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The affair POTEMKIN in Germany
     
 

4. Battleship Potemkin and the democracy

The silver screen in the democracy: Calling for legal certainty or “Who is lying about Bavaria?”

In Mai 1926 a press article in the newspaper “Neue Berliner Zeitung” [press article] alluded to a “malicious campaign against Berlin-based chief superintendent Albert Grzesinski” with the aim to force him to prevent the public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. Although the police headquarters of Berlin denied having held an in-house meeting about the fate of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, it was a well-known fact that the screenings took place under police supervision.

The so called “police censorship” would shortly become a crucial question for the affair POTEMKIN in Germany. Several German States investigated whether it was legal to prevent the public screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN by police ordinance. The Administrative Court of Prussia as well as the Ministry of the Interior of Baden contested the existence of a legal basis to intervene against the film [correspondence]. Even the public prosecutor maintained that there was no cause to take action against the film. Notwithstanding this the Bavarian Government took drastic (but efficient) measures to prevent the screening of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN within its sphere of influence.

The local prohibition [cf. Local versus central film assessment] of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN by police ordinance is much more questionable if it is considered that the screenings actually ran without commotion. Several police reports on uneventful showings of the film are available [correspondence] as well as statements of cinema owners to offer evidence of public screening of the film without tumult. In the censorship hearing from 12th April 1926 the representative of the Ministry of the Interior of Prussia caused a great stir when he averred that the film had been shown in thirty Berlin cinemas without any commotion. However, the argument seemed to be a point of no relevance and was completely ignored by the local authorities.

In a letter from October 1926 an unknown author described the Bavarian government as “dam against the flood of the communist wave” [correspondence]. The behaviour of the Bavarian authorities, their unbending efforts against the film reveal a similar self-assessment. Nonetheless, the nationwide valid and legally binding Reich Moving Picture Law explicitly specifically prohibited political censorship. In point of fact the Bavarian Government used a loophole in the legislation in a quite illegitimate way. The public observed the course of action and Bavaria’s conduct did not stay unanswered.

On occasion of the parliamentary question [press article] about the prohibition of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in Bavaria and Württemberg in the Reichstag in October 1926 the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior stated: Press information about a general ban of the film in Bavaria is wrong, and the accusation by the social democrat Hermann Müller-Franken, that the Bavarian administration disregards national law must be rejected. The proceeding of the Bavarian authorities does not question the legal validity of the decisions by the censorship offices; it is rather a measure taken by the police to ensure security and order and to prevent violations of law.

Although the Bavarian Government still insisted on the legitimacy of the local interdictions of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, the Bavarian practise to prevent screenings by police order caused (any longer) a heated debate on political arbitrariness. On 20th November 1926 the “Reichsfilmblatt” claimed that “such deviant behaviour undermined the established Reich law and the authority of the Reich”. The article with the significant header “Call for Legal Certainty” refused the Bavarian proposal to decentralise film censorship and to put it in the responsibility of the German states because this would only lead to an even greater economic insecurity of the film industry.

However, the insecurity was not confined to economical issues as the article “The Parties Mobilize” exemplifies. The author qualified the campaign against POTEMKIN as politically motivated and demanded that the national government (the “Reich”) must enforce the admission of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in the whole territory, for otherwise the affair could become a precedence case with incalculable consequences.

The uncomfortable feeling that democracy was being threatened spread out. In fact several occurrences in the Bavarian “parallel censorship” revealed machination, arbitrariness, and public untruthfulness. The meaningful correspondence of the Ministry of the Interior of Bavaria leaves us with only one conclusion: the Bavarian government was perfectly aware of its dubious methods. So was the public as well. On 28th December 1926 the newspaper “Schwäbische Tagwacht” asked „Who is lying about Bavaria?“ and described the alternatives: The Minister of Interior of Württemberg, who said that BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was banned in Bavaria? The Reich Minister of the Interior, who maintained that there existed no ban in Bavaria? Or the Bavarian Minister of Interior, who fed different people different information?

In Mai 1926 – even two months after the first examination of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN – the public prosecutor had to look into the question whether it was the prosecution’s duty to intervene against the film. He denied that question. However, this did not prevent conservative newspapers from still maintaining that the German censorship regulations did not rule out an intervention by the judiciary, but on the contrary that the justice had to intervene as soon as a film acted as an incentive to indiscipline and to infringement of law (“Does the Reich Prosecutor Ban the Bolshevik Film?”.

Altogether it demonstrates that the request for constitutional legality was well-founded. And that this appeal would be relevant for a long time.

by Laura Bezerra

 
     

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