Soviet-era Cinema in Panevežys, Lithuania At Risk

The demolishing of a much-loved cinema will remove an architectural gem in Panevėžys, Lithuania and people who live there are asking for our help. It would have been logical at this point to think that everyone would be delighted to have got shot of the  Cinema Centre Garsas, after all, what precisely is it a reminder of? An oppressive regime? The central delivery depot of a culture that everyone wanted gone?

 

soviet era cinema in lithuania

Kino Teatras Garsas Panevėžys

 

Nina Fridmaniene established Panevėžys’ first cinema in her home in 1928.  She understood that any aspiring town needed a kino and by then The Jazz Singer,  the world’s first ‘talkie’ was a worldwide sensation. Less than two years later, on April 4th 1930, she created another piece of cinematic history when she opened her new purpose-built cinema, Sirena – in English, Siren. It had a fully functioning sound system which enabled her to show the first ‘talking picture’ in Panevėžys.

1939 saw a change of ownership and name, Cinema Garsas (sound)  began its life.

 

Garsas Cinema 1939

 

It’s useful to understand the region’s recent history and slot into that the role architecture and culture plays.  Kaunas is a good place to start, Lithuania’s temporary capital’ from 1920 to 1939 during the country’s brief period of independence. The city went through a phase of intense building, became a kind of boomtown and its ambitious Modernist architecture today stands the test of time and is recognised as world-class.

 

Sodom and Gomorra shown for one night before it was banned

 

Towards the end, optimism about the survival of the country temporary independence’ ebbed away, life became more and more difficult in the region. Regardless that Lithuania had declared itself a neutral country, clashes between fascist and communist raged in the press, new political movements blossomed and withered and there was a pronounced uptick of antisemitism.  The end came abruptly. The Soviet Union annexed the territory on June 15th 1940.

 

Image with thanks to Elena Staskute.

 

In November of that year, a matter of months after the first Soviet invasion, long term cultural credentials were sealed when Juozas Miltinis moved his renowned theatrical troupe from Kaunas, opening the Panevėžys Drama Theatre.
In a neat piece of bridging – we can place a connection from the town to one of the most famous and widely known Soviet films of the 1970s which without a doubt would have played in Cinema Garsas, Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The film has been referenced by just about every filmmaker who’s ever ventured into deep space.  The star of Solaris, Donatas Banionis, trained with Juozas Miltinis in Panevėžys and later became Director of the Panevėžys Drama Theatre.

 

no longer accessible

Behind fences in 2021

The war years were brutal for the town’s residents with a seesawing of who took charge of the territory  – by late June 1941, it was under Nazi rule and in 1944 once again the Soviets. By the end of the war, 96% of Lithuanian Jews had been murdered mostly in forested areas outside the centre of towns including Panevėžys. When the Soviets drove the Nazis and their collaborators out, they recommenced their mass deportations in appalling conditions of intellectuals and anyone they regarded as a class enemy to the industrial region beyond the Urals and Siberia.

 

“Industry” by Bronius Vyšniauskas 1979 (created as a result of the Labour Productivity ’70 competition)

 

Postwar, the whole region was known as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Soviet authorities made sure that their vision was stamped on every aspect of life, which included dictating that Lithuanian would no longer be the country’s official language. Entertainment was one vehicle to disseminate Stalin’s vision. The public was fed a diet of exclusively Soviet cinema, Soviet documentary and Soviet newsreels all distributed by a highly organised, central system that spread the message over a vast area.

 

The bar in the auditorium 1968

 

The Projectionists 1968

 

And so it rolled, by 1968 the original Cinema Garsas had gone, replaced by the new much larger Teatro Garsas, a 850-seater, a perfect example of Soviet architecture. This was at a midway point to independence. Lithuania would have to wait another 22 years until March 11th 1990 to see the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-establishment of an independent sovereign state.
Garsas continued with firsts after independence, in 1993 it came to be the proud possessor of Lithuanian and the Baltic States only 3D Stereo system. This had a curious before and after aspect to it, regardless that the Soviet system had collapsed, old working relationships continued. Designed by the Moscow Film Institute, it was a collaborative idea by the professional team at Garsas and some local film purists determined to rescue a cinema that was seriously on its knees (little did they know what was to come later). The challenge the cinema faced was the sale of illegal videos – a moneymaker with budding entrepreneurs popping up like mushrooms selling to people who could play the latest American blockbuster in their own homes.
The impact of the collapse of a state organised system can take a few years to filter to local level. The four operating cinemas in town became part of ‘Garsas’ which activists explain meant ownership of those cinemas and their cinema’s debts. The purchasing of the 3D system was as much a devise to hinder the sale of the cinema as it was to entice people back in.

 

Solaris USSR Poster Creative commons fair use

Donatas Banionis (star of Solaris) at the Garsas cinema with a film critic Skirmantas Valiulis

 

Today, when you ask a local which building is getting a lot of public attention in Panevėžys, they will know immediately what you are getting at, Cinema Garsas. It has become the focus of people who care about the town’s heritage and who care about the preservation of historically important buildings and at the moment they don’t seem able to stop its imminent demolition. One can only feel sympathetic to how helpless they feel.

And so it happened with the cinema – developers came with new ideas which appealed greatly to some in the town but for many of the local activists with a genuine appreciation for the architecture – the cinema, a rare example of its kind in Lithuania- the idea of bulldozing all or part of the building was too much to bear. Internationally there has been a growing recognition of the importance of preserving historic film and sound recordings and this building, the activists say, is part of that heritage.

They have campaigned and highlighted the architectural and cultural importance of this particular building but it seems they are shouting into the wind. We are now in March 2021 and the building is about to be demolished.

 

cinema garsas in winter

Kino Teatras Garsas Panevėžys

 

Protest at the cinema

Jurgis, a conservationist and local campaigner shares his thoughts:

‘Local groups of supporters have been trying to stop the demolition of the building, and a petition has gathered several thousand signatures. Film artists and the Europa cinema group has shared a video supporting our campaign. The building has an important historical and cultural value.

Instead there is a plan to build a massive new gallery in its place.  One of the many criticisms is that the design of the new building seems to be too big for the proposed space and will damage the surrounding harmony of lower buildings and block people’s views. I doubt it would be approved in other cities’.

What you can do to help

Join the Facebook group for up to date postings about how to support fans of Kino Teatras Garsas

 

liutauras Nekrosius photo

Pilenai Apartments Architect Vykis Juršys Image Liutauras Nekrosius

The Architect and his projects

Vykis Juršys

Projects:

Cinema ‘Garsas’ (Kino Teatras / Centras Garsas)

Panevėžys, Lithuania

Architect: Vykis Juršys

Year: 1968

Other works by the architect:

Holiday resort hotel Pilėnai, Palanga, on the Baltic sea.

Cinema Aidas’, Druskininkai (now converted to a shopping centre)

Cinema ‘Vaidila’, Klaipėda (not in use and in a very poor state of repair)
Vitebskas Shopping Centre and residential apartments with V. Paipalas

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