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Moscow’s oldest cinema reopens after seven-year renovation

While many cinemas around the world are shut and face difficulties in the coronavirus pandemic, one is bucking the trend: Moscow’s Khudozhestvenny, a storied venue that hosted some of the first showings of Battleship Potemkin in 1926 and had Leo Tolstoy among in its audience.

After a seven-year renovation, the imperial-era cinema, which first opened in 1909, is a testament to the refined tastes of urban Russian cinema buffs, though its grand opening last month came at an inauspicious moment for the film industry.

“This strange illness will pass,” said Alexander Mamut, a billionaire businessman who held a stake in the theatre during its renovation and now manages it via his Pioner cinema operator. “People don’t want to live the reclusive life forced on them by the epidemic. They want to live an urban lifestyle … as soon as new releases come out and the restrictions end, audiences will come back to the cinema.”

Foyer of the cinema
The cinema’s foyer. ‘People don’t want the reclusive life forced on them by the epidemic,’ its owner said. Photograph: Seryy Mark/Lazzarin Francesco

The renovation, which Mamut estimated cost $30m (about £21m), has involved restoration of the theatre’s historic facade – which had a huge model battleship on its front for the opening night of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic – so that it reads “Khudozhestvenny Electro-Theater”. The facade matches many other elements of a celebrated 1913 redesign by the architect Fyodor Schechtel, while the renovation has elicited controversy for an extensive redesign of the building’s interior.

Inside the theatre, reflective mirrors, metal and marble gleam in a stylised reinterpretation of the grand cinema that Mamut said was “what the Bolshoi theatre is for ballet”.

Mamut, the owner of the Waterstones bookshop chain from 2011 to 2018, bet big on film before the epidemic brought the global movie industry to a halt. In the interview, he declined to discuss lawsuits launched over debt connected to his Cinema Park movie theatre chain, which he bought in 2017. But he described a broader crisis in the cinema business brought on by limits on theatre attendance and the lack of new films.

“I was looking at this project in 2014, or 2017, or even 2019, when everything was totally different,” he said of the Khudozhestveny, which he noted was a socially-focused project but still believed that it would eventually turn a profit. “It’s like if your child is born and he goes to school and he gets Ds, he studies poorly. Would you still have given birth? Of course. Sooner or later he’ll start getting good marks.”

The renovation of the cinema was completed after Sberbank, a state bank, bought his media empire in a deal that also included the cinema so he now manages the property, which, like his Pioneer movie theatre, trends toward arthouse and foreign film. Movies are generally shown in the original language with subtitles, concessions such as popcorn are not on sale, and films such as The Father starring Anthony Hopkins take precedent over big-budget blockbusters.

The aesthetic is carefully considered. As we tour the building, Mamut whispers advice to a manager that the light lounge music should be turned down further, and points out two elderly women in elegant sunhats standing by the bar: “Excellent,” he whispers to an aide with a gesture of ecstasy.

The theatre’s main auditorium featured an orchestra pit until it screened Russia’s first sound film, The Road to Life, in 1931. When Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin came out, a model of the ship was mounted on the building’s facade on opening night.

Interior of the cinema
The redesigned interior has angered some preservationists. Photograph: Lazzarin Francesco

A main hall with 474 seats recreates the original balcony, along with modern flourishes for sound equipment. Two 47-seat theatre halls have been added at the top of a marble staircase that dominates the building’s lobby, along with a 21-seat chamber screening room accessible through a reading library. A restaurant on the first floor also hosts a designer soap retailer.

The redesigned interior has angered some preservationists. Mamut’s team said that by 2016, when they took over the renovation, the previous team had already gutted the interior, removing layers of history stretching back to Schechtel’s original design.

“If we had come in when they hadn’t begun the demolition project we can’t exclude that we wouldn’t have considered preserving the Soviet layers too,” said Dasha Paramonova, the chief executive of Strelka, part of the architecture and urban planning consultancy that Mamut helped to create.

But faced with the option of trying to divine what Schechtel’s original design had been, Paramonova said they decided instead to give foreign architecture firms a freer hand. “We didn’t want to do things à la Schechtel and that was a principled decision,” said Paramonova.

Artistic freedom is also an issue and Mamut’s Pioner cinema was raided by police in 2018 for defying a ban on screening the Death of Stalin, the Armando Iannucci film that pans the power scramble following the death of the Soviet dictator, an incident he calls “totally illegal”. More recently, police raided theatres in St Petersburg screening documentary films for Artdocfest.

Mamut has waded into newsroom politics before, sparking a mass exodus from his Lenta.ru in 2014 after firing the editor-in-chief over an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist (he declines to discuss the incident).

He says he knows where the double line, as the Russian euphemism goes, for a cinema. “Of course,” he said. “I’m over 60 years old. I live here. I know the rules of the road very well. But I’m for film as art.”

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