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The affair POTEMKIN in Germany

3. The reaction

Police censorship

The Republic of Weimar was a federal republic made up of several German States (the “Länder”), which have their own legislation. However, in case of doubt federal law takes precedence over “Land” law.

According to the Reichslichtspielgesetz/RLG (Reich Moving Picture Law) the judgements given by the censorship authorities were valid for the whole territory of the Weimar Republic and they were laid down so as to be legally binding.

Under special circumstances the local police was authorized to prevent the exhibition of a film within its sphere of influence. However, according to the order of the Reichsinnenministerium (Reich Ministry of the Interior) dated 27th June 1922 there were several constraints to the power of the police: the local prevention of screenings was possible only as a special exception and only in an extreme emergency. Actually: only in case of riots and disturbance of peace and on condition that the police was not able to guarantee the cinemagoers’ safety. Even in such cases the executive authority of the police was temporary.

Nonetheless, police censorship was often exploited by the local government for their political purposes and used to prevent the showing of politically unwanted films. This "second" censorship was particularly strict in Bavaria, which is why Martin Loiperdinger (1993: 479-498) alluded to a "parallel censorship" practice. Jan-Pieter Barbian (1993: 51-78) has written about an aesthetic north-south division between Berlin, representative of modern art, and the more traditional southern states Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg. Stefan Fisch (1997) sees the main issue in the conflict between the German States, which wanted to strengthen their own authority, and the Federal Government.

The Reich Moving Picture Law and censorship practice were hotly debated at the Reichstag and the Bavarian "parallel censorship" was many times discussed as undermining the binding law. In 1926 the regional parliaments repeatedly questioned the authorisation of the police to prevent the public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.

The permission of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN and the Bavarian “parallel censorship”

In the magazine “Film-Kurier” (30.4.1926) the film reviewer Willy Hass described the revocation of the ban of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN by the Censorship Headquarters as “a great relief”. A part of the public celebrated the release of the film as a victory of democratic principles, but at the same time a wave of indignation arose due to the permission.

The Bavarian Minister of the Interior, Karl Stützel, promptly informed the Reich Minister of the Interior, that he would use the means of police law without respect to the decisions of the censorship authorities to preserve security and order in Bavaria [correspondence]. He embarked on a strategy absolutely determinated and the “Bolshevist film” was not shown in Bavaria for a long time. The press reported on a general ban of the film in Bavaria and the position of the provincial government was sharply criticised as a breach of the national binding law [correspondence].

In October a ministerial order [correspondence] from the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior gave clear instructions to the district governments and police administrations. Stützel clarified the competences of the censorship board as opposed to the competences of the police in a quite peculiar way: The film censors are to execute pre-censorship. The police had to hand over this competence to the censorship authorities, but it still had the right to preserve public security and order also in the moving picture system. In performing this task, the police was, unlike the censors, not bound to § 1, section 2, clauses 3 (“Films cannot be banned because of their ideological tendency”) and 4 (“Films cannot be banned due to reasons outside the films’ content”) of the Reich Moving Picture Law [The peculiarities of the Reich Moving Picture Law (RLG)].

The minister drew the consequences for BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN: In his opinion the film was revolutionary communist propaganda and undermined the authority of the state’s instruments. For rightist parts of the population, the admittance of the film meant a defeat in the struggle to preserve the security of the state against disintegrating powers. This created an intense conflict in the population leading to disturbances of public order and security which had to be prevented by the police. Given the subversive nature of the film, it could not be demanded that the police protected the screenings against the majority of the population. Would this be the case, the police would take part in the preparation for an unlawful act and thus, would act contrary to its duty.

The police was instructed once again to prevent the public screening of the film in any case. Cinema owners had to be ordered to refrain from showing the film. If necessary, the police and the city commissioners were authorized to shut down the theatres for as long as the screenings were planned. However, the minister gave advice for the usage of language: The prevention of screenings rather had to be described as a measure to avoid a threat originating in the population. In addition formulations like „showing is not allowed“ were to be avoided because the Reich Moving Picture Law clearly distinguished between the prevention (“Verhinderung”) and the prohibition (“Verbot einer Aufführung”) of a screening.

However, the attempts to hush up the fact that the film was in fact banned in Bavaria were not really successful. The social democrats asked a parliamentary question in the Reichstag about the prohibition of the film in Bavaria and Württemberg. In November the Bavarian Government denied the existence of an overall prohibition of the film [correspondence] and maintained that the police had not allowed screenings only because the decision about Bavaria’s application for banning the film was yet to come. This is not only a threadbare statement, but also inconsistent with the law: An application for revocation of permission substantiates the local interdiction of films by police ordinance (cf. Fisch 1997). However, the fact remains that it was not until October 1931 that a passage was incorporated in the RLG, which prescribed that "the authority applying for the revocation of permission can forbid the film to be shown until the decision of the Censorship Headquarters has been made."

The situation polarized once more. In a letter dated 8th December 1926 the Reich Minister of the Interior asked the Staatsministerium des Äussern (Bavarian Foreign Office) to reconsider police orders prohibiting BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in some districts of Bavaria. He emphasized that there were no disturbances due to screenings of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in the whole territory of the Weimar Republic and doubted that the political situation in Bavaria differed substantially from that of the rest of Germany.

The Minister of the Interior of Bavaria adamantly defended the prevention of the public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN by the local police. He stressed the regularity of the police measures which were in accordance with the Bavarian implementation ordinance for the Reich Code of Criminal Procedure (Bayerisches Ausf. Ges. zur RStPO) and took a firm stand against a cancellation of the orders “ex officio”.

For several months BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN could not be shown in Munich as well. In April 1927 the Bavarian Government finally accepted the federal decision and permitted the public screening of the (garbled) cut version in the city [press article]. However, cinema showings of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN had to take place under police supervision. Worth mentioning is the policemen’s quite unusual behaviour, since they shouted “tut tut” or “boo” when the film was acclaimed by the audience. The cinema owners asked the viewers to avoid such acts of approval as because for they expected that “under the circumstances” the Bavarian government would find a pretext to ban the film again.

The conservative wings, for their part, fought against the screenings in Bavaria. The DNVP (Deutschnationale Volkspartei / German National People's Party) made an attempt to ban the film anew because of danger for public safety. The BVP (Bayrische Volkspartei/ Bavarian People’s Party) requested a guarantee that the police was allowed to take any preventive measures in such cases as danger for public safety occurred or “if this is presumed”. Before long severe disturbances during the screenings of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN took place shortly and a newly arranged ban of the film in Bavaria seemed inevitable.

Contrary to expectations the Bavarian Government (“reluctantly”) decided to allow [press article] the ongoing public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in Munich. Reason for this is that the National Socialists began to use the film to make their mark after Hitler’s freedom of speech was restored. Banning the film under these circumstances could give the impression that the Bavarian government would shy away from National Socialists.

It cannot be denied that the Bavarian handling of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was absolutely inconsistent. On the one hand the Ministry of the Interior asserted the legitimacy of its conduct [correspondence, correspondence]. On the other hand the minister gave advice for the usage of language and ordered the local authorities to describe the measures “as to avoid a threat originating in the population” [correspondence, correspondence]. He denied a general ban of the film in Bavaria but, at the same time, he instructed the police in Nuremberg to refrain from preventing the public screenings of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in Fürth “in this singular case and as an experiment” [correspondence]. Worth mentioning in this case is also his additional remark: “This would be a good opportunity to demonstrate that the showing of the film had been only prevented in individual cases to avert danger for public safety - and that the Bavarian administration did not disregard the nationwide valid law”.

The history of police operations, manipulation of information and arbitrariness against the “Bolshevist film” in Bavaria went on in 1928: in cities as Würzburg, Landstuhl and especially in Coburg cinemas which wanted to show BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN were confronted with severe constraints and troubles.

Concerted (re)action

On 18th July 1926 the newspaper “Welt am Montag” published an article called “The reactionists are marching”. The (almost) epic voyage of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN through the Republic of Weimar shows that this headline was not only appropriate - it was indeed foresighted. Even the first permission of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN conjured up concerted action by the film’s opponents. Patriotically-minded newspapers, concerned ministries and several German States made combined efforts to achieve a ban.

The conservative press started in a campaign against the “Bolshevik film”. An example for this is the newspaper article “The POTEMKIN scandal”: The author dispraised BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN as “bedevilment” (“Hexensabbat”) and as an “amusement for morally inferior people”. He condemned the police’s attitude, which felt not authorized to intervene against the film (“the real POTEMKIN scandal”) and stressed that the problem was not the political propaganda, but the film’s “bloodthirsty brutality”, which was unbearable for civilised, decent people.

At the same time various institutions tried to exert direct pressure on the Ministry of the Interior and on the censorship authorities. The Minister of the Interior of Wurttemberg requested of the Ministry of the Interior of the Reich, Dr. Wilhelm Külz, to overrule the decision to admit BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, together with several other Russian films. Shortly after that the Bavarian Minister of the Interior complained that the Censorship Headquarters had interpreted “disturbance of public order” as a cause for prohibiting films too narrowly and asked the Reich Minister explicitly to exert influence on the censorship authorities. With reference to the Reich Moving Picture Law Külz explained [correspondence] that a film could not be prohibited because of its political, social, religious or ethic tendency and he added that the censorship commission was bound to the valid censorship regulations.

In both cases the Reich Minister stated not to be in a position to influence the decisions of the censorship authorities. However, there were several indications that these three ministries were attuned to one another. To illustrate this, one nee only to refer to the following incident: At the end of October the Bavarian legate to Berlin reported a conversation with Wilhelm Külz [correspondence], who had said that he did not intend to take measures against the Bavarian prohibition of the film, but had to comment on it because of the parliamentary question by the Social Democrats about the prohibition of the film in Bavaria and Württemberg. Shortly after that Külz enquired [correspondence] the Bavarian Government about a prohibition of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in Bavaria and thus provoked an official denial by the Bavarian Government. For this reason Külz’ subsequent statement asking the Bavarian Government to reconsider the police orders banning the film in some districts [correspondence] is hardly believable.

There was a lively interchange of information (and of confidences) between the German States on the issue. The Governments of Bavaria, of Thuringia, of Hesse, of Württemberg, of Palatinate, of Mecklenburg-Strelitz [correspondence, correspondence, censorship decision], of Oldenburg [correspondence], and of Schaumburg-Lippe [correspondence, correspondence] were more or less attuned to one another in the affair BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.

The “Länder” not only interchanged information. In a concerted action the governments of Württemberg, Bavaria, and Thuringia as well as the Commissioner’s Office for Security and Order, and the Ministry of Armed Forces attained a nationwide valid ban of the film by the Censorship Headquarters in July 1926. Confidential information was passed on, official expertises were forwarded, authorities agreed on what to say in advance. The provincial governments aligned their complaint against the admission of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN with the official statement previously made (and subsequently repeated) by the representative of the Ministry of Armed Forces, Captain Ritter von Speck.

Another illustrative example for the concatenation of institutional power is the report of the Bavarian Legate in Berlin, Dr. Quarck. He passed on information (from an unspecified source in the Reich Ministry of the Interior) saying that the composition of the censorship commission [The peculiarities of the Reich Moving Picture Law (RLG)] would be unfavourable for the new Bavarian application on 25th September 1926. He said that if the hearing would be delayed, the decision of the Censorship Headquarters might turn out to be more favourable. Quarck added that the application for postponing the hearing could only be made by a regional authority and suggested Bavaria to do it, for Württemberg had urged to speed up the process and now was unable to slow it down. A reason for postponing the hearing, he said, could be constructed without much ado [correspondence]. The hearing was in fact postponed [correspondence].

The reactionary forces will stick together until the bitter end: On 13th March 1933 the director of the National Socialist Party’s "Landesfilmstelle Süd" and the director of the police headquarters in Munich compiled a list of 58 films, which were accused of either being "communist, Marxist and pacifist or of flaunting sexuality” [correspondence]. He applied for revocation of permission in Bavaria for the listed films and also suggested to apply for a nationwide revocation of permission – BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was one in this set. The film was banned ten days later.

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