Happy Birthday to Tromso's Verdensteatret Cinema

in 25th Tromso International Film Festival

by David Jenkins

In the eyes of those who attend them, film festivals appear designed as ways to enjoy an alternative to the output proffered to us by the big Hollywood studios. Perhaps it’s a somewhat romantic notion to think that there exists an exotic annex to mainstream cinema which doesn’t smell of stale, overpriced popcorn or requires paid supplements for 3D glasses to enter. But, increasingly, multiplex cinemas are giving their screens over to film festivals, lending proceedings an air of high-gloss corporate respectability, but maybe excising a feeling of individuality – that all films are equal – in the process.

In Tromso, during their annual festival which, in 2015, celebrated its 25th edition, the large majority of films were screened at the Aurora Kino Fokus, a gigantic glass edifice whose cinema screens are housed in the basement of what functions primarily as the snow-dusted city’s civic centre. In the world of multiplex cinemas, this one certainly ranks at the higher end of the scale, with its modernist architecture, robust projection facilities and two large-capacity screens – something of a rarity in venues which now value smaller screens, programming flexibility and broader choice for customers. Yet it’s rare for a festival to achieve any modicum of credibility without seeking other, more classical and refined venues as part of their roster.

The jewel in Tromso’s crown is the Verdensteatret Cinema, a glorious old-school picture palace situated on the city’s main drag and which played host to many of the festival’s innovative sidebar screenings. The cinema was originally erected in 1916, so next year it celebrates its centenary. And despite some superficial nips and tucks to its décor, mostly to make it amenable to modern exhibition standards, Verdensteatret offers the opportunity for a short-haul time travel, back to an age where cinemas possessed character and comfort and weren’t intended as production line-style factories in which the aim of the game was to get as many people in and out the door as swiftly and reliably as possible.

From its mustard-yellow exterior which somehow even looks more striking in the dusky midnight sun, Verdensteatret opens into a cosy wine bar which – in the overriding spirit traditional – boasts a large wall of vinyl records which are used as musical fuel for the in-house stereo system. Upon entering the 216-seater auditorium, the first thing that catches the eye is local artist Sverre Mack’s giant, ornate murals which were inspired by folk tales and which line the walls, four running down each wall at some three meters in height. Functionality remains paramount, however, and these colourful effigies gain impact from the juxtaposition against plain, cream and mustard painted walls and a screen which appears underneath a simple metallic hearth.

According to the official history of the cinema, one of its early purposes was as an apparatus to exert “moral control” on the city of Tromso, as the members of the municipal court would judiciously select that films that would play there. It would be also be a way to help line the municipality coffers, offering local denizens a rare leisure activity that didn’t involve fish.

It’s an extremely beautiful cinema, and unlike the large majority of multiplexes, it remains primed to project films on celluloid (35mm and 16mm) alongside digital which has taken over as the industry standard. Concurrent to its cinema programme, it hosts jazz and classical concerts, and during the 2015 festival is was employed as a venue for movies requiring live soundtracks – an increasingly popular mode of experiencing films both new and old in a climate where going to the cinema needs to be made into an “event” to drag potential audiences away from computer monitors and giant flatscreen televisions.

According to festival staff, the Verdensteatret’s 100th birthday will somehow be incorporated into next year’s programme, even though Tromsø is, by the admission of its hyper charismatic artistic director, Martha Otte, a festival which prefers to look forward than backward. In the case of this gorgeous cinema, this is one over-the-shoulder glance that they wouldn’t want to miss out on.

David Jenkins