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Genre and Censorship

Propagandistic films of German political parties and paramilitary organisations 1928-1932

Especially between 1928 and 1932, a number of documentary-style films were produced by German political parties and paramilitary organisations. They either contained explicit political propaganda and agitation or showed the activities of the respective party/organisation and its members. The political cleavages diverging more and more widely and the debates becoming harsher since the beginning of the world economic crisis were mirrored in these films.

The censors were aware of the films’ political relevance. Since one of the most obvious questions in dealing with censorship is whether and how political influence was exerted, the censorship decisions on these films are especially interesting. The German censorship authorities did not decide overtly in a one-sided way and formally sticked to the regulation of the Reich Moving Picture Law (RML) which detemined that a film could not be prohibited due to its political and ideological tendency. But there was some scope in interpreting the regulations of the RML which could be utilised for political intentions. Consequently, the censorship jurisdiction was sometimes incoherent, depending on the composition of the censorship committee and the experts involved.

Films advertising for one political party and explicitly agitating against others – basically comparable to today’s political advertising, though being more pronouncedly aggressive – can be viewed as a more or less homogenous category, as opposed to films displaying the activities of the producing organisation and its members, which constitute another category.

Films of the first category were less frequent and more disputed. One example is KAMPF UM BERLIN (1929), which was labelled the “first genuine propaganda film of the NSDAP” by the Reichsfilmstelle, the film section of the NSDAP. It aggressively denounced democratic and leftist parties as “Un-German” and featured virulent anti-semitism. Although produced in Berlin, it was censored and permitted in Munich on 27.03.1929 (Hanna-Daoud 1996: 226). Two years later, it was censored again by the censorship headquarters (Film-Oberprüfstelle) on occasion of the social democratic Prussian government’s objection.

The trick film INS DRITTE REICH (1929) by the social democratic Film- und Lichtbilddienst can be seen as a cinematic answer to KAMPF UM BERLIN. It portrayed the national socialists as betrayers of the working class and denounced the Weimar jurisdiction as being in favor of the Nazis, protecting them from just punishment. It was permitted by the censorship office (Filmprüfstelle) Berlin, then banned by the Film-Oberprüfstelle, only to be permitted again by the Filmprüfstelle Berlin. This decision was then upheld, though with cuts, by the Oberprüfstelle.

These two prominent examples show that censorship of agitative propagandistic films was not systematically politically tendencious in the first place. But, depending on the composition of the committees, there were attempts to exert political censorship, and these attempts – mostly in favour of the political right – could have been successful if political counterforces would not have objected. Only as long as these counterforces existed, one-sided political censorship could be prevented. As can be seen in the censorship of INS DRITTE REICH, juristic loopholes could be created by banning a whole film instead of imposing cuts or denying the possibility of screenings for closed audience circles due to an alleged lack of artistic quality.

Film content which could be interpreted as being opposed to the republican state and ist instruments of power – especially criticism of the judicature’s legal practice – was always interdicted. Virulent anti-semitism qualified as an ideological tendency and was allowed, while unfavourable depiction of bourgeois entrepreneurs was regarded as instigating class hatred and therefore interdicted.

The second category of propagandistic films showed the activities of the respective organisations and their members. They generally did not agitate against other parties, organisations or groups of the society and therefore were not so much disputed as the films of the former category. But this does not mean that they were less political. Most of these films deal with (more or less militarist) marching ups which were supposed to show that the respective organisations (e.g. SA and Hitler Youth for the national socialists, Stahlhelm for the former Reichswehr soldiers, Rotfrontkämpferbund for the Communists) were present, strong and ready for action. Moreover, this overt display of military readyness collided – and often was supposed to collide – with the regulations of the Versailles Treaty which strictly limited German military affairs.

This was also seen by the censorship authorities which often censored these films with respect to how they could endanger the German relations to foreign states, i.e. the victorious powers of World War I. The Film-Oberprüfstelle cut large parts of DIE ROTE FRONT MARSCHIERT on the grounds that foreigners could get the impression that Germany violated against the demilitarisation regulations of the Versailles Treaty. This, in turn, was assumed to pose a threat to the German reputation abroad. One year later, though, DER STAHLHELMTAG IN HAMBURG was neither cut nor banned despite its display of marching military formations. This decision was justified with a changed situation in foreign affairs, as emphasised by the foreign office’s expert. After that, the censored scenes of DIE ROTE FRONT MARSCHIERT could have been permitted, but this did not happen because no such application was made.

After this change in how display of military marches was evaluated, censorship jurisdiction on this category of propagandistic films was quite consistent. Marching ups were allowed as long as no Reichswehr uniforms could be seen, but the showing of military exercise, like in MITTELDEUTSCHER STAHLHELMSPORTTAG IN HALLE, was prohibited. The depiction of national socialists in uniforms was always interdicted, as in GAUPARTEITAG DER NATIONALSOZIALISTISCHEN DEUTSCHEN ARBEITERPARTEI due to the ban on wearing uniforms against national socialists in large parts of the German territory.

As in many other parts of the German censorship practice, a divide between Prussian/Reich standards and Bavarian standards existed also for these propagandistic films: e.g. HITLERJUGEND IN DEN BERGEN was generally allowed for screening, while the Bavarian government enforced a youth ban in circumvention of the RML.

In evaluating how propagandistic films by political parties and paramilitary organisations were handled by the German censorship authorities, two underlying patterns can be identified. Firstly, the representatives of the Reich administration, especially of the Ministry of Interior, had significant influence on censorship decisions. If a representative’s recommendation was rejected in first appeal (Filmprüfstelle), the case automatically went to second appeal (Film-Oberprüfstelle). Before the Oberprüfstelle, their recommendations were taken into account most of the time.

Secondly, changes in the censorship jurisdiction often followed a subtle pattern: If censorship of a recurring film element became less strict, this change first of all applied to a film from the nationalist political right and only subsequently to the political left. Compare how military marching ups were evaluated in the censorship of DER STAHLHELMTAG IN HAMBURG, as opposed to DIE ROTE FRONT MARSCHIERT. If censorship of a film element became more restricted, this change first of all applied to the “left” and only subsequently to the right. Compare the censorship of INS DRITTE REICH to KAMPF UM BERLIN: Defamation of the political opponent was first interdicted against the former and only subsequently against the latter, which had been already screened for two years.

by Georg Eckes


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