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The affair POTEMKIN in Germany

4. Battleship Potemkin and the democracy

The democracy on the silver screen: Changes in film as a result of

The shortening of films was so much part of everyday life that censorship decisions and the “imposition of cuts as a compromise solution” became subject of German academics discussions (cf. Keitz 1999).

The practice of film cuts were laid down by law (RLG § 1 section 3). However, the decision on what must not be shown in a film led to a set of questions. They concerned not only political-aesthetic issues such as cuts breaking the unity of works of art or the manipulation of a film’s contents as undermining the freedom of speech. The imposition of cuts by censors also raised some legal questions. The decision on when cutting undesirable scenes was sufficient and when the film “in its entirety” [cf. Censorship decision: Prostitution. Irrwege der Liebe and censorship decision: Cyankali) would have a negative effect was in some records problematic and questionable. Furthermore “the justifications given for cuts […] reveal the complete obfuscation of the concept of “Wirkungszensur” [censorship based upon effect], which was of central importance for legitimating film censorship” in the Republic of Weimar (Keitz 1999).

Due to the imposition of cuts by the censorship authorities several films were shown in garbled versions as FRAUENNOT-FRAUENGLÜCK (Misery and Fortune of Women, Switzerland 1929), or they were significantly modified as EKSTASE (Extase, Czechoslovakia 1932) or the plot was rendered incomprehensible as in DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE (The Joyless Street, Germany 1929).

Equally significant and equally widespread was the attempt by artists, producers and distributors to anticipate the censors’ “desires”: self-censorship.

According to Thomas Tode (2003:1), “BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is like the Russian dolls which contain smaller ones inside, allowing each to appear one by one”. The exciting history of POTEMKIN’s several versions cannot be separated from its censorship history. In his report “Der Weg des ‘Potemkin’ durch die deutsche Zensur” (1926) director Sergej M. Eisenstein mentioned that the German (and worldwide) distributor, Prometheus Film-Verleih und Vertriebs GmbH, made several changes to BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN even before applying for the first censorship examination in Germany (Eisenstein 1973: 200).

As mentioned before, Piel (Phil) Jutzi, working for Prometheus-Film, re-edited the film and made significant alterations. Firstly he restructured the film so that, in Germany, POTEMKIN now consisted of six instead of five reels. Secondly he introduced the music composed by Eduard Meisel, which is to date regarded as masterly and congenial. Last but not least: Jutzi toned the film down before filing an application for permission at the Film-Prüfstelle Berlin (Censorship Office in Berlin). Scenes which could irritate the censorship committee were cut out. The main issue was to depict the mutiny on the Russian battleship “Prince Potemkin” as a spontaneous act not connected to the Bolshevist revolution. Even so, in March the Censorship Office in Berlin banned the film because a “long-lasting” danger to public order and safety was assumed. The distribution company filed a complaint on the ban and the film was censored again. In April the Film-Oberprüfstelle (Censorship Headquarters in Berlin) decided to pass the film. However, due to the fact that military aspects [press article] were considered to be of particular importance in this case, scenes of violence against officers as well as close-ups of the soldiers’ victims in Odessa were cut out [poster "Battleship Potemkin"]. Three months later the Censorship Headquarters revoked this decision and banned the film again.

In consequence of this (second) complete interdiction of the film, Prometheus-Film cut out several scenes which had been objected to by the Censorship Headquarters in April and submitted the film anew for approval at the Censorship Office in Berlin. The application was accepted; BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was permitted without any restrictions in July. The press articles “Potemkin in New Version” (Berliner Allgemeine Zeitung, 24.7.1926) as well as “The Cleaned-Up Potemkin” (Der Montag Morgen, 19.7.1926) clearly shows that the public was conscious of the damage caused by cuts imposed by censors.

However, the most outrageous and remarkable change in the film can be found in the German sound version of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN from 1930. At the beginning of the dubbed film the audiences heard an explanation of the reasons for the mutiny on the “Prince Potemkin”:

“…The Tsar’s refusal to change the state according to the spirit of a real democracy […] caused in Russia an atmosphere of profound animosity, which would surely detonate […].”

This is an absolutely exceptional phrase. In the other versions of POTEMKIN there were no references to “democracy”. Director Sergej M. Eisenstein was perfectly willing to admit POTEMKIN’s aim of communist agitation, and actually this statement was (and is) widely accepted. Moreover, the Moscow premiere version was introduced by a quotation of Leon Trotsky’s “1905” (not indicated as such):

“The spirit of mutiny swept the land. A tremendous, mysterious process was taking place in countless hearts: […] the individual personality […] became dissolved in the mass, and the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary élan […]” (“1905”, Chapter 18: The Red Fleet, first published 1907 as part of “Our Revolution”)

The “surging billows” at the beginning of the film can be read as an allusion to an omitted part of Trotsky’s text (“It rushed forward like the ocean tide whipped by a storm”). From 1934 onward the Russian censorship replaced Trotsky’s by a Lenin quotation – now mentioned by name:

"Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history, it is the only lawful, rightful, just, and truly great war...In Russia this war has been declared and won." (“Revolutionary Days”, first published in “Vperyod”, 31.1.1905)

Although the “real democracy” in the German sound version could be interpreted as “the proletariat’s dictatorship” the wording of the title remains extraordinary and unexpected. This severe change in POTEMKIN’s synchronisation can be better understood if the (unique) full permission of the film in Germany is considered: On 28th July 1926 the censorship commission had viewed the struggle on the “Prince Potemkin” as driven by pro-democratic and pro-republican values. Moreover, they had understood the audience’s applause as a manifestation in favour of the constitutional order and democracy. This line of argument not only totally contradicted the previous decisions but also the film itself. All indications are that Piel Jutzi’s significant change in the German sound version was “inspired” by the arguments laid down in this censorship decision.

The reaction of Prometheus-Film in this case exemplifies the impact of censorship on film production and distribution. It also demonstrates how much the distributor was aware of the censors’ handling of leftist films: The link between the mutiny on the “Prince Potemkin” and the Bolshevist Revolution (the aspect that was toned down before the first application for approval) was indeed the most objectionable issue in the whole assessment procedure.

However, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is only one example among many others. Self-censorship was in fact common practice. Especially small, independent film companies, such as Prometheus, were heavily dependent on the release of their films. Therefore scenes and titles were frequently cut out to attain permission by the censorship authorities - even at the expense of significant gaps in the plot’s motivation or, far worse, the sacrifice (not less than concealment) of the original idea.

The censorship case CYANKALI (Germany 1930) took place under similar conditions. There were several censorship examinations and the producer repeatedly made changes to the film. In September 1930, several scenes, which were objected to by the censors in the previous ruling (Film-Oberprüfstelle, examination no 872), had been cut out before the film was again submitted to the Censorship Office in Berlin. In this case the self-censorship strategy was successful (if that can be put like that): The censorship committee brought forward the argument that the film had been changed fundamentally and would not stir up feelings and incite class hatred any longer; therefore it was still permitted for adults 18 years of age or older [Registration card: Cyankali].

Another example is the film CAFÉ ELECTRIK (Austria 1927) [cf. Surrogate Production] that went through several title changes and adjusted the film titles according to censorship decisions. The first German title was PROSTITUTION. KAUFHAUS DER LIEBE (“Prostitution: Shop of Desires”). The Censorship Office Berlin banned the film because prostitution was depicted as an enticing and negative aspects of prostitution were not shown. The title was consequently changed to PROSTITUTION. IRRWEGE DER LIEBE (“Prostitution: Love Led Astray”). However, it was not until March 1928 that the film was released – with a new title: WENN EIN WEIB DEN WEG VERLIERT (“When a Woman Loses Her Way”).

The case ANDERS ALS DIE ANDERN (“Different from the Others”, Germany 1919) is also worth mentioning in this context. The film was permitted for viewing in closed sections only – in fact banned for public screenings. Six years later the semi-documentary GESETZE DER LIEBE (“Laws of Love”) incorporated parts of ANDERS ALS DIE ANDERN in its last two reels. The film was directed by the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and its central theme were the “intermediate sexual stages” (sexuelle Zwischenstufen). GESETZE DER LIEBE was examined and banned several times in 1927. Whereas censors stressed the scientific value of the first three parts, part four was considered unscientific and the fictional parts were forbidden as “propaganda in favour of homosexuality”. The producers made several changes to the film and cut out the fictional scenes. This act of self-censorship brought about the permission; on 6th November 1927 the Censorship Headquarters in Berlin approved the cut version only for adults 18 years of age or older. However, according to the film journal “Der Bildwart” [press article] (Dec. 1927), the forbidden parts were shown as slides, because slides were not subject to censorship. In 1932 the whole film was permitted for screenings only in medical-scientific circles [cf. Peculiarities of the Reich Moving Picture Law (RLG)].

Even the major production companies were concerned with the issue as the case of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT shows. In concession to the existing German sensitivities the Universal Films toned down some of the movie’s anti-militaristic elements with the result that the German version of the film was significantly different from the version released in the USA. Moreover, the producer later consented to adjust the international version of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT to the toned-down 2785 metre long German version [correspondence].

Of course self-censorship was not a purely German phenomenon: FRANKENSTEIN, Universal’s classic of the horror genre, was subject to cuts in the USA before opening. After a special preview for the trade press in Universal City in November 1931, Carl Laemmle, father of producer Carl Laemmle junior, ordered that the film should not be released until cuts were made. He ordered to soften the blasphemy and horror elements. Very stimulating in this context is Peter Drexler’s statement that the imposed cuts in the scene with the little girl led to a radical different view of the Monster. Before being cut the scene depicted the Monster’s behaviour as a playful act in which it looked for friendship and affection. After the imposed cuts, the Monster appears in a totally different light: as a brutal beast acting with violence and destruction (1991: 149).

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