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The affair POTEMKIN in Germany

2. Strikes, riots and civil commotion: The year 1905 in Russia and the year 1926 in Germany

1st [censorship decision] and 2nd [censorship decision] censorship examination: Gaining way

Film-maker Piel (Phil) Jutzi was responsible for the adaptation of Russian films for the German market by order of “Prometheus Film-Verleih und Vertriebs GmbH”. He edited the BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN anew and toned it down before applying for the first censorship examination in Germany. Nevertheless, on 24th March 1926 the Censorship Office in Berlin banned the film because of a “long-lasting” danger to public order or safety.

The distribution company filed a complaint on the ban at the Film-Oberprüfstelle (Censorship Headquarters in Berlin) and the film was censored again on 10th May 1926.

The invited expert of the Reichskommissariat für Überwachung der öffentlichen Ordnung (Commissioner's Office for Security and Order) accused the film of glorifying civil war under the circumstances of a Bolshevist Revolution and called it subversive communist propaganda, constituting a threat to the German state. The expert of the Reichswehrministerium (Ministry of Armed Forces) confirmed the subversive effect on the army, even in a consolidated one such as the German army.

The distributor’s agent, Paul Levi, contradicted this argument as one-sided and emphasized that not every Russian film could be viewed as a source of communist propaganda. Levi’s argumentation strategy here was to characterize the mutiny on the Russian battleship “Prince Potemkin” as a spontaneous act not connected to the Bolshevist Revolution. He also pointed out that according to the Leninist doctrine “each revolutionary act should be planned and led by the party” - in opposition to the mutiny of 1905.

The censorship committee did not assume a danger to public order or safety and decided to admit the film. There were two determining factors: The mutiny was dramatically motivated in the film (the maggots in the meat as a concrete and justified cause for the sailors’ reaction). In addition the Russian circumstances of 1905 were not comparable to the current situation in Germany. For these reasons an inciting effect of the scenes was not assumed.

The president of the censorship committee explained some basic and essential points. He stated that, seen from a historical perspective, the mutiny on “Prince Potemkin” could be connected to the Bolshevist Revolution, but pointed out that the film itself did not link the two events. According to the Reichslichtspielgesetz /RLG (Reich Moving Picture Law §1),”films must not be cut or banned because of reasons which are outside of the film's content". Therefore it was not possible to ban BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN on these grounds. He also emphasized that the Reich Moving Picture Law did not allow a censorship of content (Inhaltszensur) and that only the (supposed) effects of a film on the “average cinemagoer” should be taken into account in deciding whether to admit or ban a film.

However, several scenes with a total length of 30,15 m were cut because of “overt brutality”. This especially concerned scenes of violence against officers and parts of the Odessa stair scene, especially the depiction of the soldiers’ victims. The motivation for these cuts reveals a basic phenomenon: It is not always possible to differentiate between censorship of content (Inhaltszensur) and censorship of effect (Wirkungszensur); in this case “brutality” and “undesirable political attitudes” are interchangeable justifications.

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was now permitted for adults 18 years of age or older and was successful opened at the Apollo-Theater in a proletarian suburb of Berlin on 29th April 1926. Herbert Ihering wrote about “a film event of extreme importance, which stirred him to the depths of his soul” (Berliner Börsencourier, 30.4.1926). Willy Haas acclaimed the permission of the “first real Russian film” in the journal “Film-Kurier“ (30.4.1926). However, he thought that the film deserved a “real” premiere (meaning: not on the periphery). BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was screened in 15 cinemas in Berlin and met with approval. There was even a special showing for Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and Fairbanks said that “BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was the greatest experience in my life” [press article].

On the other hand, the permission for public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN provoked a severe reaction of the concerned ministries and German States. Four days after permission the Ministry of Armed Forces prohibited members of the army from seeing the film because the military discipline was felt to be threatened.

In June the Minister of the Interior of Thuringia, Georg Sattler, prevented the screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in his sphere of influence shortly before the Bavarian Government did the same in Ludwigsburg. A topic emerged that was to become perhaps the most important issue in the affair BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN: police censorship. The authorization of the police to prevent the public screening of films was repeatedly debated in regional parliaments and members of the conservative parties made attempts to prevent the public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in several cities. After a wave of indignation due to the permission of the film, the public prosecutor had to examine whether it was the prosecution’s duty to intervene against the film.

At the same time very different institutions made an effort to defend the film against a ban. The Minister of Interior of Baden, Adam Remmele, maintained that there was no legal basis for intervening against the film and qualified the campaign against POTEMKIN as politically motivated. Press articles stressed the artistic value of the film and its educational purpose. The “Rote Front” (6.5.1926), for example, reported that “the most wonderful film that the world has ever seen” was to be banned. Committees against the prohibition of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN were established with the support of prominent figures and several organisations of artists and scientists [press article]. Demonstrations and debates were held.

3rd Examination, 12th July 1929 [censorship decision]: “BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is a link in a chain of Bolshevist subversive propaganda”

In the middle of June the provincial government of Württemberg applied for revocation of permission of the film BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN at the Censorship Headquarters in Berlin. Bavaria seconded the motion.

The Minister of the Interior of Württemberg, Dr. Eugen Bolz, gave reasons for a ban which had already been mentioned: a presumed “immediate” danger to public order or safety due to the irresponsible and biased depiction of the “1st Lenin-Revolution” in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. The film would have an inciting effect and would be hostile to the state because of its aim of agitation (RLG§ 1: Danger to public law and order). Bolz quoted Leon Trotsky’s statement that POTEMKIN “could be used to illustrate the mechanics of armed revolution”. He claimed that the film would definitely have the intended effect on a gullible (or uncritical) audience; therefore the public screening of the film “in this extreme tense current situation” could arouse agitation among the audience.

The invited experts, the representative of the Commissioner's Office for Security and Order and of the Ministry of Armed Forces stated that the film might undermine the morale of the army, the police and the civil servants. They confirmed that the film had to be considered in context of the revolutionary rabble-rousing propaganda with the aim of subversion of the state by undermining its instruments of power.

The agent of the Ministry of Interior of Prussia disagreed completely. He argued that the film had been shown in thirty Berlin cinemas without any disturbance of the peace and he did assume neither a subversive effect on the (“non-monarchist”) state nor a danger to public law and order. Furthermore, the Ministry of Interior of Prussia investigated whether it was legal to prevent the public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN by police ordinance. According to the Administrative Court of Prussia there was no cause to take action against the film.

The expert of the Navy reported in camera about the effect of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN on the sailors.

Before giving their ruling the censors emphasized that the so called “Tendenz-Klausel” [The peculiarities of the Reich Moving Picture Law (RLG)] was effectually taken into account in the present case. However, they also said that political films could be banned because of the reasons for interdiction mentioned in the RLG § 1.

In this case the censorship committee partially followed the applicants’ opinion. “Danger to public order” (here: disturbance of the peace) was not accepted as a reason for ban, because there was no evidence of that. Moreover, the censors clarified that such expressions of agitation among the audience as applause, cheers or demonstration of disapproval were in fact within the police’s area of responsibility.

The reason for banning BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was “danger to public safety”. In the previous decision the committee supposed firstly that the German army would be a consolidated one and secondly that the depicted situation (the Russian navy in 1905) was not comparable to Germany in 1926. Therefore a subversive effect on the army was not expected. However, after the statement of the Navy’s expert the censors were convinced that the film would undermine the principle of hierarchy in the Navy and in the Army. Moreover the censors pointed out that “danger to public safety” did not only mean immediate disturbances of peace but also meant a gradual subversive effect on the state by undermining its instruments of power.

The ban aroused a wave of indignation. Among other things a member of the censorship committee, the theatre critic Julius Babs, resigned from his status as committee member [press article].

4th examination, 28th July 1926 [censorship decision]: The release of a “cleaned-up Potemkin”

The distribution company cut out several scenes which had been objected to by the Censorship Headquarters and submitted the film anew for approval at the Censorship Office in Berlin. The request was granted: BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was permitted without any restrictions or cuts on 28th July 1926.

This time, the censors did not assume a danger to public order, because they viewed the struggle on the “Prince Potemkin” as directed against injustice and despotism and driven by pro-democratic and pro-republican values. Thus the censorship committee understood the audience’s applause as a manifestation in favour of the constitutional order and democracy.

This line of argument did not only totally contradict the experts’ and applicants’ previous argumentation in which the audience’s applause was considered a demolishing manifestation; it also subtly alluded to a topic that comes up again and again in this censorship case – the fear of the republican spirit [press article].

This censorship decision sharply differed from the previous rulings. Not only political issues were significant - although the party affiliation of the committee’s members is certainly relevant in this case. The crucial point is the coexistence of two totally different concepts of film reception: On the one hand the idea of the politically mature citizen who takes an active part in the film’s reception and is able to deal actively with images, history and patterns of thought. On the other hand a kind of “stimulus-response” model: “…there existed a vague concept of the imitation of deviant forms of behaviour as a result of the reception of the pictorial media; this coexisted with a more indirect idea of the conversion of reception processes into undesirable mental attitudes” (Keitz 1999).

The full permission for public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN provoked extremely opposite responses. Whereas the left-wing wrote derisive comments about the “cleaned-up Potemkin” [press article], the conservatives reinvented old conspiracy theories: a Jewish-Bolshevistic [press article], a republican [correspondence], even a female conspiracy [press article]. However, both factions casted doubts on the pertinence of the Reich Moving Picture Law, on the structure of censorship committee, and on the political independence of the censors [press article] – although with a considerable variety of interpretations.

In a letter to the editor of the newspaper “Vossische Zeitung” (6.8.26) [press article], Professor Ludwig Quidde defended POTEMKIN’s admission as a triumph of democratic principles. Quidde took up the argumentation of the censorship commission: The film would not encourage revolutionary attitudes; it would rather promote such convictions which were basic to the republic and to the constitutional order. He added that “the fear of a possible abuse of republican “virtues” must not lead to a prohibition of works which promote democratic values”

6th examination, 2nd October 1926 [censorship decision]: An apolitical ruling?

The conservative factions not only criticized the permission fiercely, but also made a concerted attack on the film. Among other things the provincial governments of Württemberg, Bavaria and Thuringia submitted a joint application for revocation of permission of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN at the Censorship Headquarters in Berlin.

The hearing held in October is quite exceptional. Remarkable is not only the fact that the representative of the Armed Forces, Captain Ritter von Speck (who was very hostile to the film) as well as the president of the Censorship Headquarters, Dr. Ernst Seeger, did not attend the hearing. Remarkable is also the argumentation of the committee’s chairman this time: It was the exact reverse of the arguments used in the Censorship Headquarters’ last ruling.

The then-chairman, Dr. von Zahn, emphasized the lack of evidence on the alleged threat for public security and order and stressed that according to the RLG the prohibition of a film may only be imposed when censors presume an “immediate” and “long-lasting” danger to public order or safety (obviously in its temporal sense). Therefore, von Zahn argued, the question was not whether the film might be dangerous to public safety. The crucial point at that time had been the fact that the mutiny and the acts of cruelty against officers met with approval by the audience. This was viewed as a symptom for such an “immediate danger”. However, in the present cut version these aspects were so much toned down that a subversive effect could not be assumed. For this reason the censorship committee did not assume a danger to public safety and permitted the film for adults. The film was banned for young people because it was expected to have a negative effect on their development.

The censorship decision is remarkable not only because of its shortness or of the above mentioned points; much more amazing is the lack of an (explicit) political argumentation compared to the previous rulings made by the Censorship Headquarters.

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN after 1926: A first-class vessel became unseaworthy

In 1927 and 1928 disturbances were confined to Bavaria. Gradually BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was released in several countries [Potemkin abroad] and its artistic value was broadly acclaimed. Moreover the (assumed) threatening danger to society did not prove true.

In 1928 the film was again censored in Germany: On 6th June 1928 the “Film-Kurier” reported that the film distribution company, Prometheus, would show BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in its original and completely uncut version. Two days later the distributor readvertised the film with the following words: “For the first time it is now possible to see scenes which have not been part of the German version.” [press article].

However, according to the list of indexed films of 1928 published in the „Jahrbuch der Filmindustrie“ (Wolffsohn 1929), the new version is 1464,45 m long after having been cut down from 1469 m. The first German version of POTEMKIN was over 1600 metres long and was even with that length shorter than the Russian opening version – much to Eisenstein's annoyance. Therefore, the version checked by the Censorship Office Berlin on 5th June 1928 could not have been the Russian original. It seems likely that Prometheus’ announcement was nothing more than a smart publicity campaign to boost the new release of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.

In August 1930 Prometheus released a German synchronized version of the film. Piel (Phil) Jutzi was responsible for editing and Alois Johannes Lippl for sound and dubbing. Composer Edmund Meisel answered again for the music (see Tode 2003).

The German sound version of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1353 m) was classified only suitable for adults 18 years of age or older by the Censorship Office in Berlin on 1st August 1930. Shortly after opening at the Marmorhaus in Berlin, the "Bildstelle des Zentralinstituts für Erziehung und Unterricht in Berlin" (the so called "Lampe-Ausschuß") awarded an artistic appraisal to the sound version of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.

After the Nazi takeover in 1933, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was banned outright [press article].

by Laura Bezerra and Georg Eckes


Source Edition urrogat Production Introduction Censorship Regulations Battleship Potemkin Horror Films Conclusion Bibliography Local vs. central film assessment Potemkin abroad Russian films