from a checkered history marked as much by tragedy as by glitter.

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Courtesy of Renske Derkx

Abraham Icek Tuschinski never expected to end up in Amsterdam. Born into a Polish shtetl in 1886 and trained as a tailor, the young man traveled overland across the European continent at the turn of the century, hoping to escape the pogroms of the old world for the promise of the new.

Only the émigré and his family never did get on the boat. Hunkering down in the port city of Rotterdam, Tuschinski partnered with his brothers-in-law Hermann Gerschtanowitz and Hermann Ehrlich and together they prospered,  opening a series of businesses that would grow to include four movie palaces, converted from regular theaters.

“Gerschtanowitz was the financial man, Ehrlich was the programmer, and Tuschinski was the one with the dream,” explains Robbert Blokland-Wijchers, who has written a recently published book about the cinema’s 100th anniversary. “[And after the four converted theaters in Rotterdam,] Tuschinski dreamt of building his own cinema from his own design. He wanted to do everything he could imagine to make a movie palace for regular people.”

In 1918, the three men set their sights on land in the heart of Amsterdam, and on Oct. 28, 1921, inaugurated a movie house unlike anything built before or since. “When you enter, it’s like walking into another world,” says Blokland-Wijchers. “There’s so much to see, so many details and ornaments. Tuschinski thought about everything, he thought about the doorknobs, the doors, and the tapestry on the floor, which was hand-made and imported from Morocco.”

“You’re so amazed by everything you see it’s almost a pity that the film starts,” he continues. “You’re amazed by its one of a kind combination of Art Deco, Jugendstil and the Amsterdam School styles of architecture, which is actually a bit of a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.”

For the next two decades, Tuschinski would act as ambassador for the theater that bore his name and for the art form itself, opening more theaters in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Schiedam. More showman than business shark, he would spend lavishly to welcome foreign stars, to import luxury decorations, and to make sure that each and every working-class filmgoer felt welcome, going so far as to lower the price of admission to make sure the big screen remained accessible to those hurt by the crash of 1929.

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Hermann Ehrlich, Abraham Icek Tuschinski, Hermann Gerschtanowitz
Courtesy of Veenman+

But the violence Tuschinski had hoped to flee eventually came for him, as for so many others. In May 1940, German bombs destroyed all four of Tuschinski’s Rotterdam theaters while occupying forces ousted his board of directors and all Jewish employees. Within six months, his theater would be renamed “The Tivoli,” made a haven for Nazi propaganda, and, over the next two years, the entire Tuschinski family would be murdered in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Sobibor. By the time Gerschtanowitz’s son Max took over the theater in 1945, he did so as an orphan; but for two cousins, everyone else in his family was gone.

Untouched by bombs and returned its original name, the Tuschinski has since stood as a kind of gilded memorial and glorious window into a vanished world. And in the intervening decades, filmmakers have toyed with different aspects of the theater’s weighty past. In 1971, for example, the cinema celebrated its 50th anniversary by hosting the world premiere of “Fiddler on the Roof” – in a move that emphasized the founder’s biography and early glories, making parallels between the real life figure and the characters in the film.

“[Like Tevye the milkman] Tuschinski was also a Jewish worker who left Eastern Europe to find fortune in the West,” says Blokland-Wijchers. “Director Norman Jewison chose the Tuschinski because he really wanted that story to be seen here.”

Two decades later, Steven Spielberg keyed into the tragic aspects of this tale when he handpicked the cinema for the European premiere of “Schindler’s List,” hosting an event that left an indelible mark for all in attendance.

“There were many survivors and relatives of Holocaust victims present,” says Blokland-Wijchers. “Everyone who was there still remembers this feeling, this sanctity and quiet during and after the film. It was the premiere, so there were drinks and little snacks afterward, but nobody touched them. [After a while,] Spielberg stood and said, ‘Let’s just go home and experience the quiet.’”

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Rutger Hauer and Jeroen Krabbé at the 1977 premiere of Paul Verhoeven’s “Soldier of Orange” at Tuschinski
Creative Commons

Five years after Max Gerschtanowitz took back his family’s theater, a young boy walked through its doors, parents in tow, to catch a screening of “Bambi.” “I went there for the first time when I was five or six years old, which is now 70 years ago,” recalls actor Jeroen Krabbé. “I still remember it vividly. Entering that building was like entering a fairy tale.”

Like many a child of his generation and of those that would follow, Krabbé looked to the theater with reverence. As the war years receded, the Tuschinski returned to its original goal: To serve as a high temple for cinema, as a rarified space that turned a trip to the movies into a full-on event.

Indeed, for millions of Dutch citizens, memories of Tuschinski come bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia; for it was the place where birthdays were celebrated, where families gathered en masse to catch the new James Bond together.

Only for Krabbé, the theater had a more direct impact on his personal and professional growth. The son of a film subtitlor, the Dutch star would spend countless mornings seated behind his mother in the theater’s intimate screening room, watching her work and losing himself in the latest upcoming releases from France, Italy and the U.S. “I learned several languages through that experience,” he says. “Because I wanted to understand what these people were saying. Though I had trained as a painter, there I decided that I wanted to make movies.”

Years later, when Krabbé himself made his way into 007’s world, the actor knew where this story would lead. “While we were still shooting ‘The Living Daylights,’ I told my fellow actors that the film would premiere at Tuschinski,” says Krabbé. “I said that I would host a party before the premiere, because Bond movies always premiere there. Little did I know that half of Holland would be there with us, cheering and waving outside the theater that night!”

For all the excitement of that Hollywood fete, Krabbé marks the high watermark of his professional life a decade earlier, at the 1977 premiere of Paul Verhoeven’s “Soldier of Orange.” In what would prove to be a milestone event for the Dutch industry writ large, that screening hosted the country’s royal family – for whom a new VIP section was built – while the full breadth of the national film and television industry came out to celebrate.

“Up until that point, we had never had such a premiere in Holland,” says Krabbé. “When I was a child, I would look at Tuschinski from the other side of the street, thinking maybe one day I’ll be a movie star and one day I’ll be there. So that night, when Rutger [Hauer] and I arrived on motorcycles, with a brass band playing, hundreds of people out there to celebrate, and the royal family there with us, I thought, okay, now I’ve made it. I was absolutely moved, feeling like I reached my goal.”

Since then, Krabbé has never stopped attending Tuschinski. He was there for the cinema’s hundred-year celebration in late October, and was there, as a simple filmgoer, weeks before, to catch (what else but) the latest James Bond.

“That same feeling – that overwhelming feeling, is still there,” he says. “It’s been over 70 years since I walked in for the first time, and I still have the feeling of the first day. You go there to feel humble, to think ‘OK, I’m going to see something special.’ Even if the movie is shit.”

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Courtesy of Roger Cremers

Built to showcase the pearls of another age, the Tuschinski palace remains somewhat resistant to the particularities of modern exhibition.

“When the theater was founded, it was for silent films,” explains Blokland-Wijchers. “So sound remains an issue. Dolby Atmos, for example, requires the installation of speakers in the ceiling. And that’s not possible here, because the ceiling is decorated, and too high.”

“Also, the projector is quite high in the building, creating a slightly warped angle,” Blokland-Wijchers continues. “But it’s not possible to change. That’s just one of those quirks of Tuschinski – it’s not a perfect theater.”

In practical terms, such limitations have created headaches for certain perfectionist directors. At the 2002 premiere of “The Pianist,” for example, Roman Polanski stormed out of the theater in a huff, demanding to speak with the projectionist and imploring that they “stop ruining my movie!”

But in a more figurative sense, such limitations have slightly shifted a certain balance of power: Because to present a work in Tuschinski, one must recognize that the theater itself will leave its own mark on the film.

For some, that scenario has led to advantageous outcomes. “When we started screening films in Tuschinski, we wanted to show that documentaries could reach a wider audience,” says IDFA executive director Cees van’t Hullenaar.

“We didn’t want to show our films in small theaters,” van ’t Hullenaar continues. “We wanted to show that documentaries could reach, and could be accessible to, bigger audiences. IDFA proved that it was possible… [And through our partnership with Tuschinski] IDFA became a bigger festival for a wider public.”

Now well into its second decade, IDFA’s partnership with Amsterdam’s flagship cinema continues to pay dividends. “When it’s possible to have something special attached to the film, we program it in Tuschinski,” says van ’t Hullenaar. “We’ve made so many memories over the years.”

Indeed, when Variety spoke to the festival director late last week, he reminisced about the previous evening’s Tuschinski events while inside the century-old auditorium, an orchestra offered live accompaniment to Dziga Vertov’s “The History of the Civil War.”

“On Friday evening, Patti Smith performed there,” he said. “She stood alone, performing for more than 20 minutes. She sang and recited poems, and it was great. The whole room was almost in tears. That’s already a dear memory.”

Tobi is a reserved individual, loves making friends and a top-notch web developer. Currently, he's working as a freelancer for cmatrends.com

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