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This review is yet another Savant detour into the movie-scape of personal interest. I've reviewed many East German films over the past ten years or so, starting when First Run Features distributed an uncut, subtitled Region 1 disc of the original DEFA production Der schweigende stern. Now DEFA is releasing more DVDs directly, both commercially and for educational purposes. A couple of months ago Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts saw my name on all those reviews and offered a screener of the now-obscure Kuhle Wampe or, Who Owns the World?, which I took pleasure in reviewing. The film turned out to be an unusual mixture of artistry and agit-prop, a fascinating ticket to Berlin in 1932. Activist artists Bertolt Brecht, Slatan Dudow and Hanns Eisler fashioned a pro-Communist propaganda musical even as Hitler's Nazis were preparing to take power.
As it turns out, DEFA has also released an educational DVD entitled Kuhle Wampe Censored, a further fascinating bit of esoterica on the same subject. I'm reviewing it here for the same reason that I review any disc, to "let readers know" and satisfy my own curiosity. In this particular case, film historians and educators may be the disc's main customer base.
The original Kuhle Wampe is an important censorship case. In the last months of the Weimar Republic, the German authorities decided to ban it outright, even before the state "Film Assessment (Censorship) Board" was involved. The film was considered a threat because it "gave the impression" that the state could not take care of its citizens and that a worker's revolution was needed. The authorities delayed the film's release, banned it again on appeal, reconsidered it and then demanded cuts before finally allowing it to be shown. Because of the star creative power behind the show -- Brecht and Eisler were two of the most respected talents in Berlin -- the authorities were unable to quietly shelve the movie. Kuhle Wampe Censored is a television documentary produced in East Germany in 1975, that uses docu-drama recreations to show how the Weimar bureaucrats attempted to suppress the politically radical film.
The TV docu was created to celebrate the efforts of the Communist "pioneers" in the decade before the Nazi takeover, but it's not a heavy-handed Cold War propaganda piece of the kind frequently seen in state-supervised East German filmmaking. Kuhle Wampe Censored is scripted directly from transcripts from the closed-door hearings. It is therefore similar to the celebrated, chilling docu recreation The Wannsee Conference (1984), a dramatization of the transcript of a 1942 meeting in which an SS officer lays out the details for what would become the mass murder of millions. The lesson of Wannsee is that the planning of atrocities was no different from any corporate style meeting in which executives impart instructions to their bureaucratic underlings. The lesson of Kuhle Wampe Censored is that any and all film censorship of "immoral content" and "dangerous ideas" is the work of conservatives charged, or inspired, to suppress free thought and the unhindered dissemination of political ideas. It becomes doubly ironic when one reflects on the stultifying, totalitarian East German censorship under which it was made.
The original Kuhle Wampe no longer exists because the Weimar censors ordered the deletion of about ten minutes' worth of footage that "outraged moral values" (see Savant's Kuhle Wampe review). Those sequences haven't been recovered, but they are fully described in the censorship hearings. The docu begins with a recreation of a censored nudist camp scene, that actually looks like a clip from some other nudist film. East German TV producers apparently knew all about the use of sensational visuals to hook an audience. The rest of the film recreates testimony and arguments during various censorship meetings, illustrated with copious original newspaper clippings and scenes from the surviving copy of Kuhle Wampe. Interviews are also interjected, some with the original actors from the movie, forty years later.
The conservatives on the censor board -- influenced by National Socialists -- complain about the nude scene but mainly object to Kuhle Wampe's promotion of "youth Athletic leagues" to motivate the young and unemployed (remember, this was a time of deep economic depression in Germany). These leagues were of course hotbeds of socialist-communist influence. The censors therefore look for every excuse to classify the film as unfit for the "moral standards" of the time. The nude swimming in the movie is actually very tame by 1932 European filmmaking standards. As part of their defense, the film's representatives argue that the scene celebrates the healthy athletic values of Ancient Greece. The tightly-wrapped woman on the censor board counters with the harsh statement that, "This is not Ancient Greece, but Berlin."
The hearings reveal more about the original film. The censors object to the depiction of unemployment, a suicide scene, any presentation of social reality. 1 The film's teenaged heroine Anni gets herself into an unwanted pregnancy. When her beau declines to marry her, friends entice her to join an Athletic League, and the rest of the movie presents hopes for an idealistic future for Germany. What was deleted is the fact that the League arranges for a safe abortion for Anni -- and collects funds to pay for it! Again, the hearings reveal that the censors' stand against the abortion is really a larger attack on liberal values. The film advocates progressive ideas and individual freedom, while the guardians of public morals do their best to squelch the same values. Kuhle Wampe isn't an historical fossil, as the censorship tirades are identical to the arguments we hear today in the U.S.. Pigs is Pigs, as they say, whether Fascist or Communist.
The kicker comes at the end. Kuhle Wampe gets its brief release, but only after its producers delete a reel of objectionable content. Less than one year later, it is one of the first films banned by the new Nazi government. Using real names, the docu concludes by following up on the participants in the hearings. Although two members of the Assessment board defend the film, the judge in charge and other board members will be retained by the Third Reich. One becomes a noted framer of oppressive Nazi laws. Kuhle Wampe survives only because a (sadly, censored) print is taken to Paris.
Censored's period recreations and acting are quite good. The conflicts in the meetings aren't overstated. Costumes are so good that we might be fooled into thinking that the film was authentic. To this viewer, only an anachronistic hairstyle gave away the game. But bureaucrats imposing their political bias look much the same in any period or dress.
Kuhle Wampe Censored is good history but also a solid basis for a discussion of modern censorship, provided one remembers that Communist East Germany was a key offender of human rights. But few people know that the U.S. government harassed independent filmmakers by making sure their films were not distributed. The U.S. once monitored and prohibited the import of perceived "propaganda" films from the Soviet Union and other countries. The U.S. authorities actively suppressed films accusing the U.S. of harboring ex- Nazis, and showing the relations between German and American oil cartels, which maintained close ties, even during WW2. The excuse given to censor a film is often because it will be perceived as "detrimental to the country's image abroad". In the United States in the 1950s, American ambassadors and right-wing groups militated against the export of films like Rebel Without a Cause as anti-American propaganda. A free society demands the free dissemination of information, even corrupt information. Censorship is a sure indicator of the abuse of political power.
DRA and DEFA's DVD of Kuhle Wampe Censored is a good copy of this fascinating documentary (or hybrid docu-drama). The B&W image is of good quality, although the clips from the original Kuhle Wampe don't look as good as they do on DEFA's separate Kuhle Wampe disc. 2 Censored contains several DVD-Rom text files: Biographies and Filmographies of the East German filmmakers (almost completely obscure over here, thanks to the Cold War), a timeline of the Kuhle Wampe censorship case and an essay by Professor Franz A. Birgel of Muhlenberg College, entitled Leftist Cinema and the Politics of Film Censorship in Weimar Germany. Interestingly, the essay tells us that Kuhle Wampe was not a popular success -- German audiences preferred cohesive narratives and did not respond favorably to its unorthodox structure. Radical art filmmaking is not the best vessel for popular communication!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kuhle Wampe Censored rates:
1. The film still has an "objectionable" courtroom scene in which the judge evicting the family shows no sympathy for their plight. But footage was removed of two other families summarily evicted as if they were thieves. The movie was assaulted on moral and ideological grounds, but the issue that stuck was that its view of dysfunctional civic institutions amounted to a call for revolution.
2. The disc producers explain that contractual restraints kept them from releasing the two shows on one disc -- they don't come from exactly the same source.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the
2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.