Realism(s) #10, or: a little lecture from the standpoint of the police


A Small Contribution to the Theme of Realism

It is not often that the real effectivity of artistic methods can be successfully tested. Mostly one experiences at best agreement (‘Yes, you show the way it is with us’), or that one has given an ‘initiative’ in some direction or other. Here is a little test which turned out happily.

I had made the film Kuhle Wampe [1932] with Slatan Dudow and Hanns Eisler, a film which depicted the desperate situation of the unemployed in Berlin. It was a montage of a few fairly self-contained parts. The first showed the suicide of a young unemployed worker. The censors made great difficulties which led to a meeting, with the censor and the lawyers of the film company.*

The censor proved himself a clever man. He said: ‘No-one disputes your right to portray a suicide. Suicides happen. Further, you can even show the suicide of an unemployed worker. That also happens. I see no reason to hush it up, gentlemen. I do however object to the way you have depicted the suicide of your unemployed worker. It is not in the interest of the public which I have to defend. I am sorry, but I must make an artistic objection.’

We said (offended): ‘?’

He went on: ‘Yes, it will surprise you, but I object on the grounds that your portrayal does not seem to me human enough. You have not depicted a human being, but rather, let us admit it, a type. Your unemployed worker is not a real individual, not a man of flesh and blood, different from all other men, with particular worries, particular pleasures, ultimately with a particular fate. He is very superficially portrayed, as artists pardon me this strong expression for the fact that we learn too little about him, but the consequences are of a political nature, and this forces me to protest against the release of your film. Your film has the tendency to present suicide as typical, as a matter not of this or that (morbidly inclined) individual, but as the fate of a whole class! It is your opinion that society induces young men to commit suicide by refusing them the possibility to work. And you really do not bother to go on to indicate what advice should be given to the unemployed to bring about a change in this situation. No, gentlemen, you haven't behaved as artists, not in this case. You did not try to present a single, shocking case, something no-one could have objected to.’

We sat disconcerted. We had the unpleasant impression that we had been seen through. Eisler sadly wiped his glasses, Dudow curled up as if in pain. Despite my dislike for speeches I stood up and made one. I strongly denied the accusations. I cited individual features we had given our young unemployed worker. For example, the fact that before he hurled himself from the window, he took his wristwatch off. I claimed that this purely human feature alone had given us the inspiration for the entire scene. That we did in fact show other unemployed workers who did not commit suicide - to wit, 4000 of them, for we had also filmed a large workers' sports club. I protested against the monstrous suggestion that we had not acted artistically, and hinted at the possibility of a press campaign. I was not ashamed to claim that my artistic reputation was at stake.

The censor was not afraid to discuss the details of the presentation. Our lawyers looked on in astonishment as a regular artistic debate unfolded. The censor emphasised the fact that we had lent the suicide act a decidedly demonstrative character. He used the expression ‘somewhat mechanical’. Dudow stood up and excitedly demanded that a medical opinion be sought. This would prove that actions of this kind often create a mechanical impression. The censor shook his head. ‘That may be,’ he said stubbornly. ‘But you must admit that your suicide avoids everything in the way of impulsiveness. The spectator hardly wants to stop him, so to speak, as should happen in an artistic, human, warm-hearted presentation. Good God, the actor behaves just as if he was showing how to peel cucumbers!’

We had a hard time getting our film passed. Going out of the building, we did not hide our esteem for the acute censor. He had penetrated far deeper into the substance of our artistic aims than our most well-wishing critics. He had read us a little lecture on realism. From the standpoint of the police.

--Bertolt Brecht. Written sometime in the 1930s, published in Screen 15.2, 1974, p.45-47. Trans. Ben Brewster and Keith Tribe.

[*Kuhle Wampe was submitted to the Film Inspection Office (Filmprüfstelle) in March 1932, and recommended for banning by officials of the Ministry of the Interior (Minister General Wilhelm Groener). This decision was accepted by the Film Inspection Office on March 31st. Two dissenting officials demanded a further hearing in the presence of Brecht, Dudow and Ottwald, and invited experts in the Higher Film Inspection Office for a hearing that took place on April 9th (of which Brecht is writing above). Praesens-Film were legally represented by Dr Otto Landsberg and Dr Dienstag, and the ban was confirmed. After a protest campaign in the press, Praesens-Film re-submitted a slightly cut version to the Film Inspection Office which, on April 21st, allowed the film (still subject to further cuts) to be exhibited to adults only. The Chairman, Regierungsrat Zimmermann, protested against this decision, but withdrew his objection on April 25th. After a first performance in mid-May in Moscow, the film was released in Berlin on May 30th. One of the further cuts that were made at a third hearing included a sequence showing worker athletes bathing nude on a Sunday morning. The cut was demanded because church bells could be heard in the background, and the censors claimed this could be construed as an attack on the church. No pre-censorship version of Kuhle Wampe survives today.]




Finally we even had to move some of the tent scenes into the studio. They were not shot at Kuhle Wampe because Kuhle Wampe was a very extraordinary place, fantastically tidy and more or less petit-bourgeois. It's true there were many proletarians there, but if you'd seen this proletariat you'd have been surprised. If the German proletariat and the German middle classes were together, at the seaside, say, they all looked alike. Brighton would have looked a slum by comparison with Kuhle Wampe.

Q: The petit-bourgeois appearance of the German proletariat must have been one of the reasons why the film was so poorly received in the USSR.

Yes, that's a very interesting story. The book [Kuhle Wampe, Protokoll des Films und Materialen, eds. Wolfgang Gersch & Werner Hecht, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1969] says that the film had its world premiere in Russia, but it wasn't a real world premiere at all. The Russians saw the film first and then invited Brecht; he wouldn't have gone otherwise. He went, and there was a very selective screening for a small number of people. Brecht was very disappointed, and they said to him, "How can we show this film? Your 'poor' people have motor-bikes and this marvellous holiday place. We haven't got anything like that here. That's why we can't show the film."

--George Hoellering, interviewed by Ben Brewster and Colin MacCabe (at the Academy Cinema, London, July 1974), "Making Kuhle Wampe," Screen 15.4, 1974, p.75.

1 comment:

LEAVES said...

That is a great quote from Brecht. I love how the censor states that it does not seem impulsive enough, as if suicide tends to be a result of someone just happening to throw themselves out of a window rather than a deeply ingrained hopelessness, depression, or whatever else I can only vaguely and inadequately make a stab at.