Flicks from the underground

Flicks from the underground: By David Hudson. Berlin transforms subway tunnels into movie screens.

Published January 27, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

BERLIN -- "European underground cinema" usually conjures images of tilted berets, filterless cigarettes and, of course, subtitles. But on May 1, the concept will be realized quite literally along a stretch of the Berlin subway line between the Zoologischer Garten and Hansaplatz stations.

Nine hundred projectors lined up alongside 550 meters (about 1,800 feet) of subway track will strobe in sync with the movement of the train for 30 seconds, and the total effect -- as described by Jvrg Moser-Metius, who heads up Metro Cinevision Film GmbH, the company behind the project -- is "holographic in character. You are the machine, pushing through the film."

Moser-Metius' enthusiasm is to be expected, of course, but the 45-year-old's flair for hyperbole is as entertaining as his invention. Last August, his team set up a nighttime above-ground test run, rushing a train past a two-second clip of animation. As the train pulled to a halt, the team inside broke out into cheers and popped champagne bottles, and Moser-Metius pronounced the triumph "a hypererotic kick."

Salesmanship aside, there must be something to it. Shortly after the new medium's debut in Berlin, films will be playing between Quai d' Orsay and Invalides in Paris. And London and Moscow, along with a handful of cities in Scandinavia, Brazil and Argentina, have also expressed interest in using the system.

Moser-Metius has spent well over a decade and between 3 million and 4 million German marks to realize his vision. But in the mid-'80s, as he told the Berliner Morgenpost, "It was the right project at the wrong time." There just wasn't enough kick to the technology yet.

The projectors themselves are simple enough. Each of the retro-looking gray boxes contains a loop of film -- 18 frames of exactly the same image. The strobing bulb behind the loop is astoundingly bright, since the film has to be visible to passengers inside a lit subway compartment.

The tricky part is aligning each image projected onto a long span of white screen outside the subway windows in precisely the same spot as the next image. For the passengers inside, a film will seem to be floating in darkness, just out of reach. The film will play outside every single window, so every passenger, no matter where they're seated, will see the same film -- but the ones at the front of the train will see it a few seconds before everyone in the back.

This alignment involves two complex computerized systems of sensors linked directly to the central computer of Berlin's subway network. The first hurdle to be overcome is that not all subway trains are alike. A difference of just a few centimeters in the distance between the individual cars or the size of the windows can throw the whole affair into a senselessly flickering mess. So the exact measurements of each numbered train are passed along from the central computer to the underground cinema by the first system, while the second keeps track of the precise speed of each train.

An obvious question arises: Why, in an age of cheap and portable video monitors, go to all this trouble and spend all this money for the novelty of showing 30-second flicks outside rather than inside the subway?

Moser-Metius is quick to point out that most of these video systems, such as the one set up in the Paris Metro in 1985, have been a complete flop. "People aren't interested in watching TV on the subway," he says -- but they perk up at the idea of speeding through a movie on a train.

"You have the feeling that 'I'm producing this picture,' and that reverses the established order of the media. You're zooming through a movie." Moser-Metius goes on to compare the experience with the "neurophysiological effect" of Douglas Trumbull's experiments with movies shown at 65 frames per second, rather than the usual 24: "It's a rush no one can really explain." Metro Cinevision is currently sorting through submissions from filmmakers for content worthy of the rush. The most likely candidates for the exclusive premiere ride are respected names in, yes, European underground cinema. Jean-Jacques Lebel, Wolf Vostell and Federica Marangoni, for example.

But the system is expected to pay for itself eventually, and fortunately, 30 seconds also happens to be the ideal span of time for underground advertising. The Michael Conrad Leo Burnett Agency is handling that end of the business, and spokesman Matthias Gr|ndler is confident clients will leap at the new medium. "It's not like the movies or television where the audience can get up and walk out or zap away from a commercial," he beams.

What he's talking about, of course, is a captive audience. Will subway riders appreciate a quick neurophysiological rush injected into their otherwise routine schedules? Or will they object to yet another intrusion of consumerist propaganda into their lives, even if mixed with a dash of high culture?

Come this spring, Berliners will be the first to know.

By David Hudson

David Hudson writes the English-language News Digest for Spiegel Online.

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