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Genre and Censorship

Genre Trouble

We decided to work also with the topic censorship and genre in order to avoid analysing film censorship only film-centred as well as on the basis of current politics – which is standard practice. We intended to focus more clearly on its structural aspects and to look for higher-level items.

However, we were confronted with some problems. As Hayward (1996: 160f) so rightly says “Genre is seemingly as unproblematic, but this is not the case. […] First, because generally speaking a film is rarely generic pure […]. A second problematizing factor is that genres also produce sub-genres, so again clarity is proscribed. […] A third factor is that genre[s] cannot be seen as discrete and ideologically pure […] but are ideologically inflected”.

The genre concept evolved on three different levels: 1) as a production formula for the film industry, 2) as affecting audience expectations and 3) as a scientific category. All three manners of use of the genre concept have in common that they develop historically and culturally asynchronous.

Contemporary press at that time considered this selection of films to be dramas. In "Paimann’s Filmlisten" (PFL - Paimann's film list) films like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA were referred to as "fantasy dramas" (PFL No. 836, 15.4.1932 and No. 853,12.8.1932). VAMPYR (1932) was also categorized as a "drama/fantasy play" (PFL No. 843, 3.6.1932) and FREAKS as a "criminal psychological drama" (PFL No. 886, 31.3.1933). KING KONG was classified as a "drama/utopian adventure film" (PFL No. 899, 8.9.1933) and THE INVISIBLE MAN as a "drama/fantasy sketch" (PFL No. 939, 6.4.1934).

What is the justification for calling these films "horror" films? What actually characterizes a horror film? According to a current definition, this is how horror films are defined: “Horror Films are unsettling films designed to frighten and panic, cause dread and alarm, and to invoke our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale, while captivating and entertaining us at the same time in a cathartic experience. […] Their main characters have included ‘unknown’, human, supernatural or grotesque creatures" (http://www.filmsite.org/horrorfilms.html).

A retrospective classification of the selected films is purposeful, knowing well enough that we are hereby shelving the historical labels. The objective is to make use of structural assumptions inherent to the genre term and then juxtapose them with scenes that have been objected to or banned. The first question that comes up is: "What was actually forbidden about these films?" The two main films in this study, FREAKS and FRANKENSTEIN reveal two major themes.

First of all, censors repeatedly criticized the portrayal of grotesque and abnormal bodies. One knows that truly disabled people played the "freaks" in FREAKS. In other words, the audience was confronted with a real deviation from the norm and this caused a stir. Why else would one think that the Atlanta Board of Review deemed the film "loathsome, obscene, grotesque, and bizarre" and banned it? The same goes for FRANKENSTEIN. Producer Carl Laemmle Sr. had the blasphemous aspects of FRANKENSTEIN watered down before its first screening. Not only was the „creation“ itself blasphemous but also the fact that it was being made of human corpses. This piece of information was omitted in the USA, Germany and Czechoslovakia. The cemetery and Gallows scenes were cut out and in Germany, even some close-ups of body parts were edited out. On one hand, there was a morally motivated problem of the representation of society, i.e. social and aesthetic deviance shown as ugly, meaning evil. On the other hand one had the basic character of the film and its presentation of social reality. These two aspects were mixed together.

Also vehemently rejected were the moments in which humane or compassionate traits shine through allegedly "inhumane" and "strange" aspects. FRANKENSTEIN’s "Lake-Scene" was pared down considerably in all three of the mentioned countries. According to Drexler (1991: 149) 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. The international buzz caused by "FREAKS" also went along these lines.

There are, however, many similarities between censors' dealings with horror films and POTEMKIN. Is the basic assumption of the approach confirmed by the treatment of other genres?

The examination of four different (pacifist) war films ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (USA 1929/30), DIE ANDERE SEITE (Germany 1931), NIEMANDSLAND (Germany 1931), WESTFRONT 1918 (Germany 1930) and four "birth and abortion films" such as CYNAKALI (Germany 1930), FRAUENNOT-FRAUENGLÜCK (Switzerland 1929), FRUCHTBARKEIT. DAS PROBLEM DER MUTTERSCHAFT (Germany 1929) and KUHLE WAMPE ODER WEM GEHÖRT DIE WELT (Germany 1931/1932) confirms the pattern that appears in POTEMKIN and horror films: The one extreme is a comparatively liberal censorship in Austria and the other extreme strict German censorship practice. One of the exceptions is DIE ANDERE SEITE: In Austria it was not only interdicted to young people but it was screened with 2200 metres – in a shorter version as in Germany (2933m) and in Czechoslovakia (2890m). We have included German propagandistic films of documentary style produced by political parties and paramilitary organisations, which constitute another distinct category, as a further means of comparison.

Yet several questions remain unanswered: Can films dealing with the topic of abortion be summarized in a genre called "abortion films"? Such films are supposed to be educational so are they "educational films"? They were produced by left-wing production companies and artists so are they "proletarian" films? What makes a film a proletarian film? The way the production or director perceives itself? The employment of amateur actors? Or – going on a tangent – its educational intent? Is it a particular cinematic attitude? Are the subjects definitive? Or is it the milieu portrayed?

This is the point where the limits of retrospective genre division and problems of genre terms are revealed. This is also why we have chosen a genre that has, historically, been easy to narrow down. By including genres in our film censorship study we have also tried to establish a broad vantage point for our analysis so we can support more sophisticated, comparative statements. When looking back, this has ended up making sense, even though one cannot deny the fact that dealing with genres posed great difficulties.

by Laura Bezerra and Jürgen Keiper


Introduction The Case Studies Freaks Worldwide Genre and Censorship Source Edition Surrogate Production Introduction Censorship Regulations Battleship Potemkin Horror Films Conclusion Bibliography