Cinema history The wild, colourful world of railway station cinemas

The former Munich railway station cinema Aki
The former Munich railway station cinema Aki | Photo (detail) | © Lunabeach TV & Media GmbH

“Grubby” and “cheesy” are two adjectives that immediately spring to mind when you read about railway station cinemas. And yet their original purpose was only to shorten the waiting time of travellers.

The chequered history of the still infamous railway station cinemas tells an important part of the story of West German cinema culture. These special cinemas arose in the Federal Republic after the Second World War when almost all railway stations lay in rumble. During their reconstruction, the German Federal Railway decided to offer modern cinemas for travellers, some with seating for 500 or more guests. Similar cinemas already existed in the United States and the UK.
 
The operating company AKI Aktualitätenkino-Betriebs-GmbH & Co, founded in 1950, took over construction and coordination, and the first railway station cinema opened its doors in April 1951 at the main station in Frankfurt am Main. More cinemas in Hamburg, Cologne, Munich and other big cities of West Germany followed. In the early days the programme was designed for rail passengers who wanted to while away the waiting time between two long-distance trains. Back then the train timetables were not so tightly synchronized as they are today and so there were sometimes gruellingly long stopovers.

Non-stop diversion – transit zones, pass through places

As railway station cinemas were intended only to bridge the idle time between two trains, they didn’t show regular movies. Instead they projected in loop, from morning to late evenings, a weekly changing, about 50-minute programme of so-called “Aktualitäten-Kinos” (news films), “Akis” for short, or “Bahnhofslichtspiele” (railway station movies), “Balis” for short. The admission charge was low; the cinemas offered “entertainment for the whole family” and so, in addition to passing travellers and regular customers, many children were among the audience. Guests came and went as they liked, without missing anything decisive. The lighting of these honest-to-goodness passing-through places was a bit brighter than in other cinemas; there were often separate entrances and exits at opposite sides, and next to the screen was enthroned an illuminated clock and a board with information about train delays.
 
The programme of Balis and Akis had a fixed scheme. It consisted initially of a roughly half-hour newsreel with a cross-section of current political and social issues, a slapstick or animation part and general interest features. Customary was a short documentary film or travelogue, which might inspire the audience to new train trips. A conspicuous advantage over traditional cinemas was that the railway station cinemas gave much more playing time to newsreels, thereby meeting the public demand for current information. The idea worked: in the 1950s, the heyday of railway station cinemas, they were often completely sold out.

Sex, zombies and other sensations

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper) 1974 | Photo (detail) © Turbine Medien GmbH | The market position of the railway station cinemas changed dramatically when television conquered the West German living room in the course of the 1960s. The new medium could deliver news in newsreel format much better than the Aktualitätenkinos. After the operating company responded at first by changing to a regular cinema programme, beginning in the 1960s and through the 1970s it took a new course.
 
Against the background of the sexual revolution, soft core sex films roamed into the programme – for instance, Ich – Ein Groupie (i.e. Me – A Groupie; directed by Erwin C. Dietrich, 1970) and cheap versions of the box-office hit sex educational films by Oswalt Kolle. Other lurid genres that were commonly regarded as trash also flickered across the screens: Westerns, martial arts movies, monster films from Italy, Hong Kong and Japan, action-packed crime films such as Blutiger Freitag (i.e. Bloody Friday; directed by Rolf Olsen, 1972) and horror films such as Tombs of the Blind Dead (directed by Amando de Ossorio, 1971). The good repute of the railway station cinemas plummeted parallel to the new choice of movies, earning them the label of “sleaze cinemas”.

Films that were not shown on television or at regular cinemas for moral, ethical or artistic reasons found a forum at the Balis. And so there came to be fewer and fewer travellers among the guests and more and more fans of arcane cinema spectacles. Whoever went to a railway station cinema in the 1970s and 80s wanted to see sex films, wild shoot-outs or gory horror films that transgressed the common morality and standards. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), I Spit on Your Grave (directed by Meir Zarchi, 1978), Zombie Holocaust (directed by Marino Girolami, 1980) and Cannibal Holocaust (directed by Ruggero Deodato, 1980) were a few of the eye-catching titles of the B-movies shown there.

Video stores seal the fate of the railway station cinema

In the early 1980s railway station cinemas were faced by a further rival in the form of emerging video technology, which was to seal their fate. Now viewers could indulge their curiosity at home after borrowing the desired films at a video store. The unique feature of railway station cinemas, the showing of the stronger stuff that could not be seen anywhere else, had had its day.
 
Even the idea of shifting the programme completely to hardcore pornography and ever harder splatter films could not save the Balis from bankruptcy. One lease agreement after another ran out, not least because the sleazy cinemas also no longer fit the image of the German Federal Railway. Thanks to the development of the infrastructure, waiting times were in any case now shorter, so that the original function of these cinemas as non-stop diversion was no longer in demand. By the end of the 1990s, almost all railway station cinemas were closed and the AKI Aktualitätenkino-Betriebs-GmbH & Co filed for insolvency. Only the Balis in Berlin-Zehlendorf and in Cassel survived the time in the form of normal genre cinemas.
 
The history of the West German railway station cinema lasted less than half a century. The cinemas were founded as a form of harmless diversion for travellers. Yet the reputation of disreputability, which they acquired because of their programmes after the mid-1960s, still clings to them, even though some of the then disdained and derided works they showed have now gained the status of cult films or genre classics.