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The projector-bulb lights seem to be going out all over Washington, but a new one will be illuminated on June 26, when a Chinatown venue screens Billy Wilder’s 1961 commies-and-capitalists comedy, One, Two, Three. The movie will be the first entry in “Berlin Over the Decades,” a four-film series that also includes such German-import hits as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run.
The German theme is no coincidence. The new 92-stadium-seat nonprofit theater is part of the Washington branch of the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, which promotes German culture internationally. The hall has actually been used since the organization moved from Dupont Circle to 7th and I Streets NW, in 1996, but it remained raw space for almost six years.
“It was very improvised,” explains Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes in Washington Director Werner Ott. “We just didn’t have the funds to build it out.”
Now Ott looks forward to participating in such events as Filmfest DC and the Environmental Film Festival, the latter of which the institute previously hosted under severe constraints. “It was really popular,” he says. “People got really mad at us because we had to turn them away.”
So Ott raised “close to $500,000” from a German foundation to add plush, Italian-made purple seats and a “technically very advanced” projection and sound system that can handle all American and European film and video formats, as well as data and Internet images.
Although the new Goethe-Forum is one of the city’s most technologically versatile cinemas, the theater won’t be used only for film. It will also host lectures, recitals, readings, and discussions. The new auditorium won’t even be the sole cinematic venue for the Goethe-Institut, which will continue to sponsor the “New Films From Germany” series at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge and to plan other series with local repertory-film programmers.
“We usually don’t have a single program; we have a theme,” says Ott. “So, for example, the Marlene Dietrich program: We had a nice exhibit here, and we did film and music. But we will continue working with partners, of course.”
“We want to maintain our working relationships,” adds Program Coordinator Sylvia Blume. “We don’t want to cut all our ties to the outside and have programs just here. That’s why we want to continue to work with Visions, the National Gallery, and the Hirshhorn. It’s not just because their theaters are bigger.”
“We want cultural dialogue,” agrees Ott. “With the emphasis on the ‘dialogue.’”
Constructing the theater took three years, which Ott calls “a little bit too long. But it’s not only our fault. It was really sometimes a nightmare. Dealing with the city, the construction company, the sponsors, the head office. So many players, and everyone had a say, but no one really wanted to take charge. That was the most difficult thing. The build-out itself was fun. Once we got going, it was pretty fast.”
One complication was that the Justice Department rents about 90 percent of the building. After Sept. 11, the department’s security experts were skeptical of anything that would bring outsiders into the structure.
Even so, Ott considers the neighborhood a lot safer than when he took the director’s job five years ago. “When I came here, I was a little bit hesitant,” he says. “Is it really the right place? A lot of people said it’s not, especially suburbanites. But since they built the MCI Center, with the additional police, the neighborhood’s changed tremendously. It’s going to be a very vibrant area. I think it’s the right location.” —Mark Jenkins