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Russian films in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany in Twenties and Thirties


a) The Fear of “Revolutionary Propaganda Films”
Two metaphors frequently used by opponents of the release of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN [cf. The affair POTEMKIN in Germany] exemplify the status of proletarian (especially of Soviet) films in Germany. POTEMKIN was regarded “a link in a chain of a wide-ranging and centrally directed subversive propaganda” (“eine Kette in einer großangelegten und zentral geleiteten Zersetzungspropaganda”), and thus “a malicious and dangerous grip on the state’s throat” (“ein tückischer und gefährlicher Griff an die Kehle des Staates”). The line of argumentation was as follows: Soviet films aimed at promoting the Bolshevist Revolution and subversion of the state by undermining its instruments of power. They were seditious; they had an inciting effect on the audience, and might undermine the people’s morale. Such subversive communist propaganda was seen as a threat to the German state which had to be banned.

However, the fear of “(revolutionary) rabble-rousing propaganda” was not confined to Russian films. The efforts to establish a proletarian (film) culture in Germany were also harshly opposed. Left-wing products were sometimes regarded as state enemies and the conservative factions often insisted on the prohibition of revolutionary films [correspondence] or writings with reference to the Protection of the Republic decree [Cf. Verordnung zum Schutze der Republik, 26.06.1922].

b) Proletarian Cinema in Germany
“The origins of an organised proletarian cinema can be traced to an organisation known as the International Workers Aid (IAH) which was founded in 1921 by Willi Münzenberg with the original intention of providing famine relief for Soviet Russia. By 1922 Münzenberg established the Aufbau, Industrie und Handels AG (Construction, Industry, and Trade Inc.) as an organisation of the IAH which allowed him to distribute in Germany (and the rest of the world) a number of Soviet-made documentaries […]” (Welch 1981: 5).

In February 1926 „Prometheus Film-Verleih und Vertriebs GmbH“ was incorporated in the trade register of Berlin. The production and distribution company, founded by Münzenberg, Richard Pfeiffer and Emil Unfried held the exclusive rights for the distribution of Russian films and also planned to produce so-called quota films (Kontingentfilme) in Germany. Both KPD (German Communist Party) and IAH sponsored Prometheus.

The small company released almost all revolutionary Soviet films in Germany. BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN paved the way for Prometheus on the road to success. The film was a huge hit; it attracted an international audience and was quite profitable. The profit enabled Prometheus to produce several new films. However, the history of proletarian cinema in Germany also includes the attempts at producing working class films made by the SPD (German Social Democratic Party).

c) German-Russian Political and Economic Interests
Political aspects often dominate German-Russian film relations. However, concrete economic interests also played a role. Germany was the largest market for Russian films, while the USSR was an important customer for German film technology industry, especially the film stock industry. The constellation of economic and political interests was subject to fluctuation: Sometimes German-Russian interests were conflicting, sometimes they reinforced each other.
One illustrative example is a memorandum from the Reich Ministry of the Interior from March 1926, available in the Bundesarchiv - Berlin Lichterfelde. It indicates that the Reich Ministry of Economic Affairs (Reichswirtschaftsministerium) encouraged the Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt) and the Reich Ministry of the Interior to avert “economic damage to the German film industry, which was suffering anyhow, by granting a special quota” for Soviet films. While the Foreign Office held that “a refusal for domestic reasons did not concerns diplomatic matters” („eine etwaige Ablehnung aus innenpolitischen Gründen für außenpolitische tragbar“), Department III of the Reich Ministry of the Interior expressed no reservations about “approving the Reich ministry of economic affairs’ gesture of accommodation”. For – and this is the important point – anyway the films would have “to pass the German censorship and films endangering public order and security would be barred from distribution in Germany [...]”.

The DNVP (Deutschnationale Volkspartei / German National People's Party), to mention only one more example, also linked its political interests to the commercial matters of the German film industry. In a letter from 12th June 1926 [correspondence] the party executive member von Jacobi urged his fellow party member Reinhard Mumm to make the German film industry recognise the economic threat posed by the Russian competition, as further Soviet films (after POTEMKIN) were to be expected. Among other things, the production of German “counter films” depicting “e.g. the colonization of plague-ridden East Prussia by Friederich Wilhelm I or other great achievements of the Hohenzollern” was to be encouraged.

In 1930, in the middle of the Great Depression, the Reich minister of interior issued “regulations on the prerequisites for showing foreign films in order to safeguard cultural interests in the German film industry”. As a consequence of the censorship battles of 1930, which centered on Lewis Milestone’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, two years later the “Third Regulation on the showing of foreign films (28th June 1932)” was issued. It made it possible to refuse import permits for films “whose producers [...] engage in the world-wide sale of films with a tendency or effect that is harmful to Germany’s standing or films produced in a state in which the exploitation of German films is subject to impediments.” In the course of the nationalist radicalisation of German domestic policy, what had begun as a protective economic measure became a political instrument of censorship.

There was more than economic protectionism behind these orders, as shown by a letter from the German Embassy in Moscow conveying the importance of refusing to simplify the import of Soviet films into Germany “as long as film producers in the Soviet Union continue to display a lack of consideration for the political relations between the countries in their productions for export and for domestic use.” (12th February 1932, German Embassy in Moscow to foreign office)

Immediately after the National Socialists’ coming into power, leftist-proletarian films were immediately taken out of circulation. A network of official and unofficial institutions and actions formed. On 4th March copies of 16 Soviet films owned by the non-commercial Communist film distributor “Film-Kartell Welt-Film” were confiscated by the S.A. and auxiliary police. Pointing to the stipulations of the German-Russian economic agreement of 12th October 1926, the Embassy of the USSR complained to the Foreign Office and demanded measures to lift the “discriminatory screening bans,” as “the prevention of distribution by subjecting Soviet films to screening bans without regard to their content and the screening permits already granted by the responsible authorities” would lead to income losses of more than 300,000 RM. The complaint was without effect.

On 13th March 1933 [correspondence], the director of the NSDAP-"Landesfilmstelle Süd" in Munich applied for revocation of permission in Bavaria for the 58 listed films which were accused of being "communist, Marxist and pacifist" or of a flauntingly sexual nature. He also suggested to the police headquarters in Munich that a nationwide revocation of permissions should be applied for.

On 22nd April 1933 [correspondence], 26 of the 58 films mentioned in the list were prohibited by the censorship headquarters Berlin (Film-Oberprüfstelle Berlin). The majority of the banned films were produced and distributed by leftist film production companies such as “Prometheus-Filmverleih und Vertrieb G.m.b.H.” and “Deutsch-Russische Filmallianz” (Derussa).


Source Edition urrogat Production Introduction Censorship Regulations Battleship Potemkin Horror Films Conclusion Bibliography Germany Introduction Czechoslovakia Austria Synopsis Local vs. central film assessment Potemkin abroad Russian films top back next